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Issues In Educational Research, Vol 15, 2005
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The discourse of development in school governance

Lesley Irene Payne
Murdoch University
This paper reports on a study undertaken to investigate governance processes within particular school settings and the ideologies and values behind how these schools came to have their present governance forms. The results revealed several themes and changes in governance over thirty years. The governance discourse today is primarily about development and efficiency and there are pressures on alternative schools to become more commercially oriented. The emphasis is away from the parent involvement of the past, as schools begin to envisage themselves less as communities and more as businesses.

There has been very little investigation into the dynamics of governance and change at the individual school level. This research does this, locating the themes and changes identified within the context of a development discourse and the global phenomena of school reform. It provides insights into important governance issues for those involved in governance in all schools and indicates how the roles and structures of governing bodies evolve and adapt.


In a sense an organisation has developmental stages too and we became aware of that. (Eve, an early & current board member)
In the context of continuing school restructuring and reform that is occurring as part of the globalisation of education, this paper discusses the particular discourse of developmental phases in school governance. The imperatives of the educational reform agenda are an inescapable aspect of school environments and are placing similar pressures on the governing structures of government, non-government and alternative schools (Angus, 2000; Kenway, Bigum, Fitzclarence, & Croker, 1993; Louis, 1998; O'Donoghue & Dimmock, 1998). The discourse of school governance as phases of development fits primarily into the view of schools as organisations and is theoretically linked to the metaphors of organisational life cycles as put forward by Greiner (1972), Weick (1979), Ulrich and Probst (1984), and the open and closed systems of Scott (1987). A number of writers on organisational theory also make reference to this notion of cycles or stages to analyse organisations and social systems (Baum, 1996; Block, 1998; Hassard, 1996; Starke & Dyck, 1996; Wood, 1992).

This research builds on Wood's (1992) research (with 21 incorporated youth agencies) and relates it to the specific area of school governance. The group of schools included in the study presented the opportunity to examine several governance models over time and the ways they were modified and interpreted in their particular settings. For the purposes of this study, governance was considered to be the policies, actions, roles and relationships of school councils and principals. The contentions of the research are that changes to these governance structures and processes over time can be placed within a developmental discourse and doing so contributes to further understanding of some of the implications for stability, identity and future direction.

Research design

While there have been several researchers who have investigated changes affecting schools in the government school sector (Brooking, Collins, Court, & O'Neill, 2003; Caldwell, 1993, 1998; Connors & Sharpe, 1996; Dimmock, 1999; Lam, 1996; Ortiz & Ogawa, 2000), little investigation of the change in the non-governments school sector has been carried out. This qualitative study examined the governance structures and processes of thirteen independent primary schools, and one state primary school termed an 'alternative' or 'lighthouse' school. All the schools are situated in the Perth metropolitan area. The independent schools charge moderate fees (ranging between $1500 and $4000 a year). They have all had a school council or board since their foundations and, notably, had their origins in the period of the alternative school and community empowerment movement, which created many small alternative schools in Australia and overseas in the 1970s and 1980s (Angus, 1998) (See Table 1). They represent over 50% of possible independent schools that fit the profile described above (Association of Independent Schools of Western Australia, 2002).

The specific strategies used were those of the focused, semi-structured interview and document collection (Minichello, Aroni, Timewell, & Alexander, 1995). In the first year, interviews were conducted with present and recent principals of 14 schools. The shaded blocks on Table 1 indicate the five schools that were selected as case study schools for more in depth investigation and over the following two years, interviews were conducted with the early board members, founding principals and present board members of the five case study schools.

The government school is the only government school in Western Australia that has been operating with a school council[1] for more than fifteen years and it also has the greatest level of parent involvement in management and curriculum so far implemented (Angus & Olney, 1998; Wilson, 1993). It is known as the 'alternative school' because of the level of parent involvement in its governance. Of the other thirteen schools, five were Montessori schools, one a Waldorf school and the remaining seven were other small independent schools.

