Following further feedback and amendments from many people, these Q & As were last updated on 4 August 2011. We also invite you to provide your feedback about this latest draft.
These questions are based on the many queries that VICCSO receives. The answers are drawn from the Department's documents (e.g., Making the Partnership Work) and the good practice developed by principals, teachers, parents and students.
More information and training
For more information, visit the School Councils section on the Department's website. Or phone VICCSO on (03) 9429-5900 or the VICCSO President, Nicholas Abbey, on 0402 152 634.
VICCSO and its network of trainers also provide school council training. Phone (03) 9429-5900 to arrange this for your school.
Key school council Issues
The Q & As that follow cover ten sets of school council issues:
- Purpose and legal status of a council
- Composition of a council
- Involvement in a council
- Objectives, functions and powers
- Strategic planning, policy making, reporting and accountability
- Finance and budgets
- Office bearers, membership and casual vacancies
- The principal's and president's roles
- Meetings, minutes and standing orders
- Sub-committees and good practice.
1. purpose and legal status of a council
What is a school council?
School councils play a key governing role in Victorian public schools by:
- Setting the broad direction and vision for the school
- Leading school community conversations about key issues and challenges in education
- Preparing and endorsing the school’s strategic plan
- Developing, reviewing and updating policies (including educational policies)
- Ensuring that the school is responsive to the needs of the local community.
It does these things having regard, as a primary consideration, to the best interests of all students and in collaboration with all members of the school community.
It is important that all school council members have a clear and shared understanding of a council's governing role and are working to improve their governance role ('good governance').
What is good governance and why is it important?
A good governing body is based on strong partnerships and broad, grass-roots participation in its own internal work as an effective board and supports the development throughout the school of:
- Accountability and conformance, i.e., how an organisation assesses if it performing effectively, efficiently and ethically in the best interests of all stakeholders, and in accordance with the law, regulations, probity, accountability and openness
- Leadership and performance, i.e., how an organisation sets a vision, develops plans, policies and strategies focused on improving outcomes and performance, and helps to build strong and productive partnerships between all of its stakeholders.
The right mix of accountability and conformance and leadership and performance is central to a school's success.
Indeed, the development of good governance, as the basis of strong school-family-community partnerships that are broader than but also include the work of teachers, is likely to emerge as the single most important factor in enabling significant improvements in learning outcomes and life opportunities for all students.
A school's core business - exploring key questions
School council members may discuss: 'How do we add real value, over time, to policies and plans to improve learning outcomes?' During a two-year period, some councils hold a forum in which teachers, parents and students, and other community members, collaboratively explore key questions such as:
- What educational challenges are we trying to address?
- What kind of educational context are we working within?
- What can we all do to further improve learning outcomes and reduce the achievement gap?
- What do we need to do to further build school-family-community partnerships focused on shared outcomes?
- What kind of education model are we trying to create (e.g., a cluster of schools developing a coherent, P-12 curriculum)?
As a framework for exploring these kinds of questions to do with a school's core business, school councils, leadership teams, staff committees, parent groups and student representative councils can make use of the Good School Checklist on this website.
What is the legal status of school councils?
A school council is a legal entity in its own right, a corporate body legally distinct from its members as constituted under Part 2.3 of the Education and Training Reform Act 2006.
The legal framework within which a school council operates comprises the Education and Training Reform Act 2006, the Education and Training Reform Regulations 2007 and the individual school’s constituting order.
The constituting order
The constituting order is an order of the Minister for Education, which specifies the membership size and configuration of the particular school council as well as its objectives, powers, functions and accountabilities and the role of the executive officer.
In this respect, it is important that a school council does two things:
- Provides a copy of the constituting order as part of the induction package for all new council members
- Makes sure that it is functioning according to its constituting order.
What does a school council's legal status mean for its practice?
As a school council is a corporate body, the decisions made by the council are those of a whole team rather than of an individual, a group or committee or any one section of the school community.
All sections of the community - parents, teachers and students - need to contribute views to discussions about a school's core business (high quality education and student learning) and thereby assist the council to come to an informed decision.
As the practice and understanding of good governance evolves, as diverse views are really valued and as a council strives to build unity in the midst of this diversity, the risk of factionalism, a net cost to the school community as a whole, is reduced.
What about the legal liability?
A school council member (or former member) is indemnified by the Crown against any liability in respect of any loss or damage suffered by the council or any other person in respect of anything necessarily or reasonably done, or omitted to be done by the member or former member in good faith in:
- The exercise of a power or the performance of a function of a member, or
- The reasonable belief that the act or omission was in the exercise of a power or the performance of a function of a member.
