Clear positioning for school boards - in brief

School boards form an indispensable hub within the Dutch education system, acting as a link between schools, government and the local community. However, inconsistency in the approach taken by government, as well as differing, often conflicting expectations and perceptions regarding the role and purpose of school boards, make it difficult for them to fulfil their function adequately. At the same time, at an internal level, not all school boards have strong ties with their school or schools, while externally they do not all collaborate with other boards even where there is a need for this. To clarify and strengthen the position and relationships of school boards within the education system, the Education Council recommends taking subsidiarity and public interests as a consistent guideline. This is an area where both government and school boards need to do better.

Middelbare scholieren op trap
Beeld: ©Onderwijsraad

Background: complex role and purpose of school boards

Questions are regularly raised about whether school boards in the Netherlands are fulfilling their responsibilities adequately. Government and society sometimes have conflicting expectations here: on the one hand, school boards are expected to shoulder their responsibility for educational quality by focusing explicitly on this area; on the other, they have to leave the actual delivery of teaching to education professionals. School boards need to listen better to what teachers and parents want, and to respect the input of school leaders and teachers. At the same time, they must be prepared to go against the wishes of teachers and parents if the interests of society demand this.

This duality ultimately manifests itself in a complicated relationship between the government and school boards. On paper, school boards have a high degree of autonomy, but in practice the government regularly intervenes. It is also often unclear precisely what school boards are expected to do. There are also inconsistencies in policy; for example, several government measures stress that school boards are accountable for educational quality at their own school or schools, but at the same time government policy in recent years has increasingly been targeted at school rather than administrative level, so that the government is effectively bypassing school boards.

The current debate on the mission and purpose of school boards, together with recent policy proposals, has prompted the Education Council to publish an advisory report on its own initiative focusing on the following question: What is needed to enable school boards to make good on the responsibility inherent in their position within the education system?’ The report covers school boards in primary, special and secondary education. The Council has previously published advisory reports on the role of school leaders and on the professional freedom of teachers.

Advice: Take subsidiarity and the public interest as a basis for determining the relationship between school, school board and government

School boards play an indispensable role within the education system, acting as a hub connecting schools, government and the community. From this position, they combine independent responsibilities with a role as a link between the school and government on the one hand and between the school and its surrounding community on the other.

Subsidiarity and public interests as the guideline
The Council recommends that subsidiarity and public interests be taken as a guide in efforts to improve and clarify the position of school boards and their relationships within the Dutch education system. There is a need for consistency here on the part of both government and school boards.

Subsidiarity means that decisions are taken at the lowest possible level, preferably close to educational practice. Displacing responsibility and competence to a higher level then requires specific justification. Central government must at all times demonstrate that there is a need for it to draw powers to itself which were previously the preserve of school boards. The same applies for school boards wishing to centralise or standardise matters which were previously the domain of school leaders or teachers at school level. Parties also need to be equipped to practise subsidiarity: they can only take on responsibilities and powers if they are adequately equipped to do so with sufficient resources, time, knowledge and skills.

Serving public interests is the other principle underpinning the relationship between schools, school boards and government. Some public interests are better served at a higher administrative level, with the requisite upscaling. There are certain public interests which are beyond the capacity of individual school boards acting alone, but within the gift of central government. Examples might include aspects related to equality of opportunity or system efficiency. Similarly, there are certain tasks which individual schools are unable to take on alone, whereas school boards working in collaboration with partners from the community are able to do so. Examples here include teaching provision for asylum-seekers who are minors, or delivering appropriate education to children with special needs.

Government: more consistency needed, not more centralisation

The Council recommends a government approach based not on more central governance, but on a more consistent approach based on subsidiarity and serving public interests. The Council believes it is essential that the government aligns with the position, responsibilities and powers of school boards within the education system. The government needs to recognise and respect the pivotal role of school boards, rather than bypassing them.

At present, the governance of education by the government is not consistent. Whilst on the one hand imposing stricter legal responsibilities on school boards and introducing a mandatory duty of care, at the same time the government ‘bypasses’ school boards by targeting funding and support directly at the school level for specific purposes. This ‘setting aside’ of school boards does not however relieve them of their responsibility for educational quality and the continuity of their organisations. In addition, the government is guilty of a whole series of short-lived, isolated policy interventions focused on a constantly varying array of themes and priorities, whilst at the same time failing to ensure cohesion within the system and leaving urgent questions about the system unaddressed.

To ensure better and more consistent governance based on the subsidiarity principle, whilst also being mindful of public interests, the Council offers three recommendations for the government:

  1. Set legal frameworks where necessary and respect the role of school boards.
  2. Provide structural funding for education as far as possible, via school boards, and limit the use of direct, targeted funding for specific projects. Use supplementary funding for additional investments and mitigate against competitive incentives in funding.
  3. Ensure that government communication respects the administrative relationships within education.

School boards: ensure strong ties internally and collaborate externally where necessary

The Council recommends that school boards make good on their function as a hub by ensuring strong internal ties with their school or schools, led by the principle of subsidiarity. They also need to collaborate where necessary, for example to serve certain public interests or where they are unable on their own to provide good, accessible education across the piece. It is essential that school boards bring coherence to their divergent missions of ensuring strong internal ties and external collaboration. This demands a strategic vision on the part of boards and a continual balancing and weighing of interests.

School boards need to keep themselves informed of what is going on in their school(s) and must have oversight of the accessibility and quality of the education. They must ensure good internal ties, maintain contact with parents, allow professional freedom to school leaders and teachers, equip them to make good use of that freedom and promote cooperation between schools. However, looking after their own school or schools is not their only role; boards must also be willing to collaborate where necessary in order to serve public interests.

The Council offers three recommendations for school boards:

  1. Hold each other to good governance standards.
  2. As well as internal oversight and representation, be aware of the need for cohesion and collaboration.
  3. Set competence standards for school board members.