School Improvement and Governance Network

School Councils


The following history of school councils in Victoria was written by Wendy Morris, a long-time VICCSO member and major leader and champion of good governance practice in schools. Wendy was also a President of ACSSO and a senior manager in education. Besides providing a fascinating analysis of the development of school councils, partnerships and education from the 19th century to the end of the 1980s, Wendy's discussion concludes with several key questions of the utmost relevance for our time.

Before 1872

When the new colony of Victoria was formally established in July 1851, the responsibility for providing funds and legislating for the provision of education passed from Sydney to Melbourne.

It is fascinating to read the arguments about the provision of government funding to denominational schools, the educational chaos which followed the discovery of gold, itinerant teachers and tent schools, the progressive elements which favoured the establishment of secular public schools and the extent to which the founding and maintenance of schools relied on locally raised funds.

Many early schools were held in structures erected by local committees, including bark huts, vertical slab buildings, drop-log constructions and rooms leased in settlers’ houses.

Teachers’ housing was also needed in country areas. Local committees were expected to match the £30 a year allowance where there was no official residence.

From 1872 onwards

Victoria was unique among Australian states with its history of school governance. When the first legislation establishing a public education system was introduced in 1872, local, individual school community committees were built in as part of the arrangements for administering schools.

The Boards of Advice set up in 1872 had quite extensive powers over the general management of government schools as well as in relation to school buildings. Incidentally, the election of members of these Boards is said to be one of the first examples of women campaigning for public office in Victoria!

Primary school committees

Arrangements for local governing bodies were revised in 1910, when the Education Act provided for the establishment of school committees. Members of these committees had three-year terms and were nominated by the parents of children at the school.

One of their responsibilities included finding accommodation for head teachers (in country areas) and the stimulation of community interest in the school. They could inspect the school and report on its physical condition and management. School committees were also provided with funds for the maintenance of school property.

Shortly after their introduction, there were over two thousand school committees in Victoria. The State School Committees and Councils Association of Victoria, one of the organisations which was to become the Victorian Council of School Organisations (VICCSO), dates from a decision of a group of these school committees to form a representative body in 1923.

High school advisory councils

These early developments concerned primary schools, as the government was not then responsible for the systematic provision of secondary education. Only a small proportion of young people progressed beyond the upper primary or junior secondary years and secondary schooling was largely left to the private sector.

When government high schools were introduced, they were established from the outset with advisory councils, consisting mainly of parents and community representatives. Principals were required to act as the secretary/executive officers of these advisory councils.

The Victorian Secondary Schools Advisory Councils Association of Victoria was the other body that joined with the primary school committee's group to become VICCSO in 1947.

Technical school councils

During this period, technical schools and colleges, many of which had started out as private vocational training institutions, were also established within the state school system.

These schools/colleges had a different model of school governance, with councils that often consisted mainly of representatives of local business and industry and sometimes included parent members or representatives of parents and citizen’s associations.

These councils had very substantial powers over the financial and personnel management of the school and pioneered aspects of the decentralisation of powers to schools such as the local selection of principals.

School council legislation

Decades later, in 1974, the government made a decision to bring all school councils under the same legislation and membership rules. In December the following year, the Education (School Councils) Act 1975 was passed.

This law enabled the Minister to establish school councils as legal entities, which represented the Crown. These councils had the power to advise the principal on the "general educational policy of the school", within guidelines issued by the Minister.

All councils had the capacity to employ ancillary staff (and some special categories of teachers), enter into contracts for building works, maintain and develop school grounds and facilities, run canteens, develop financial plans and monitor the use of funds, permit the community use of school facilities, etc.

Regulation LIII - School Councils was introduced in 1976 to support these new arrangements. The regulation dealt with matters such as the election of members and office bearers, rules for council meetings, annual reporting meetings, school accounts, council records, etc. Elections under these new provisions were held late in 1976.

Constituting Orders were also subsequently used to introduce new membership rules (such as the prohibition on a person in a paid position at a school becoming the president of the council).

Two years later, all school communities were given the opportunity to look at the operation of their councils and decide if they wished to change the membership arrangements.

Many chose to do so and, following this review, almost all school councils had elected parent and teacher representatives and a few co-opted members of the local community. The majority of secondary school councils also included elected students.

Participation in schools

Why did this far-reaching innovations occur in Victoria at this particular time in history?

Ron Fitzgerald and David Petit, in their book The new school councils: a study of state school government in Victoria, set these events firmly in a context of “strong initiatives being taken at both national and state levels to bring about more open and participatory forms of organization” in the period from 1973-1975.

The two major organisations interested in parent participation in school decision-making, VICCSO and the Victorian Federation of State School Parents’ Clubs (now Parents Victoria), led the debates on school councils.