A school council as a corporate body is legally distinct from its members. It is liable for its debts, actions and decisions unless the Minister for Education or Secretary of the Department has agreed to accept liability on its behalf.
2. Composition of a council
Who can be on a school council?
A school council generally has between six and fifteen members and, in the majority of cases, is composed of three categories of membership:
- A mandated elected parent category
- A mandated elected Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (Department) employee category. The principal is automatically one of these members
- An optional community member category. Members of this category are appointed by a decision of school council because of their capacity to assist the work of the council. They may have special skills, interests or experiences or they may provide the perspective of the parent club and/or the student body. For most schools, Department employees are not eligible for membership of this category.
The principal is a full voting member ex officio, i.e., by virtue of office. The principal's role as the executive officer is to provide the school council with advice about educational and other matters and make sure that whatever the council decides is acted upon.
Can we increase the number of positions on council?
Example: this year we have had more nominees than we have positions on school council, but we want to keep those people who have nominated. Can we increase the numbers on council?
Yes, you can increase the number of positions you have. There is a process which needs to be followed. School council decides the size and configuration it wants according to Schedule Two, which is available from the principal. This is sent to the Department and must be signed off by the Minister before being put in place at the school level.
Council has the opportunity to do this once a year.
3. involvement in a council
How can I become involved?
Contact the principal or school council president to join a school council sub-committee or to find out when school council meetings are held (as you are most welcome to attend). You may also consider standing for election as a member of the school council or suggesting to another person that they stand for election.
What do I need to do to stand for election?
The principal arranges and conducts the elections. Ask at the school for help if you would like to stand for election and are not sure what to do. The principal will issue a notice and call for nominations in the second half of February or early in March.
Does each parent get a vote?
The voting is one vote per parent. As well, it is one vote per parent at the school, regardless of the number of children at the school.
Can a student be a member of school council?
Students can be co-opted as community members by school council. They are co-opted for two years and have full voting rights. It is good practice to have student members of council.
Good practice - induction and professional learning
A council should ensure that all new members are given adequate support, documentation, mentoring, respect and feedback. A council induction package may include all or most of the following:
- Vision statement
- Constituting Order, or a copy of the model Order located on the Department's website plus the council's membership schedule
- Standing orders
- Strategic plan
- Policy manual
- Minutes of meetings for the past year
- Annual report
- Financial report
- Current year budget
- E-mail addresses and telephone numbers of members
- A list of sub-committees (including their terms of reference, chairs and members)
- School brochures
- DEECD's Making the Partnership Work
- The State Services Authority Director's Code of Conduct
- A copy of VICCSO's What is Good Governance?
A mentor may be available to answer questions a new council member has outside of council meetings and act as a sounding board for ideas or issues the new member may want to test before raising them in a full meeting.
In this way, stakeholders (including parents and students of diverse backgrounds) are well-equipped to play their part in shared decision making as enfranchised and informed participants.
One-off training workshops can provide a useful introduction to the general roles and responsibilities of school councils.
However, if the quality of governance practices in all schools is to be continually improved, there must be an investment in ongoing forms of professional learning for school council members, including the capacity to undertake in-depth analysis of the specific issues and challenges in a particular school, network or region.
Effective professional learning for school councils is:
- Focused on how a council can impact on student achievement
- Embedded in the development of good governance practices
- A source of challenging ideas about key educational issues
- Responsive to the specific circumstances of the school
- Sustained over a period of time, including via on-line learning.
Inclusive involvement in a school council
The best councils are those that are inclusive, comprising people from all walks of life and representing a wide variety of views and skills. Good councils reach out to people who may be co-opted as community members but also make sure that they remain strongly representative of their own local stakeholders.
Key questions are:
- Does the school council membership profile reflect the school's demographics?
- Are the voices of different members of the school community (including students) really heard in decision-making?
- If not, what can be done to increase the inclusion and representation of under-represented groups?
- What other practical strategies will the council adopt to ensure that their views are sought and taken into account?
To focus on inclusion, both to bring about better, more participatory governance and to continue to improve the educational experience of all students, school councils develop a diversity strategy or a cultural and social inclusion policy and plan.
One way to build inclusion is to make sure that council meetings are open to the school community. Community members should be encouraged to attend these by publicising the meetings and agenda items as well as including reports of previous meetings in the school newsletter and/or on the school's website.
4. Objectives, functions and powers
What are the objectives of a school council?
The Department affirms that a school council’s objectives are to:
- Assist in the efficient governance of the school
- Ensure that its decisions affecting students of the school are made having regard, as a primary consideration, to the best interests of the students
- Enhance the educational opportunities of the students of the school
- Ensure the school and the council comply with any requirements of the Education and Training Reform Act 2006, the Regulations, a Ministerial Order or a direction, guideline or policy issued under this Act.
