Opinion: Private schools must change how they are governed

Opinion: Private schools must change how they are governed

In a world where institutional hiding places are rightly hard to find, a number of wealthy independent secondary schools are struggling to come to terms with the cold, hard reality of public scrutiny.

More than a few schools – across the Catholic and independent landscape – prefer to conceal contentious issues because they either don’t have skilled personnel to manage disclosure or they are fearful of the impact on reputation, enrolments and finances. Such issues frequently involve student welfare, safety or wrongdoing by staff, students and occasionally parents.

This is all the more surprising in a world where schools and the church have been the subject of royal commissions and public inquiries into heinous crimes of child sexual abuse and the subsequent cover-up of such crimes. Added to this is that school communities expect, quite rightly, to be made aware of information of direct relevance to them – particularly in matters of student welfare.

Prevailing responsibilities of school councillors and principals are considerable, which is precisely why school communities must have confidence that what can be known about governance, student welfare, safety, sexual misconduct, teacher behaviour, drugs and alcohol usage and the like will be communicated openly and in a timely manner.

All too frequently this does not occur. The schools that are transparent are widely admired for being so. Xavier College, Wesley College and St Kevin’s College in Melbourne have taken the harder route to enlightenment, but now are more open and honest with stakeholders.

Boys-only school Melbourne Grammar similarly operates in a highly transparent manner and, to its credit, has recently gone public with its sensitive response to the announcement of a transgender student. Conversely, The King’s School in Sydney is embroiled in a damaging and avoidable governance stoush over expenditure that has resulted in at least one council resignation.

Some school councils, however, go to extraordinary lengths to conceal information that more often than not rightly ought to be communicated to school communities. These schools hire PR agents to keep media at bay and hide behind unhelpful “no comment” statements.

Scotch College

While companies, governments, the church – institutions of all sorts – have understood that going public with awkward information is almost always the right decision, schools (many of which are medium-sized businesses) remain laggards in adopting transparency. Concealment and obfuscation always play badly.

Governance obligations, coupled with the highest standards of probity, dictate that for the most part operational deliberations of school councils and boards ought to remain confidential. But this should not extend to the existence and management of contentious issues, often involving litigation or large sums of money – which are directly relevant to those paying the fees, to students, teachers and to donors.

Melbourne’s Scotch College is a case in point. Many engaged in education governance – including councils of other independent schools – are looking carefully at the highly embarrassing mishandling of the appointment of the school’s 10th principal, in which the successful candidate had his contract withdrawn six months in advance of doing even a day’s work.

Finally, after a renewed and costly international search, a second appointment has been made and announced to the school community. Time will tell if the selection is the right choice, and I wish the appointee well.

The initial bungled appointment, revealed just as school resumed for the start of 2022, has damaged Scotch’s reputation, taken up management time and has been a major distraction from other important challenges as school resumed face-to-face teaching.

Some angry members of the Scotch community (several of them very significant donors) are seeking to find out precisely what caused the unravelling of the initial, much trumpeted appointment. Specific, direct answers are hard to come by despite meetings with council chairman Alex Sloan and long-standing deputy chairman the Reverend John Wilson, representing the continuing Presbyterian Church.

Apparently, not a single member of Scotch council has accepted responsibility for the shambles and no one has resigned or, I understand, offered to do so.

No shortage of excuses

The obvious question is: how could such a mess have arisen? As it turns out, contrary to whispers, an intervention by one or more councillors required a significant change to the recruitment process (from that which was initially agreed) resulting in a restricted role for the professional recruiter at the pointy end of the process.

Communications to the school community on the cause of the shambles have been unenlightening – while obvious and legitimate questions have been side-stepped or ignored. Worse, those asking questions have been brushed aside and clumsily labelled a “noisy minority” by people who ought to know better.

Whenever council or board decision-making produces poor outcomes, it’s almost always the case that the process has been flawed, interfered with or that some fundamental step has been overlooked or bungled.

All this is to mark Scotch College governance as not representing contemporary “best practice”. The episode has been a shocking look for one of the nation’s most expensive and prestigious private schools.

Another key reason all independent schools should step up and be as transparent as prudently possible is the taking of public monies from the Commonwealth. Hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money is directed annually to private education – an arrangement that I support.

That said, if schools pocket public money (while also paying no tax), this serves to increase the need for public accountability from them at all times, not merely when they choose.

If it’s trust that schools want, they must learn that transparency involves sharing both good and bad news with their communities, even when it can be shown the council itself may have transgressed.

Many private schools are today medium-sized businesses with revenues of more than $100 million. This bestows on them all the fiduciary and governance obligations pertaining to any other business. Cherry-picking which bits of governance they like and which bits they don’t is not an option for these institutions.

Admit to mistakes

Credible, timely communications from highly resourced institutions such as private schools ought to be a given. It remains, therefore, a source of astonishment that internal and especially external communications at many schools remain woefully inadequate for the times. Adaption to the ‘age of transparency’ is not proving easy for too many schools.

Schools that either won’t or can’t adapt to the current operating environment do not deserve the trust that parents and students place in them, and nor do they deserve the public money that taxpayers provide them.

Good governance involves admitting mistakes and engaging with those with views contrary to your own. Scotch seems to have failed on both fronts while maintaining (by its actions) that council is blameless in respect to the aborted appointment of its new principal.

The parameters for good governance at all large institutions – especially those engaged in the education of young people – must be exemplified by those in whom authority has been placed. Openness and honesty are a minimum – as is respect for those with the “temerity” to raise issues schools would rather not discuss.

John Simpson is a member of Monash University Council and a former member of Scotch College Council.