Table 1: Fourteen research sites

SchoolTypeDate founded
GAS 1Government Alternative School1984
MS 1Montessori1977
MS 2Montessori1974
MS 3Montessori1990
MS 4Montessori1981
MS 5Montessori1991
OIS 1Other Independent1981
OIS 2Other Independent1975
OIS 3Other Independent1975
OIS 4 *Other Independent1976
OIS 5Other Independent1970
OIS 6Other Independent2000
OIS 7Other Independent1974
WS 1Waldorf Steiner1983
* This school has ceased operation since the study began and has lead to two new off shoot schools, one of which has also closed. The other one is included above.

The phases of development framework

It was during the transcribing and analysing of the interviews that the discourse of phases of development in governance first emerged. Thirteen of the 39 participants specifically mentioned cycles, phases or stages, or talked about a school's evolution. Wood's (1992) model was identified as a useful framework and modified in response to the data.

Pioneering phase

The first phase of development is identified as 'pioneering'. The Pioneer phase has two sub-phases, the collective and the sustaining phases. In the collective phase there is a great sense of mission and fervour related to the worthiness of a cause. board members, mostly females, are personally involved in the service that is offered. For example, their children attend the school, and there is a high level of dedication as well as personal, and even financial, investment. As one interviewee put it,
They were [when the school was established] enormously motivated, dedicated parents who were prepared to sacrifice everything, including their children, to establish the school. (Gail, current Chairperson)

Table 2: Phases of development in school governance

Board or
Pioneer phaseSuper-managing phaseCorporate phaseRatification phase
Operating structureGroup is agency

De facto executive

Only a few committees

Roles are clearly defined

Policies and procedures put in place

More committees

Staff get involved at council level
Committees operate but led by the experts and professionals

Bureaucratic structure and process
Fewer committees meet briefly

Representation of stakeholders is less
Board members roles and behaviourVolunteers

Overlapping roles

High personal investment

Dedicated to mission
Elections and roles formalised but not clearly defined

Still high energy and involvement but mission passes to staff and principal

Principal is spokesperson and often takes 'Heroic' Role
Still highly involved, even meddling, and some recruited as experts

Committees meet at length

'Goals and Objectives' but still committed to mission

Principal's vision may be challenged

Principal's role is administration as well as education - resents 'meddling'
Professional and focused on long term planning

Supportive of and reliant on executive

Loses contact with stakeholders

Competition and business focus

Principal is CEO in control but may be challenged by other staff
Hard to recruit

'Business' image

A call to redefine mission
Principal is CEO

Principal enjoys freedom and power
Decision makingOn the run/as needed

Processes not formalised
Still as neededFormalised and business like

Decisions take more time

Council members very much involved
Decisions to professionals

Effectiveness and accountability
Decision-making streamlined

Board members ratify recommendations
Issues and crisesBurnout of volunteers


Loss of trust

Power struggles

Financial crisis

Groups leaving
Tensions - factions form


Staff/others leave
Staff industrial

Loss of community and mission
Staff want power

Stakeholders feel removed

Crisis - financial, philosophical
Modification of Wood (1992), p.160

One or two individuals become strongly identified with the organisation and operate as a de facto executive. No distinction is made between policy and administration. In the second sub-phase, the sustaining phase, the principal gains visibility in the community as the spokesperson for the organisation and ownership passes to this executive role. The board has confidence in this person and feels the organisation is in capable hands. There may be one or two committees, usually financial, but otherwise the board functions as a committee of the whole. Increasingly, however, the principal gains knowledge and thus a power that the board does not have. There is often a crisis, frequently a financial one, that initiates a reassessment of the principal's skills and the board's role, and a 'super-managing' phase begins.

Super-managing phase

A new kind of board member is then recruited, one who has specific skills or experience with organisations. This new kind of recruit is typically, although not exclusively, male professionals with expertise in business, law, or another field that equips them to act as consultant to the staff. Some may not be parents of children in the school. These new members examine problems and solutions through a rational process in which the rhetoric of goals, objectives and results supersede that of a mission. More time is spent on board and committee business. Committees meet regularly and report in detail to the board. The board may seek information from outside and even override the principal's recommendations and decisions. Other staff may become vocal, as they perceive the board to be less responsive to the principal's vision. There can be factions within the board as veteran board members feel the newer members are not willing to be practically involved but only want to manage. The principal begins to perceive the board as meddling and becomes the focus of the developing tensions and may resign or be forced to resign. Other board members and factions in the community go with them. In a few rare cases, however, the principal changes his/her management style to suit the board's demands and remains as leader.