As per its legal status, a school council is the governing body, but this is not always clear in some documents.
What are the functions of a school council?
The Department describes a school council’s functions as:
- Establishing the broad direction and vision of the school
- Developing, reviewing and updating policies of the school
- Arranging for the supply of goods, services, facilities, materials and equipment that are required for the conduct of the school, including the provision of preschool programs
- Raising funds for school related purposes
- Regulating and facilitating the after-hours use of school premises and grounds
- Exercising a general oversight of the buildings and grounds and ensuring that they are kept in good order and condition
- Providing for cleaning and sanitary services
- Providing meals and refreshments for staff and students and charging for this
- Ensuring all money coming into the hands of the council is properly expended for purposes related to the school
- Informing itself of, and taking into account, any views of the school community for the purpose of making decisions in regard to the school and its students
- Ensuring that an annual report relating to financial activities and the school plan is published and made available to the school community
- Stimulating interest in the school and the wider community.
What are the powers of a school council?
The Department notes that a school council has the power to:
- Enter into contracts, agreements or arrangements
- Establish trusts and act as a trustee of them
- Employ teachers (for a fixed period not exceeding one year or on a casual basis), teacher aides or any other staff for the purpose of performing the council’s functions and duties
- Charge fees to parents for goods, services or other things provided by the school
- Conduct programs in (or use or allow third parties to conduct programs in) school buildings or grounds for students, young people and the local community (for educational, recreational, sporting or cultural activities)
- Carry out construction and improvements to school buildings
- Form sub-committees to assist the council
- Delegate powers, duties or functions, except the power of delegation, to another person or body
- Form committees to manage joint facilities
- Sell equipment, goods or other similar personal property acquired for use in the school
- Provide preschool programs and make charges for the program.
What are the limitations?
A school council does not have the power to:
- Employ a teacher with no fixed date for the termination of that employment
- Purchase or acquire for consideration any land or building.
Unless authorised, a school council has no power to:
- Licence or grant any interest in land
- Enter into hire purchase agreements
- Obtain loan or credit facilities
- Form or become a member of a corporation
- Provide education services outside Victoria
- Purchase a motor vehicle, boat or a plane.
In relation to enhancing the educational opportunities of students, for example, school councils put aside time to 'drill down' into this objective - to agree as to what it means and how their planning, policy and partnership work may best enhance students' learning.
Discussion of school council objectives, functions and powers ensures that all council members are 'reading from the same page'.
For example, school council members discuss what does it really mean to establish the broad direction and vision of the school and how a vision really connects with practice on a day-to-day basis.
5. strategic planning, policy making, reporting and accountability
In Making the Partnership Work, it is stated that:
- A school council is accountable to the Minister in respect of the performance by the council of its functions
- As the governing body, a school council plays an important role in accountability and improvement processes
- This role involves active participation in planning, review and monitoring of school performance
- An effective school has a council that engages in analysis, discussion and debate about performance as a normal part of its business
- A school council endorses the key school planning, evaluation and reporting documents.
What is a strategic plan and who prepares it?
The Department affirms that:
The school strategic plan reflects the community’s expectations and the Government’s priorities for education and early childhood development. It is a formal understanding between the school council, the school community and the Department.
This is obviously important - as it makes it clear that a plan is co-owned. It should reflect local community thinking and input as much as the Department's priorities.
A school's strategic plan is a three or four page document that sets out:
- The school's vision, goals and targets for the next four years
- The major strategies for achieving the goals and targets
- Clear timelines for the implementation of the strategies.
The strategic plan should provide the central point around which a whole school community can focus and unite. A school council should aim to fully consult with the school's community and prepare the plan from the very beginning. A plan must be signed by both the president of the council and the principal.
Failure to really involve the school council and community in the development of a plan (including its goals) may well undermine a school's capacity to improve learning outcomes for all students.
Good practice with the leadership structure
The school's leadership structure may be aligned with the goals in the school's strategic plan, so that it reflects the priorities of the plan. Some schools seek to do this by organising high-level teams (involving teachers, parents and students) around the goals.
What is a good way to develop a plan?
As it is the responsibility of a school council to collectively develop a strategic plan, pooling the ideas and proposals of the principal, staff, parents, students, school reviewer and others such as a critical friend or educational researcher, good practices include:
- A series of externally facilitated forums to maximise teacher, parent and student participation in the planning process
- Making sure that school council sub-committees have adequate time to prepare their thoughts and input into the plan
- Developing broad agreement about the educational goals that are most likely to improve learning outcomes for all students.
