Hands up parents - who wants to sit on a school board?
Is being a member of an institution's governing body becoming too laborious, asks Kathy Donaghy
Over the coming weeks, thousands of schools will put in place new boards of management (BOMs), with elections taking place all over the country. Being a board member comes with big responsibilities, and someone has to do it.
Not all sectors run their elections simultaneously, but new boards will take office in 3,200 primary schools on December 1. Post-primary schools in the education and training boards (ETB) sector will also elect new boards over the coming weeks/months.
The primary-school board structure dates back to 1975. Each board generally has eight members, two of whom are parent representatives, with membership designed to reflect all the different interests in the school community, including the patron, parents, teachers and wider community.
Board members' responsibilities range from overseeing good governance and financial management to ensuring polices in areas such as discipline, bullying and child protection are properly enforced. The increasingly regulatory environment in which schools operate may be discouraging parents from putting their hands up.
Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.
Páiric Clerkin, CEO of the Irish Primary Principals' Network (IPPN), believes voluntary boards are perhaps the greatest example of community service we have. But he also says there are a lot of challenges in terms of the structures currently in place.
"Schools have become more complex, they are getting more complex. The board and its chair face great responsibilities. Sometimes people don't realise how great those responsibilities are. The challenge into the future will be to get people to chair boards," he says.
Clerkin points to the recent media attention on reduced hours for some children and says, in many cases, boards had made these difficult decisions on the basis that they were trying to help a child settle into school.
He adds that in cases where there are children with challenging behaviour, it's the board's job to make sure the child is given every opportunity to settle in school, while also making sure the school is a safe environment for other children.
"It is becoming more of a challenge and there will be more challenges filling boards going into the future," says Clerkin. He believes the solution is to give more supports to those serving on boards and this is where some of the school management representative bodies could play a role by stepping in to take on some of the responsibilities.
"What frustrates me is that we are trying to get the school leader to focus on learning and education, but they get caught up with administration. We could take the stress off them by project management support in terms of pay roll and HR support. There are different management bodies who could put a hand up and say 'we'll do that'. We need to get things off the desks of principals," says Clerkin.
"Anyone who is good enough to take on the role of chair of a BOM shouldn't have to worry about HR decisions. They should have the support and advice available to them. That's the only way it's sustainable into the future.
"Any chairperson should be able to lift the phone and get advice on a HR issue very quickly. If those issues are not dealt with quickly, it can create a mess. There should be more time at board meetings to look at the school plan and learning. Most of the time at meetings is taken up with compliance issues.
"What we need to do going forward is to make their lives easier and provide them with the supports they need," says Clerkin.
Malcolm Byrne is chair of the BOM of ETB-governed schools Coláiste An Átha, Kilmuckridge, and Creagh College, Gorey, in Wexford. He believes if you want to make a difference to the lives of young people and make a contribution to the long-term development of the school and your community, you should put yourself forward.
"Yes, it's a challenge. Boards have increasingly been dealing with disciplinary situations where students have been engaged in serious acts. Before a student can be excluded, the board has to consider things. This is a very difficult situation to consider and it's important that training is made available to members of a board," says Byrne. "I think what's really important is to have a diversity of views on boards. A board benefits greatly from this. I would also like to see a greater input from students themselves. It's important that second-level schools would have strong student councils that communicate with the board," says Byrne, a Fianna Fail councillor in Wexford.
He says people don't need to be experts in how the education system works to sit on boards. "They are bringing to the table their knowledge of the local community or their concerns as parents. If it's someone in business, they are bringing their business head to how the school operates. It's just important that whoever is there, they want to make the school and their community a better place," says Byrne.
Anne Marie Hammel, a parent representative on the board of Coláiste An Átha, says she was happy to go forward for election as she was interested in the education of her daughter Álanna (17) and other children.
"You can give your view point about what's happening at board meetings. I'd love to do it all again," says Hammel, who's term on the current board is coming to an end.
"We get the work done and we keep the school going. We're interested in each child who's in the school," she says.
Hammel believes the main attributes needed for a parents' rep is an open mind and being able to leave whatever came up at the school gate, as confidentiality is a must. "It's all about the school - as long as the teachers are happy and the kids are happy, that's it. There's no special skills involved. Once you're a parent or a guardian, what more do you need to know?", says Hammel.
As current primary BOMs come to the end of their lifetime, the Department of Education has published a new governance manual.
Education Minister Joe McHugh also thanked the "thousands of people who volunteer and give up their time, knowledge and experience for the good of their schools. It is a huge commitment to ensure that schools are managed to provide all pupils with the best possible education".