Corporate phase

In the corporate phase board members begin to feel over-committed. The energy and time needed to bring about what they perceive as necessary changes are demanding. However, with change achieved this level of involvement in management is now seen as micromanaging and is no longer deemed necessary. Roles are clarified and re-defined. Policy-making is identified as the province of the board and separated out from administration, which is now solely the responsibility of the professionals. Professionals, who may now include a principal/administrator or a principal and administrator, implement board policy. Board members reduce the time spent in decision-making and rely on the knowledge and recommendations of the professionals. The focus for the board is on long-term planning and finances. Over time this corporate style becomes routinised and the balance of power is shifted back to the principal/administrator, now often designated simply as the CEO[2].

Ratifying phase

The corporate style evolves into a 'ratifying' phase of board development characterised by inertia and a dependence on professionals. Processes for decision-making are ritualised and staff recommendations are ratified without question. This style has similarities to the sustaining phase of the founding period, except that now principals (CEOs) are managerially orientated and view themselves as professionals rather than on a mission. They derive great satisfaction from the trust and freedom enjoyed and resent any attempts to curtail it. Attendance at board meetings usually declines and members become too busy to give a sustained level of commitment. Recruitment becomes more difficult.

Wood (1992) found that a new cycle often resulted from a crisis derived from either internal or external forces. External forces include government policies, funding or other environmental pressures. Internal forces may be stakeholders who feel the board has not been doing its job and should have seen these problems coming. They also may feel the board and/or the principal have lost touch with them and the original mission. A crisis threatens the survival of the organisation, which either collapses or brings to the fore two or three individuals who devote extraordinary amounts of time and energy into saving the situation. The organisation then returns to operating in a similar manner to the collective phase of the pioneering period, although it soon proceeds through the other phases once more with some slight variations.

Research findings

This research did reveal evidence of a major discourse in school governance around development, accountability, image and efficiency. Discussion of these findings is organised according to the horizontal categories of the framework. To demonstrate the changes over time, data are discussed from interviewees from both early and present time periods of the schools.

Operating structures

I don't remember having committees for quite a long time. Then it got more complex and there came a stage where you started drawing diagrams. (Nancy, early board member)
The interviews with founding or early principals and board members revealed that all schools were clearly operating in the pioneering phase at the time of foundation. This is true even of those schools founded in more recent times. In summary: they operated without committees and generally as a collective; all schools in their foundation period depended upon a de facto executive of parents; and none of the respondents, including those from the representative board, remember having contested elections or formalised roles. The governance processes for nearly all schools then developed to a sustaining stage where a few committees were formed, elections were held and there was some formalisation of roles. Table 3 gives a profile for the case study schools of the composition of the boards and the extent of stakeholder representation at the time they were initially founded.

Table 3: Board composition and stakeholder representation at foundation

Nature, Number, Terms
Number of
Case Study School 1 (MS4)Representative boardInformal consisting of the founding parents0
Case Study School 2 (MS5)Nominated Caretaker board3 parents, principal and experts (lawyer, accountant, educationalist)0
Case Study School 3 (WS1)Nominated Foundation CouncilTeachers, non-parents committed to the philosophy, parents.0
Case Study School 4 (OIS7)Representative boardTeachers, principal, 3 experts and parent representative0
Case Study School 5 (GAS1)Participative democracyCommunity (parents, teachers educationalists and interested others)0
M=Montessori School; W= Waldorf School; OIS =other small private school.

Table 4 presents similar data of the operating structures of these same schools today.

Although initially operating without formal committees, all the case study schools have developed committee structures and have formalised the numbers and types of delegates. The composition of the current boards of all fourteen schools now covers a spectrum in representative government format (See Figure 1). Across all schools, MS 4 has probably changed the least to this point but is planning to restructure as a predominately nominated board.