A school council works to consult with the school's community. One way that schools do this is to have a clear time line for developing the plan publicised at the beginning of the year to ensure that council and community members as well as sub-committees have an opportunity to provide serious input.
This can culminate in a clear, coherent plan for the future that includes shared school-family-community goals.
Some schools publicly display their shared vision and goals in understandable, explicit terms to their communities in a variety of ways (e.g., on their websites and posters on classroom walls).
School community conversations
In partnership with schools and DEECD, VICCSO is creating practical, state-of-the-art tools to support face-to-face and on-line conversations in school communities. This is a major project linked to the Department's e5 Instructional Model.
The tools may assist schools with developing shared views about 21st century education, tackling hot topics and promoting respectful dialogue among teachers, parents and students.
What is a policy and who develops policy?
School council members should seek to focus their time and energy on being strategic and managing the policy development process.
A policy is a dynamic answer to a significant problem or issue under consideration by the school. It draws together school community members so that there is a shared understanding and a framework for future action. Examples of school policies include:
- Teaching and learning
- Communication between school and families (see the Department's useful school communications toolkit)
- Environmental sustainability
- Health and well-being
- Parent and community engagement
- Complaints processes
- Sun smart
- Camps, excursions and outdoor activities.
Good policies are essential because they let everyone know what the approach to certain matters will be and ensure that there will be consistency in decisions and in how the school operates.
They also help to maintain the direction of the school during changes of principals and teachers.
A small number of strategic and specific policies that actually affect school practice is preferred to a large number of policies, some of which may be largely irrelevant or of little use. This approach is based on the notion of strategic gain, i.e., ‘Given our limited resources, what can we do that will help the school to move furthest in the agreed direction?’
A school council may schedule reviews of all the policies for which it is responsible on a regular basis.
Parents and students should be informed of the policies to be reviewed each year, the process to be undertaken, how parents and students can be involved, and how they will be notified about any agreed changes at the end of the review process.
Who develops educational and curriculum policy?
A school council is responsible for the development of a strategic plan and policies, the focus of which is to improve student learning outcomes, within the legal and policy frameworks set by Government and the Department.
These guidelines include a statewide curriculum and standards framework (the Victorian Essential Learning Standards or VELS), which schools are required to report against to the Department.
How prescriptive are statewide frameworks?
Guidelines may encourage a perception that statewide frameworks are prescriptive.
However, within these guidelines, schools are encouraged to develop curriculum content, teaching models and strategies and forms of school organisation and governance that are suited to the needs of their students, with the aim of meeting those needs, improving learning outcomes and meeting statewide standards.
What is a good way to develop educational policy?
Through its educational policy-making work, an education or teaching and learning sub-committee of a school council can be a powerful vehicle for improving learning outcomes. It can bring together teachers, parents, students and critical friends to:
- Exchange information and share experiences and perspectives
- Pose questions and clarify viewpoints
- Jointly explore the best available educational research
- Help develop a shared, school community-wide understanding and policy framework for 21st century learning.
What should a policy look like?
The Department has a framework for the effective development of policies.
What is the annual report?
The Department notes the following:
- The school annual report provides an opportunity for the school council, leadership team, staff and students to reflect on the success or otherwise of their improvement strategies and the allocation of resources, and informs planning for improvement the following year
- The annual report must be officially endorsed at a meeting of school council before it is submitted to the appropriate Department regional office by 31 March each year and made available to parents and the wider school community
- The completion of the annual report is required under the Education and Training Reform Act 2006 and to meet Commonwealth requirements
- The report is a public document and must reflect the school’s financial activities and the school strategic plan
- Its publication provides an opportunity to communicate and publicise the achievements and longer-term directions of the school.
What is good practice with annual reporting?
School accountability and reporting are both horizontal and vertical: directed outwards to parents and the local community as well as upwards through a department of education. There should be a balance between horizontal and vertical accountability.
To be the basis for in-depth discussion by the school council and the school community and to drive future improvement, an annual report needs to be objective - both celebratory about achievements, and critical of issues not yet resolved.
It should be data-rich, providing information, statistics and explanations of the school’s position in comparison with its previous position, and with that of like schools. It is then a basis for in-depth discussion within a school council.
If a report is simply signed-off with minimal discussion, it is a missed opportunity for carefully reflecting on what has been achieved and should be celebrated, what has not worked and what may need to be questioned and rethought.
6. finance and budgets
What is an annual budget and how is it created?
It is the financial plan that makes sure that the school's resources (people, programs, services and equipment) support the educational goals and priorities. It shows how the school will make the most efficient and effective use of these resources to produce the results aimed for in the strategic plan.
