Governance is a hot topic these days in our region. In that context, it’s worth considering whether the way our region is governed does or could have an impact on educational outcomes in Hawke’s Bay.
Currently, all the councils in our region have some involvement with the education sector, from Early Childhood through schools to tertiary level. From my experience in the secondary and tertiary education sectors, some examples include the Regional Council’s support of school environmental groups and activities, along with their partnership with Massey University to link tertiary research activity in the sciences with council environmental responsibilities.
The Central Hawke’s Bay and Wairoa councils have been actively involved with tertiary providers in their regions, helping to identify gaps in training and supporting the provision of programmes to their more isolated communities.
The Hastings District Council is currently undertaking some very strategic work to look at how they can contribute to better linkages between education in the school sector and the world of work within our region.
The Napier City Council has among other things championed youth leadership across secondary schools by pulling together a representative group of up and coming young people to have input into council policy around youth initiatives.
And mayors themselves have given generously of their time to mentor individual students, and provide governance and advice to a number of educational bodies and movements such as the Mayors Task Force that focuses on education, training and jobs for 100% of the country’s youth.
These efforts are sometimes co-ordinated across our councils and sometimes not, but on the face of it there would appear to be no reason to doubt the commitment of our current local bodies to educational initiatives in Hawke’s Bay.
Would this change, for better or worse, should our region be governed differently? And is it possible to quantify the direct impact that various regional governance models would have on educational outcomes for Hawke’s Bay students?
Governance in education
As a starting point, let’s look at what we know about governance in the education system. The so-called “Tomorrow’s Schools” initiative introduced in 1989 saw every state school, no matter its size or location, responsible for electing a Board of Trustees from among its parents to do everything from appointing the Principal to approving curriculum shape and delivery, analysing results, developing property, and fulfilling the myriad other legal obligations required by the government of the day.
The local control that this provided each school probably had many positive benefits. Things got done more quickly, as schools no longer had to wait in a queue for bureaucratic approval and funding of their initiatives. Some schools coped well with this responsibility, and some did not, prompting external interventions when things went wrong. But subsequent studies of the impact of this dramatic change to governance in the New Zealand school system have found little evidence of a quantifiable gain in educational outcomes as a result of that change.
Similarly, the tertiary system underwent a major reform to its governance structures last year. Previously, Institutes of Technology and Polytechnic were governed by councils of up to 20 members, with a majority of community representatives mixed with a few ministerial appointees. Now, councils have been reduced to just eight members, four of whom are ministerial appointments and four of whom are selected for a defined set of skills that they would bring to the table.
The move from large representative to small skills-based councils caused some alarm. Hawke’s Bay’s own EIT had previously been very successfully governed by a large representative council. One year down the track, it appears from my observations (admittedly possibly biased as I am an employee of EIT) to be being equally successfully governed by a group of eight members. Financial and educational outcomes are still tracking very positively as they have always done. So again, the direct relationship between the governance model and educational outcomes has been difficult to quantify.
So what matters?
In EIT’s experience, while the model of governance changed, the quality of the people and their relationships did not. A previously well-governed organisation continued to be well governed. In the school sector, a similar pattern has emerged. Boards with good people have shown good governance. Government interventions in poorly performing Boards have tended to be prompted by breakdowns in relationships and a lack of key skills within the governance group.
There are some assumptions that underpin any governance structure that any of us might like to champion. Firstly, we assume that we will attract good people with the right skills to that structure. Secondly, we assume that they will represent a great mix whose skills and backgrounds make them a good fit for the organisation or community that they are governing. And thirdly, we assume that those people will work well together, and with the management of the organisation.
To the extent any of those assumptions is untrue, then governance might not only struggle to be “good”, it might have a negative rather than positive effect on organisational performance, with distractions and sideshows detracting from the real business at hand. Again, this is hard to prove scientifically, but is probably something we all feel instinctively.
The long bow and the red herring
In summary then, it would be drawing a long bow to speculate that a change of local governance model in Hawke’s Bay would have a direct impact on educational outcomes in the region. With the right people, it could potentially provide better co-ordination, stronger advocacy, and a clearer, more unified vision of the education we want for our region’s people. With the wrong people, it could also undo the good work currently being done within our multi-council structure.
So maybe the model is a red herring? The real challenge for local government in the region, as it has always been, is attracting the right people, developing a great team, and getting them working well together and in partnership with staff.
Having said this, it’s certainly possible to argue that an overarching vision for education in the Bay would be best achieved as a region-wide initiative. All councils in the region have their own educational interests, plans and relationships. An attempt to bring the strategies that underpin these together under one regional umbrella would help to provide a region-wide statement of intent that may inform and co-ordinate all the good work going on across the local government and education sectors.
The successful development of such a statement, however, would require people in local government who have a region-wide perspective, with the discipline to recognise, but not be derailed by, local needs and wants. They would need to be mindful of the fact that plans should never stifle innovation and well-informed action.
If those people can provide and actively support an overarching regional vision within which our education and other communities will succeed and flourish, good governance will indeed have been achieved in the Bay.