Table 4: Present board composition and stakeholder representation

Number of
TermsNature of
Number of
Case Study School 1 (MS4)Representative board82 year6 parents, 1 teacher, principal4
Case Study School 2 (MS5)Appointed board8Unlim-
Wider community (not current parents)1
Case Study School 3 (WS1)Nominated board and elected
81 year3 nominees from Foundation council, 4 elected, principal4
Case Study School 4 (OIS7)Representative board82 years6 parents, 1 teacher, principal5
Case Study School 5 (GAS1)Representative decision
making board
81 year6 community members, past president, principal4

Figure 1

Figure 1: Spectrum of parent representation

At the far end of the spectrum is the Montessori school, MS 5, which has a self-appointing board of community leaders, friends and ex-parents but does not include any representatives from the current parent body or staff. The principal and bursar sit on the board, but without voting rights. The Waldorf school, WS I, is partly representative and partly appointed as it has a board with the majority of members, in particular the executive, being nominated by other governing structures within the school. This would be similar to boards of the larger independent and church schools that have nominated members from various stakeholder groups, such as religious and alumni associations, and operate somewhat removed from the school community.

The government school, GAS 1, is on the spectrum towards the greater parent participation end. However, although it has a representative council made up of elected community members and staff, with a say on issues of school development, a centralised and bureaucratic government department has overall control of the school. Although originally the school council could be informally directed by a direct democracy group from the community, this no longer has much influence and the school council does not own the school and has no say on educational policies. Representatives of the school council are involved with Education Department officials in interviewing and selecting staff, including the principal. This degree of commitment and involvement is more than any other government school council has at this time in Western Australia (Angus, 1995).

Roles and behaviours

A lot of it just seemed to happen - there were obvious people to do things. It was all very small so it was sort of known who could do which particular things. I can't remember a lot of it being particularly formalised. (Dianne, early board member)
Overall the interview data indicate a distinct change in board members' roles and behaviours from a case study school's foundation to its present. This was particularly so in regard to the expectations board members placed upon themselves and others. There was also a difference in how formalised and clearly defined the roles were within the structures.

The foundation period was characterised by the dedication of all the volunteers who founded the schools and the high personal investment of time, expertise and sometimes money, necessary. The roles these early pioneers took on tended to be overlapping with no clear divisions or formalisation. They employed staff, organised premises, took enrolments, managed the finances, or whatever was needed. Five early board members reported contributing, without recompense, twenty to twenty five hours a week to the school.

After a period of one to five years, the case study schools found it necessary to formalise, if not clearly define, the roles for councillors and to establish a few procedures. The need to form committees was also realised. There was still high energy and commitment; however, the mission was passing to the principal and staff. In most cases the principal, became the spokesperson for the school and took over a lot of the decision-making. This is possibly a result of the changing nature of boards with their rotating membership, and families leaving as well as joining the school. The original pioneering group became exhausted leaving the principal as the most stabilising entity.

In the independent schools it was often the charisma and vision of the central teacher or principal that the school had formed around. This 'heroic' leader became the foundation upon which the school was built and all early principals reported freedom from council interference. These early principals were clear that their role was primarily educational but for some, it also entailed some management and administration. Like early board members, their roles were not formalised or clearly defined and they gradually took over the role of a de facto executive. Although supported by parent councils or boards, they were the ones dealing with the everyday decisions and tasks involved in running a school and without the assistance of administrative staff such as secretaries or bursars.

Board members' current roles are presented very clearly as ones of management and overview. Staffing and industrial matters are important aspects of these, although usually done in conjunction with the principal. There is a consistency in the view of the central role of boards as being the financial and policy direction of the school and the provision of support for the educational program. Holding the vision was not mentioned as a role for present boards except for WS I, which was the only school that had a separate entity for defining the direction and maintaining the vision of the school. All the schools except three, the direct democracy school, the government alternative school and the most recently founded school, appear to be moving into or are in the corporate phase with an emphasis on long term planning. Participants from the long established schools talked of the need to become more business-like, principals were referred to as the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and councils compared to boards of directors. Two schools that did not have an emphasis on the language of business and enterprise, the direct democracy school OIS 2 and the newly established OIS 6, appear to be still very much in the pioneering phase.


I think from the parents' perspective, leaving the running of the school, well the operational side of it, to the people employed and having the confidence in that, is a relief rather than them having to take on such responsibilities. (Roger, current principal)
For the case study schools in this research the degree of formalisation, the time allowed for consideration and the amount of clarity around who made what decisions and how, has evolved over time. At the same time the degree of wider consultation has generally lessened. Wood (1992) found that decision-making in an organisation's founding period was generally 'on the run' and as situations arose. This was also indicated as typical of decision-making by the early principals and board members interviewed for this research. Those who could, often the principal or the core group of parents, dealt with the issues on the spot. Processes for differentiating decisions in different areas were usually not in place and were only developed and formalised after some time. It was expected though, in all schools, that there would usually be some form of wider consultation.