The strategic plan is used as a starting point to determine the strategies to be funded. The finance sub-committee produces its recommended plan and submits it to council for approval.
What are a school council's specific responsibilities with the school budget/finance?
A school council ensures that:
- An annual budget is prepared and subsequently that regular statements of receipts and expenditure are prepared
- Proper accounts and records of financial operations and the financial position and operation of the council are kept
- An internal control system is maintained and monitored to ensure operational efficiency and adherence to statewide requirements.
Good financial practice focuses on achieving a close alignment of the budget with the school’s strategic plan and its major goals around improving student outcomes.
The Department also has a very useful internal financial control checklist which school councils can use to make sure that they do not expose themselves to financial risk. A school's treasurer and finance committee should be familiar with this checklist.
Making the Partnership Work is also clear about the following:
- The school council at each regular meeting should be provided with a report that summarises and seeks endorsement for receipts, payments and financial commitments made in relation to the school budget and drawn on school accounts
- A report should also be provided on progress against the school’s budget plan
- All cheques and negotiable instruments (whether electronic or otherwise) drawn on any account kept under the control of a school council must be authorised by both the principal and the president or a nominated signatory who is a member of school council nominated by council for this purpose
- All withdrawals or transfers out of any account kept under the control of the council that are made by means other than cheque or negotiable instrument (whether electronic or otherwise) must be authorised in writing by both the principal and the president or a nominated signatory who is a member of school council nominated for the purpose
- The school business manager cannot be nominated, even if he or she is a member of school council.
7. office bearers, membership and Casual vacancies
How many school council office bearers are required? Do we need a treasurer?
The principal is a member of council and the executive officer. The only other mandated office bearer for a school council is the president.
The president is a non-Department employee and is chairperson of school council meetings.
While there is no legal requirement to elect a vice president, it is normal practice to do so. The vice president would then act as chair of council meetings in the absence of the president. A vice president is also a non-Department employee.
Similarly, it is good practice rather than a legal requirement for a school council to have a treasurer.
It is recommended that the position of council treasurer be held by a non-Department parent or community member.
Who can be a school council president?
Almost anyone. The only people who cannot be a school council president are DEECD employees in either the DEECD employee or parent category of membership. A co-opted member (community member) can be a school council president.
What are the terms of office?
School councillors are elected for two-year terms. The term of office and rights and responsibilities of community (that is, appointed) members are the same as those of elected councillors.
Half the council members retire each year but can stand for re-election.
Who decides which people will be community members?
If a school council has positions for community members, these positions should be considered at the first meeting of the newly elected school council, and may be filled then or at any subsequent meeting.
At this meeting elected school council members collectively determine which kinds of community membership knowledge, skills (e.g., a person with financial planning skills who could become the council’s treasurer or an educational researcher), interests and perspectives (e.g., of the parent club and the student body) are required for the council to function effectively.
After considering what gaps may be filled through appointing community members, the agreed individuals matched to these areas are approached by the principal (and/or other council members) as discussed and decided upon by the school council.
Casual vacancies are created when a council member resigns or ceases to be eligible. Reasons for ineligibility include when a member:
- Is or becomes bankrupt
- Is or becomes of unsound mind
- Resigns by delivering a letter of resignation to the school office or to the president of the school council
- Is or becomes convicted of an indictable offence
- Ceases to be eligible for the particular membership category under which he/she was elected or co-opted
- Is absent from three consecutive council meetings without special leave previously granted by council and subject to a decision of council
- In the Department employee member category goes on any form of leave (including a secondment), whether with or without pay, from employment with the Department for a period of more than six months
- In the parent member category becomes a Department employee during their term of office in circumstances where this causes the school council to be in breach of the requirement that the majority of a school council’s total membership must be persons who are not Department employees.
Filling casual vacancies
Casual vacancies are filled by co-opting people to the relevant membership category. People are eligible for co-option to the elected member categories provided they are eligible to be elected to the relevant membership category. Any person who fills a vacant position created by a casual vacancy only serves the unexpired portion of the vacating member’s term of office.
Good practice - succession planning
School councils emphasise the importance of having a longer-term perspective on the personal capabilities that need to be developed and supported to ensure that a council preserves its capacity for good governance and does not lose its corporate memory.
Councils use succession planning as a process for reflecting on their future needs, taking into account both internal factors that they can control (e.g., how they can best promote grass-roots participation in the work of the council) and external factors (e.g., the changing demographics in the school community).
Effective succession planning goes beyond replacements for school council positions. It involves a school council discussion about what capabilities are required for the council as a whole and how these capabilities may be best developed for the future.
