The importance of stakeholder management — your school’s reputation depends on it!

As the first school term gets underway, schools across the country are gearing up for yet another fruitful and stimulating academic year. It’s a time when schools feature prominently in the media spotlight, with Year 12 results bringing accolades to high-achieving students and equal kudos to the schools that nurtured their success.

In education, as in the corporate world, reputation is everything and many schools work very hard to develop and maintain their excellent names.

Yet as highlighted by the firestorm of publicity last year around the turmoil in an elite private girls’ high school, which eventually led to the resignation of its principal, a sterling reputation built up over many decades, can be tarnished at breakneck speed.

Case study

According to media reports, certain management decisions made by the then principal of the school had plunged staff morale to an all-time low, resulting in the departure of several heads of department and admired staff members over a two-year period. Staff turnover peaked in 2015 with the resignations of a further 30 out of 200 staff.

Some parents reported their concerns about the school’s direction to its board years back when the staff departures first began. However, they were disappointed when their concerns were not adequately heeded or addressed. Dismayed at the upheaval in their cherished school and fearing it was losing its unique qualities and culture, parents and students subsequently launched a powerful social media campaign against the principal in December 2015, calling for her dismissal.

And they were successful. By January this year, the board had announced the principal’s resignation. In a letter to parents at the height of the turmoil, the principal wrote, ‘In 2016 the pace of change will slow and I will redirect my focus to greater communication with the broader community’. She was not given that chance. By the time the need to mend bridges became apparent, it was already too late.

Cautionary tale

This case highlights some key themes in school governance. It’s a cautionary tale on the acute importance of good stakeholder management and risk management.

Here are some questions to consider:

  • Did the board consider whether the new management direction implemented by the principal was consistent with the school’s ethos, stated values and mission and was consistent with stakeholders’ expectations, in particular staff, parents and students? 
  • Did the board weigh up the risks and implications of that management approach being unpopular or unsuccessful? Any new strategy will bring risks and opportunities which need to be thoroughly considered, so that contingency plans can be made to mitigate risks early and before they spiral into crises.
  • Did the board consider engaging the school’s stakeholders in its new management direction? Could there have been better and earlier communication about the rationale for the new strategy and the outcomes sought for the betterment of the school?
  • Did the school have an effective and transparent grievance process for staff, parents and students where concerns could be aired freely and addressed fairly and promptly? A well-designed and credible communications process between the school and its stakeholders is absolutely vital for building trusted relationships. It can also act as an early-warning mechanism, alerting the school to potential risks before they get out of hand.

Manage stakeholders wisely

School governance is a complex field where multiple interests and stakeholders converge in a high-stakes manner that can damage a school’s reputation very quickly if poorly managed.

School boards need to have an excellent understanding of their key stakeholders and ensure they have an effective, credible and transparent communication and engagement framework in place so that the communities with which they interact can be properly consulted, expectations can be aligned and any concerns can be given the early attention they deserve.

Governance Institute has developed a key resource for independent schools to enhance their school’s governance. Adding value to school governance is a practical too kit and guide for new and existing school board members, administrators and principals. The guide is available here.

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