Decision-making has become more formalised from the schools' foundations to the present. Documentation and procedures have been put into place in order to become more professional and equitable. The decision-making processes today generally reflect the operating structures of the schools. So in MS 1, for example, with the most standing committees, issues were delegated to the committees for discussion and investigation and recommendations were then made to the board. The process was often lengthy. MS 2 had fewer standing committees but had guidelines for issues to be thoroughly investigated before decisions were made. MS 3 also had fewer committee structures, and instead had a policy that each issue would be aired in the community. In the direct democracy school the power was firmly with the status quo. Nothing could be changed without unanimous agreement of the principal and staff or, of course, the attending parents.

The data show that as the independent schools in the study became bigger and better established, communication with the wider community became more formalised with procedures set out in policies and published in handbooks. Parent involvement was likely to become less intense and more focused on the classroom level than in the past. With the implementation of more committees in most schools, meetings are now more frequent and the work and time commitment continues to be demanding. Five participants talked about the difficulties that resulted from having these various decision-making groups and that it has become a challenge to keep the various groups coordinated, motivated and going in the same direction.

Issues and crises

It's the economies of scale. I think maybe small schools are the dinosaurs and are dying out. I think that's the issue with the amount of documentation and the amount of administration needed these days that it is actually putting small schools out of business. They either have to get bigger so they have the staff to share the load or they are just folding. (Megan, inaugural and current principal)
This research shows early and present board members perceive some different issues as important to school governance. The two groups also identified differences in the crises they had to deal with. There were some issues, however, such as financial stability and obtaining and keeping staff, which appear to be important right throughout a school's history.

The issues recalled by respondents from the foundation period of a school, fell into the areas of 'burnout' of parents and staff, staff recruitment, financial and management struggles, lack of expertise and the conflicts that arose over what values looked like in practice. These issues often led to economic difficulty, splits and divisions, and groups leaving. Just surviving was a challenge. Many other schools established in the 1970s and 1980s did not survive. There were also problems with finding the 'right sort' of teachers and then with protecting them from demanding parents and other stresses. Several financial crises were also recalled. While some were caused by external factors beyond governance control, many were the result of mismanagement and a lack of expertise.

The loss of enrolments through conflict and dissatisfaction also had financial implications, resulting in a cost in human resources as well. These conflicts arose from differences in expectations and what values and visions looked like in practise. The high expectations and emotional involvement of those concerned often led to a sense of bitter disappointment and a sense of failure when conflicts arose. The resolution to these situations was usually that groups left the school. Once that initial founding period had passed, with the need to formalise and clarify roles and responsibilities, power struggles and conflicts arose around definitions and boundaries. These same sorts of issues lead to crises in the present as well.

In the present time, interviewees identified getting and keeping skilled and professional people on the board and finding principals with the right administrative skills, as crucial to their success. Not being able to recruit the right people was limiting and the cause of many difficulties. Related to the difficulties of obtaining board members with expertise and managing the different personalities, come issues to do with the professionalism of board members. Concern was expressed about parents maintaining objectivity, impartiality and confidentiality. These kinds of concerns were not issues in the early foundation period when parents were the driving force behind the schools' establishment. It seems the role of the lay volunteer board member is being challenged in some schools and the increasing recruitment of experts, means that the principal's power is often further entrenched.

Nearly all interviewees talked about the need to be more professional and business-like but only one school reported having a formal induction program for new board members or a school-wide evaluation process. It seems that schools are instead opting for board members with expertise in particular areas and who know their place, rather than educating their stakeholder volunteers. The choice of people with particular expertise, has distanced the governance process from the majority of stakeholders and developed a 'them and us' mentality. In the present period, many of the pressures schools face are considered by at least five of the board members to be beyond the skills of elected representatives and thus too difficult for parent or volunteer councils.