Succession planning for specific positions such as school council president and treasurer (as well as school council sub-committee convenors) is also important. This planning involves:
- A council putting aside time for a discussion about which of its members are potential successors to the president or treasurer
- Recognition of the gaps between council members’ current capabilities and the capabilities that may be required to credibly step up to the role of president or treasurer
- Opportunities for professional growth so that a new president or treasurer is prepared for the role including through providing experiences to those that can move into key roles such as a vice-president being asked to chair some council meetings.
8. the PRINCIPAL's AND PRESIDENT's roles
What are the roles and responsibilities of the principal and school council president?
A principal is responsible for the implementation of school policy and the strategic plan and the day-to-day operation of the school.
As executive officer of school council, the principal is responsible for:
- Providing the school council with timely and appropriate advice about key educational and other matters (via the principal's report and educational focus items on the meeting agenda)
- Reporting to the school council on the school’s performance against its strategic and annual implementation plans
- Making sure that whatever council decides is acted upon
- Providing adequate support and resources for the conduct of council meetings
- Communicating with the school council president about council business
- Being an ex-officio member of all school council committees. This means that because of his/her official position, the principal may be a member of all committees.
The school council president
The role of the school council president is to:
- Chair school council meetings
- Make sure that the council stays sharply focused on key issues to do with improving the educational experiences and learning outcomes of all students
- Ensure that at meetings everyone has a say and is heard and decisions are properly understood and well recorded
- Make sure that the meeting stays on track – this means keeping to both the subject (sticking to the agenda) and time allocated
- Be a signatory to accounts, contracts and the school strategic plan
- Encourage participation in the work of the council and its sub-committees
- Ensure that new council members receive appropriate induction
- Act with the principal as council’s spokesperson and official representative on public occasions.
The area of overlap in the responsibilities of school council, principal and president is not defined absolutely.
It thus can be the basis for an effective, productive and rewarding collaborative relationship.
9. meetings, minutes and standing orders
What are standing orders and who develops them?
Standing orders help school councils run their meetings in a productive and efficient manner.
They cover issues such as purpose, legislative framework, school council responsibilities, membership, office bearers, quorums, whether decisions are taken by consensus or voting, how the agenda and minutes are prepared, the distribution of minutes and sub-committees and their terms of reference.
The Department has sample set of standing orders. This is a guide only.
A council should carefully and creatively develop its standing orders according to its school values and shared understanding of good governance.
Standing orders are an essential part of the induction process for new council members. Every council member should have a copy in a folder that also includes minutes and other documents.
What are the ground rules for meetings?
A school may set ground rules for how its meetings are to work. Ground rules are of tremendous importance – and yet are often overlooked as a tool. Devoting an hour to working on ground rules can save countless hours in the future.
It is also important to refer to them regularly. Some schools print them on a poster that is taped to the wall so they are visible at every meeting. Ground rules can be added to your standing orders.
The following ground rules are a mix of the ground rules used by several schools. They are relevant to all small group, committee or school council meetings as well as larger community forums.
Sample ground rules
- Everyone to propose matters that may be placed on the agenda that is distributed prior to the meeting
- Everyone to express their views at the meeting
- Making an effort to listen carefully and to understand each other’s views
- Using body language to show warmth and acceptance and to encourage others to relax and respond in kind
- Mutual learning
- Thinking about what’s best for the community as a whole and not just any one part of it.
We understand that:
- Disagreement is an opportunity to learn more about an issue and to, ultimately, make a wiser group decision.
- Talking over the top of people
- Not saying anything (e.g., the problem of conflict avoidance)
- Being aggressive or rude
- Taking ‘cheap shots’
- Factions, stacking meetings, hidden agendas and undermining
- Rubber stamping
- Non-collaborative body language (e.g., people rolling their eyes when another person is speaking).
- Non-threatening ways to enforce these rules such as the whole group playing a lighthearted role in addressing violations.
What can be done about conflict on school council?
Conflict is obviously a natural part of life. It can be a positive force. It can also have an ugly side. Left uncontrolled, it can divert energy from the group, destroy morale and create suspicion and distrust.
The Department has useful guidelines, tools and resources for preventing and dealing with conflict.
What should our agenda and minutes look like?
The Department has a useful agenda and minutes template to help structure meetings and minute taking.
When should the agenda and papers be sent?
There should be a carefully prepared agenda and papers that are sent at least five working days before the meeting.
Should the minutes be circulated?
Open and transparent reporting and communication together with a high level of school community awareness of the work of a school council and its decisions are integral to good school governance.
It is good practice for school council meeting agendas, reports and minutes to be included in a school's newsletter and on its website. As well, upcoming council meeting dates should be published.