In the early 70’s, both organisations developed strong policies calling for more representative forms of school governance. Their arguments for a greater say for parents reflected international trends towards citizen participation in the development of government services.

This was becoming widely recognized as a means of informing and improving the effectiveness of the activity of professionals and of enabling people to progressively take greater control of their lives.

Parent 'involvement' and 'participation'

The emerging policy agenda around parent participation was powerfully translated into a national policy concern through the leading role played by the Victorian organisations as affiliates of the Australian Council of State School Organisations (ACSSO).

They gained the backing of significant and influential professionals, such as Hedley Beare, later to become Professor of Education at The University of Melbourne.

In 1974, Beare was Director of Education in the Northern Territory when he delivered a landmark speech, later described as the manifesto of the parent participation movement, to the annual ACSSO conference on “Lay participation in education”.

In this paper, he laid out very clearly the difference between schools allowing parents to help out, which he called parental involvement, and parent participation, which he held was based on the belief that parents have a right to be part of the process and that education cannot proceed effectively without them.

The school and home in harmony

Beare reminded conference participants that “we now know that educators will not greatly improve a child’s academic progress unless they find ways of getting the school and home into harmony”.

He went on to advocate the establishment of school boards that saw themselves as representative of the school’s community, which should be given a mandate for participation in decisions about curriculum, not only school maintenance and finances.

These were the heady days of the Karmel Report on the state of education in Australia, the establishment of the national Schools Commission and the subsequent introduction of the Disadvantaged Schools Program (DSP). The appointment to the Schools Commission of leading Victorian parent activist and president of ACSSO, Joan Kirner, was a telling factor.

Kirner ensured that the Commission funded parent-focussed projects such as the School and Community Project and the Home-School Interaction Trust (which continued for some time in Victoria as a publisher of handbooks for parents on how to get involved) and bibliographies of research and publications about parents and schools.

Through her influence, the DSP would serve to empower parents at disadvantaged schools through the participatory processes built into the Commonwealth guidelines.

Parent and school council organisations that were affiliated with ACSSO were eligible to apply for funding from the new national professional development programs.

Influence of teachers

Secondary teacher unions were also calling for more democratic forms of school governance, seeing them as a vehicle for teachers to actively influence key educational policy decisions in schools. Not so many primary teachers, however, were initially convinced about the need for this.

The Victorian unions, particularly the secondary and technical teachers, were leading a sophisticated public debate about curriculum and pedagogy and were also keen to work in partnership with parent and school council organisations.

This provided support for many positive curriculum initiatives and improvements in pedagogy that assisted children particularly in working class areas. There were many innovations in education at the time and these could not have emerged without more open and participatory forms of school organisation.

Much progress was made, although, as Kevin Collins observed, writing some years later in his capacity as Deputy-Director of Education, some of these initiatives:

“were seen by educators from the perspective of the ‘deficit theory’ of home school relations. Homes which did not provide all that was necessary to the optimum (academic) education of their children were seen as lacking or deficient to that extent, and the school’s task was to remedy this deficiency, to make up for what the child’s home and family had failed to provide.”

Community use of facilities

Another clue to the particular developments in Victoria can be found in the new school council legislation itself. The reference to the Youth Sport and Recreation Act is particularly significant.

At this time, Brian Dixon, the noted ex-VFL footballer, was both Assistant Minister for Education as well as Minister for Youth, Sport and Recreation.

Dixon was on a mission to increase the use of schools as community resources for sporting and recreational purposes.

But as schools are the property of the Minister for Education, to allow this to happen there needed to be a responsible body at the school level to which the Minister could delegate his or her powers to allow community use of school facilities.

Uniformly regulated school councils could take on this role, with the capacity to work with other bodies such as municipal councils, guides and scouts, etc. to jointly plan and build new recreational facilities that would serve schools on weekdays and their communities after hours and on weekends.

Community Education Program

But Dixon’s vision went further than this. He also prevailed upon the government to fund the establishment of the Community Education Program - which enabled networks of schools to submit applications for one of the sixty new Community Education Officers.

The roles of these community officers varied from network to network, but generally they were expected to stimulate community interest in the network schools, to facilitate network activities, and to provide the extra person power to allow schools to take on the spirit of this new vision of schools as community centres.

These community education officers were generally not school teachers; on the whole, they were people with community organisation, community development or social work backgrounds. Barbara Romeril, Helen Szoke and Lynne Kosky were among these officers.

Toward the end of the decade, the advisory nature of the new school councils' powers to advise principals about school policy was creating a dysfunctional situation at some schools.

Councils’ advice on policy was not always being taken, but they were still expected to resource the implementation of policy they perhaps did not support.