The clash about values in the present period is not so much about what values look like in practice, although there may be still some of that, but whether the values or at least the vision needs to change as a result of these external pressures. School principals and councils find they are dealing with changing and conflicting community demands and expectations. Difficulties in obtaining suitable staff are continuing problems and as well, a growing sense of staff empowerment has also become an issue that schools have to deal with. All current board members reported that teachers have become more industrial, seeking better pay and conditions and schools have accepted the need to improve them.

While financial and funding issues continue to be of concern and one of the schools involved in this research closed during the period of this research for these reasons, the other schools in the study have survived for a considerable period of time now and have reached a measure of security and stability in this regard. Increasingly, the challenges confronting board members and principals are the forms of leadership needed in the present context and finding the committed and skilled individuals whom meet them.


The schools in the study, except for two, the direct democracy school and the very newly established school, appear to have been through an evolutionary process and the super-managing phase. Many appear now to have, or to be developing, characteristics of the corporate phase as they become focused on being more professional and competitive in the market-orientated context they find themselves in. Only in the direct democracy school, where power remains with the status quo and, therefore, essentially with the inaugural principal of twenty-eight years, has little change took place. In this school the structures, roles and behaviours have barely altered from the pioneering period, although the principal does lament some loss of the original pioneering spirit in order to meet changing expectations. Table 5 gives a summary of the present characteristics of the case study schools in terms of the phases of development in school governance framework.

Table 5: Present structures and governance attributes of the case study schools

Case Study School 1 (MS 4)Case Study School 2 (MS 5)Case Study School 3 (WS 1)Case Study School 4 (OIS)Case Study School 5 (GAS 1)
Operating structureSchool council- elected representatives

4 standing committees
Nominated board

1 standing committee
School council - nominated executive and elected represen-tatives

3 standing committees
School council - elected represen-tatives

5 Standing Committees
School decision-group - elected representatives

Community advisory group

2 standing committees
Board members roles and behaviourFinancial and policy direction

Long term planning


Supportive and relies on principal as CEO
Financial and Policy direction

Long term planning


Supportive and relies on principal as CEO
Financial and Policy direction

Long term planning


Supportive and relies on principal as CEO
Financial and Policy direction

Long term planning


Supportive and relies on principal as CEO
Involving parents

Some policy decisions


Supportive and relies on principal as CEO
Decision-makingMost decisions made by professionalsMost decisions made by professionalsMost decisions made by professionalsMany decisions made by professionals, some by committeesMost decisions made by professionals and Education Department
Recent difficulties and crisesStaff wanting power

Lack of expertise/lay volunteers

Financial misman-agement

Leadership recruitment

Loss of mission

Staff wanting power

Principal's vision challenged


Lack of time of chairperson


Leadership recruitment
Loss of mission and commitment of principals and staff


Leadership recruitment

It is possible that the changes in these schools' characteristics is a reflection of the corporatisation of the educational environment reported in the literature rather than some developmental phase (Hatton, 1998; Meyer, 2002; Reid, 2000). In the 1970s, when most of these schools were founded, participative democracy and community development models were in vogue. It was the characteristics of the pioneering phase of the framework that people were seeking. These models tapped into the counter-culture ideologies of the times and, with Commonwealth government funding behind them, many new schools were established that attracted parents and students disillusioned with conventional schools and seeking more student-centred and community-governed educational alternatives (Cleverley, 1978).

Today, although some of the rhetoric of government reform of education still talks of community involvement, the discourse is mostly about corporate governance styles, marketing and competition and accountability (Strain, 1995). Community needs are to be met by choice and consumer power and the social and democratic agenda has given way to an economic and political one (Kenway et al., 1993; Townsend, 1998). Much of the literature on governance and school councils is similarly focused. Either promoting the necessity to adopt and manage these changes (Block, 1998; Carver, 1997; Chait, 1997; Duca, 1996; Houle, 1997; Wood, 1996), or critiquing them (Blackmore & Sachs, 2000; Fitzclarence, Kenway, & Collier, 1998; Kenway et al., 1993; Meyer, 2002; Reid, 2000; Wahlberg & Bast, 2001). The question is whether many of the changes attributed to a change in the developmental stage of an individual school can in fact be explained by these wider, pervasive changes at a more societal and cultural level?