What else can be done to promote our council's work?
The good practice mentioned above (about minutes, etc.) can be assisted by a plan for better school communications.
The aim of this plan may be to improve a school's website and newsletter content and lay-out. It may include strategies for how best to distribute school council information such as minutes, etc.
Useful, in this regard, is the Department's school communications toolkit.
There may also be contact details for council members (with their agreement). (For an example of this good governance practice, see the Fitzroy High School website).
What correspondence should be tabled?
Council members need to be informed about all correspondence addressed to the council and its office bearers on matters within its authority. They should also have access to any individual item.
Correspondence should be tabled at the first meeting after it is received.
Executive memoranda from the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development are official correspondence and often outline the statewide requirements within which council decisions will be made.
How often should a school council meet and for how long?
School council must meet at least eight times per year. All members are expected to attend. If a member is unable to attend a meeting, an apology should be submitted to the executive officer (the principal) and this will be recorded in the minutes.
School council meetings should be no longer than 2.5 hours, regardless of whether they are in a primary or secondary school setting.
If business has not been concluded by the scheduled closing time, the chair should ask councillors whether they wish to defer the rest of the business until the next meeting or to extend the meeting by a specified period of time (for example, 15 minutes). A motion is necessary if council wants to extend the meeting for that evening.
What is a quorum?
A school council meeting must operate with a quorum. A quorum requires the following:
- Not less than one half of school council members currently holding office to be present at the meeting
- A majority of members present are not employees of the Department.
A member of the school council may be present in person or by video conferencing or teleconferencing.
When counting for a quorum, what about a parent who works at a school?
Example: We have a parent member of our school council who is often employed as a CRT at a school. Is s/he able to be a parent representative of the council?
If this person averaged more than 8 hours per week over the year s/he would need to be identified as a DEECD parent.
Any parent members on school council who also work for the Department are thus counted as Department employees for the purpose of a quorum.
Are school council meetings open to the community?
School council meetings are normally open to the school community. Community members should be encouraged to attend (via publicising meetings and upcoming agenda items as well as including previous minutes in the newsletter).
Visitors or observers have a right to speak but must do so through the presiding member. That is, they ask the chairperson if they can speak before doing so. They have no voting rights.
There are rare times when the council meeting, or part of the meeting, needs to be closed. Examples include the selection and appointment of a new school principal.
When this is the case, a school council will need to approve a recommendation to go into a 'closed' session. They then need to go back into open session once the topic under discussion has been concluded.
How do we know that our meeting has been effective?
You will know that a council meeting has been effective when all councillors feel that:
- Meetings are focused on improved learning outcomes for students
- They contributed to the discussion and were valued by others
- Creative or different ideas, alternatives or solutions were encouraged and generated
- They were able to share different points of view
- They are committed to the decisions made and the actions taken
- They look forward to working together again.
If this not the case, a school council should look at the reasons. It may want to invite a VICCSO representative to attend a council meeting to discuss practical strategies for improved meetings.
Good practice - policy-focused meetings
The council-approved policy to which each agenda item relates can be identified on the agenda. This assists a council to stay focused on its more strategic role and to monitor how agreed council policies are, in fact, influencing school decisions, action and practice.
Another way to do this is to have a major policy focus item on every second meeting agenda - as a key issue (e.g., developing a school's technology plan or a P-12 cluster model of education) to be discussed and agreed on, ideally following previous in-depth consideration by the relevant sub-committee.
In the course of a year, there may be three or so such policy-focused forums so that largely procedural meetings alternate with brainstorming and analysis of a key issue. Normal school council business will still be dealt with, but time would be put aside for the forum, and a keynote speaker may make a short presentation.
By alternating procedural and policy-focused meetings, a council is less likely to be a burdensome monthly meeting 'treadmill' for management and council members are less likely to become bogged down in operational issues that are not strategic.
Competent chairing of meetings
A key role of the school council president to ensure that each meeting is efficient and effective and helps to cultivate a real sense of community. The president should:
- Draw up the draft agenda with the principal, at least five working days before the meeting, taking into account other members' suggestions and issues arising from the previous meeting (some councils have an agenda committee for this purpose)
- Stay on time with the agenda and keep the meeting moving along and focus discussion on the topic at hand
- Stick to standing orders and uphold ground rules for meetings
- Support a culture of teamwork, mutual respect and frank and open discussion, strongly encouraging everyone to have a say
- Avoid expressing bias (always using a neutral tone of voice and displaying collaborative body language)
- Ensure that decisions are properly understood and well recorded. If necessary, the president will repeat the decision for the minute taker and ensure that all members agree with the wording. As well, he or she will ensure that differing viewpoints are accurately recorded in the minutes
- Clear the minutes within one week of the meeting.