In order to provide a way out, changes were made, not to the Education Act, but to the teaching regulations so that school policy decisions would require the agreement of both the principal and the school council. If there was an impasse, schools needed to refer the matter to the Director-General for resolution.

Future directions for education

In 1979, the Education Minister, Alan Hunt, initiated public consultation on a Green Paper about the future directions for education in Victoria.

The White Paper that followed the next year, among other things, drew attention to the desire on the part of parents to play a greater role in the development of the educational policies of their children's schools and for school councils to participate in principal selection.

1983-1984 - Ministerial Papers

Minister Hunt ran out of time to bring this process to a conclusion. Following the change of government in 1982, Robert Fordham introduced policy papers about the development of school education in Victoria.

The first of these papers was called Decision Making in Victorian Education. The principles on which the papers were based were set out as follows:

  • Genuine devolution of authority and responsibility to the school community
  • Collaborative decision-making processes
  • A responsive bureaucracy, the main function of which is to service and assist schools
  • Effectiveness of educational outcomes
  • The active redress of disadvantage and discrimination.

Educational value of local decision-making

These Ministerial Papers emphasized that schools were to be responsible for curriculum decision-making within the framework of State policy. Ministerial Paper 4 (School Councils) justified the shift in the responsibility for curriculum decision-making in these words:

No development has been as rapid or as far-reaching in its implications as the growth in understanding of the educational importance of school-community relations. We have come to understand that participation is an objective to be sought for more reasons than simply local control. The educational value has become paramount; involvement in the exercise of responsible power over their own affairs makes the work of the classroom relevant to the life and problems of the community for members of the school community.

This quote clearly sets out the dual focus of the shift - the desire to forge a genuine partnership between parents and teachers and the strategic intent that school programs could then cater more effectively for the communities they serve.

Writing in The Educational Magazine in 1984, Kevin Collins, Deputy Director-General of Education for Victoria, explained that the change in responsibility for the educational policy of the school will demand new administrative models in a participatory framework for teachers, parents and students on a basis of shared responsibility and suggested that:

What is occurring is a significant organisational change from a ‘service delivery’ model to a ‘school community model’.

In addition to their existing powers, the newly constituted school councils would determine the education policy for each school within the guidelines issued by the Minister.

As well, procedures to enable school councils at all post primary and the larger primary schools to participate in the selection of members of the principal class to be appointed to the school were developed in consultation with education organisations through the State Board of Education. These arrangements were introduced in 1985 and extended to cover more primary schools in 1990.

School council membership

Councils were to be comprised of the representatives of the main interest groups in the school community - parents, teachers and students (in post primary schools) along with the principal. Some members could also be co-opted by the 'core' council.

Each school community was asked to consider the Government's guidelines for council membership and to try to reach agreement on a recommendation about the membership structure for the council at their school. Elections on the basis of the new constituting orders took place in the first half of 1984.

Independent school council support

To assist school councils with their new roles, a Council Services Unit, with an Executive Officer, a team of five project officers and two administrative staff, was established within the central Education Department.

Regional School Council Liaison Officers were also appointed – one in every country region and two in all metropolitan regions except the Western Region, where there were three.

Minister Fordham understood that school councils were made up of volunteers and were not local arms of the Department. Their line of accountability ran directly to the Minister, not the Director-General.

In order to ensure that their perspectives were not diluted through Departmental processes, he positioned the Council Services Unit and the regional staff so that they reported directly to the Deputy Director (centrally) and to Regional Directors or their Assistants.

Engaging the community

A major challenge for the school councils of the 1980’s was to find ways of engaging with their communities that reached into as many 'sub-communities' as possible.

Many innovative techniques were put in place and examples of what worked were shared through weekend residential professional development programs for school council members.

As well, genuine dialogue between parents, teachers (and, where possible, students) could ensure that schools gained a greater understanding of the values and attitudes of the students and their families and the particular strengths that students bring to the learning situation.

School communities could then ensure that the policies and programs of the school, within the context of broad state-wide policies, met the real needs of all students - not just those whose homes are steeped in the cultural capital of the mainstream middle class.

Key questions for our time

Informed by the lessons and insights from the past, some questions for our time are:

  • What should the prime focus of a school council be in the 21st century?
  • What forms of devolution actually contribute to improving student learning, and what forms do not?
  • How should the school system support the school councils on which so much responsibility rests?
  • What can school councils justifiably be held responsible for, and what must be the responsibility of principals and staff?
  • How can school councils in this day and age make a real difference to the school experience of students in a highly diverse community?
  • What can councils do (by way of their policy, planning and partnerships work) to ensure all students get a fair go?