The findings from this study are not straightforward. Certainly, eleven respondents talked of external pressures to adopt more professional and corporate governance styles and many schools are already doing so. However, the respondents from the two most recent schools in the study indicated that their schools have some of the pioneering characteristics and the direct democracy school, founded nearly thirty years ago, has resisted most aspects of the super-managing and corporate style. Wood (1992) in her study found that "a founding period is likely to persist until the 'owner' executive leaves or until they can be successfully challenged" (p.153). As the inaugural principal of the direct democracy school has been in her position for 29 years, there has clearly not been a successful challenge to her position in this school as yet. Table 6 summarises the reported governance features of the three schools that have significantly different characteristics from the other study schools.

These three schools are interesting as they present a possible challenge to the argument that changes in governance can be wholly ascribed to external influences. OIS 2 has resisted, despite recognising the changing expectations and insistent pressures to become more business-like, any changes in their governance structures or ways of operating. They have modified the programme and resources but not their decision-making process. OIS 6, established only three years ago, appears to have many of the characteristics of a pioneering phase, despite having emerged from the collapse of a school already in a super-managing phase. It is, however, already developing some of the super-managing characteristics.

Table 6: Governance features of three selected schools

Founded: 1975

Pioneer characteristics:
Group has agency
Principal is de facto executive
Principal and staff have mission
Decision-making is as needed
No committees
Issues and crises are about finances

Corporate/Ratification characteristics:
Harder to get parent involvement
Founded: 1991 from the collapse of another school

Pioneer characteristics: (only at foundation)
De facto executive
High personal investment
Decisions as needed
Principal is spokesperson and has mission
Decision-making streamlined
Issues and crises were financial

Ratification characteristics: (at present)
Only one committee
Bureaucratic structures and processes
No stakeholder representation
Business and professional image
Principal is CEO and enjoys freedom and power
Board ratifies policies
Issues and crises are about stakeholder input
Founded: 2000 from the collapse of another school

Pioneer characteristics:
High personal investment
Staff not properly remunerated
Principal is de facto executive
Principal and staff have mission
Decision-making is as needed
No committees
Issues and crises are about finances and burnout of teachers and volunteers

Super-managing / corporate characteristics:
Staff get involved at council level
Policies and procedures put in place
Decisions take time
Hard to get volunteers
Recruiting of experts
Issues and crises are about role definitions

MS 5, although established during the very times these external pressures were beginning to influence government reform agendas appear to have begun with another pioneering phase.


Further research is needed to understand more completely why changes in governance structures occur. This paper takes the postmodern view that there are multiple perspectives to this argument. Schools do develop their governance structures in response to changing needs at both the micro and macro levels. The present corporatisation of education in the wider educational context no doubt has impelled most schools to move into this phase but they may have assumed some of these features anyway in response to individual crises at the school level. The conclusion is that all schools need to be aware of the changes that are occurring in their governance processes. Whether these are the results of internal development or external pressures, there are implications for stability, identity and future directions to be considered. For the schools in this study the changes are impacting upon and perhaps irrevocably changing their identities and core values without any real recognition that this is occurring.

The drive to recruit those with business or management expertise to school councils means that many of those involved in governance today are likely to be comfortable working with the phases of development framework and it is thus, one tool that may be useful. It allows governance to be placed on a cycle, or continuum of 'progress', and to be understood in terms of how well it fits within a particular phase. However, this writer would urge any use of this framework to be tempered with an understanding that there are also other useful ways of considering school governance and structures. Working with more than one frame provides greater balance, increased understanding and a wider perspective of the issues. Decision-makers should be seeking to understand and use other discourses of school governance as well.


  1. The terms council and board are used interchangeably as this was the pattern of use within the schools in the study.
  2. Chief Executive Officer
  3. M = Montessori School; W = Waldorf School; OIS = other small private school.


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Author: Dr Lesley Payne earned her PhD from Murdoch University where she is a Unit Coordinator in education. She was principal of an independent school for seventeen years and has served on the board of other schools. She is part of a Registration Panel accrediting non-government schools in Western Australia. Email: lpayne@central.murdoch.edu.au

Please cite as: Payne, L. I. (2005). The discourse of development in school governance. Issues In Educational Research, 15(2), 156-174. http://www.iier.org.au/iier15/payne.html

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