A president may also ensure that there is external professional assessment of the council's performance at least once every two years as well as ensure that there are other interim evaluations.
Good practice - evaluation
Many school councils periodically issue an evaluation sheet at the end of a council meeting. This can be an easy way to gain quick feedback and encourage discussion and interaction between council members. It may require little time or effort to put in place.
10. sub-committees AND good practice
What is the role of sub-committees?
Sub-committees assist the work of a school council by exploring key strategic issues in more detail than is possible at a school council meeting and providing opportunities to involve and utilise the expertise and experiences of members of the school community (and wider community) who are not members of school council.
Teachers, parents and students - with knowledge, skills and interests in particular areas (including teaching and learning, policy development, future directions in education, community relations and buildings and grounds) - can obviously make a meaningful contribution to all sub-committees.
Membership of sub-committees is determined by the council.
At least one member of the council must be a member of each sub-committee.
What is a working party?
Many councils set up temporary working parties to oversee the implementation of short-term tasks or to organise specific events in the school community.
It is good practice not to confuse a working party with a sub-committee. If a sub-committee is more involved in organising events, etc., it is really a working party.
Can a sub-committee make decisions?
Council cannot delegate its decision making powers to sub-committees and its decision making responsibilities should not be compromised by the work of a sub-committee.
For example, approval of the school’s budget is the responsibility of school council. Likewise, a curriculum or education sub-committee makes recommendations to a council.
How should sub-committees be organised?
Sub-committees should have clear purposes and terms of reference and procedures for agendas, minutes and reporting to the council and make recommendations for the full school council to consider.
The purposes and terms of reference of sub-committees are decided by the council.
All school councils should have at the very least a finance sub-committee. A convener of the finance committee, as elected from council members, is preferably a non-Department parent member or a community member.
The business manager/bursar should not hold this position.
The convenor may be appointed by council as its treasurer. This is best practice.
What should sub-committee reports look like?
The Department has a useful sub-committee reports template. It is obviously important to have a proper structure for such reports.
What kinds of sub-committees should be formed?
Schools find that 'less is more' - it's obviously better to have a small number of well-functioning teams than lots of committees, some of which may be 'going through the motions'.
The principal, staff and school council may from time to time review the numbers and types of school committees and identify:
- Problems such as an unclear purpose or a lack of strategic focus on the future
- Duplication, i.e., a school may have school council and staff committees that operate separately and yet cover similar issues (e.g., an education committee and a curriculum committee)
- Positive opportunities for building teacher-parent-student synergy in real teams.
How often should sub-committees meet?
Sub-committees should determine their meeting frequency. They do not necessarily need to meet monthly.
Some sub-committees may only meet 3-4 times a year - if sharply focused on policy development and planning for the future.
A sub-committee should not be confused with a working party - that may be more operational in its focus and thus needs to meet frequently (e.g., a committee organising a performing arts event).
What are examples of effective sub-committees?
Examples of school council sub-committees that may be high-level, whole school community teams include:
- Finance or (more strategically) school financial planning
- Education or teaching and learning. Strong partnerships between teachers, parents and students in teams can help to develop: (a) a shared, school community-wide understanding and policy framework for 21st century learning and (b) shared school-family-community goals such as building positive, confident adolescent identity and self-esteem
- Information and communication technology. Schools have formed a technology team that brings together teachers, parents and students in joint planning for the optimum use of technology for improving: (a) learning in the school and home environments and (b) family-school communication
- Performing arts or sport and recreation. Schools often seek to involve community members in such sub-committees
- Health and well-being or health promotion. Schools have developed very productive teams that look at both student and staff health and well-being issues
- Student leadership and participation, i.e., involving teachers, parents, students and community members in a team that looks at how best to mainstream student leadership and participation in school and community settings
- Community relations or a K-12 or 0-18 partnerships team that involves staff, parents and community members to build, for example, stronger links with pre-schools and/or between primary schools and a secondary school in a P-12 cluster
- Eco-learning. Some schools have built teams that involve teachers, parents and students in developing educational policy around local ecosystems and biodiversity
- Buildings and grounds or a facilities for new learning team in the context of funding for school regeneration programs and building the education revolution.
A concluding note
Once again, 'less is more'. Many school councils have found that four or five sub-committees is sufficient.
Some schools have also rebuilt their leadership structure around a small number of sub-committees. This can provide a sharp (and shared staff and school community) focus on improvement.
As well, the goals in a school's strategic plan and the school's leadership structure may ideally be aligned.