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Cleaning Up the Schoolyard

The classroom isn’t the only place in the school community where tension can mount. Whether it’s in the grounds, the staff room, the board room or even at home, the staff, pupils and management provide a fertile environment for dysfunction to manifest and simmer away in.

There are four main areas within this volatile environment where tension can mount. There are the day-to-day student issues such as bullying and cultural difficulties. There are the student-staff issues like relationship and discipline problems, the HR and interdepartmental issues amongst staff, and the wider issues involving management and performance in the Board Of Trustees-principal-management arena.

Each area has its own unique problems, but at a deeper level they are all similar in that they involve people, property or finances, or a combination of all three.

Hamish Brown and Bill Rainey are the respective chairmen of the Boards of Trustees (BOT) for two Nelson city colleges – Nelson College, and Nelson College for Girls – at the sunny northern tip of the South Island. As such, both are in the hot seat for many of the problems found in the above areas, and both know the outcome of attempts made to resolve these issues within their own school communities.

For them, the old cliché – don’t give up your day job – has a strong ring of truth to it, because Bill and Hamish are also managing directors of Nelson’s new mediation company, Concordia Dispute Resolution. Aslo one of the country’s first dedicated ADR companies.

‘We know how schools work and we’ve analysed these tension areas and structured measures to address that,’ Bill explained.

‘As BOT chairs and as Concordia we know the tensions that arise,’ added Hamish. ‘We are in a unique situation, which has allowed us to set up specialist help. We are familiar with all four areas and can visit them on an ongoing and a troubleshooting basis.

‘These days schools have four key areas of responsibility. There are the academic outcomes, keeping the financial side sustainable, looking after the environmental or physical side, and monitoring the social elements. The first three have reasonably easy-to-measure outcomes but it is more difficult to measure the social outcomes. That area requires a lot more effort and input.’

In the school environment, as in any organization, things don’t always go according to plan and issues and disputes can arise in any of those key areas. Whether it’s a dissatisfied parent, a dysfunctional child, a staffroom mutiny, a departmental spat or a confrontation at board level these issues can become severely debilitating to the school environment if not handled well.

With their collective knowledge Hamish and Bill have set up an Audit Review process for use in the greater school community. Based on the model of looking for ways to fix a problem rather than blaming someone for it, the audit provides a pro-active process allowing a school to determine areas of conflict or dissent before they become major issues, and then follows up with strategies for solving these.

‘Schools are an important area for role modelling,’ Bill continued. ‘How staff deal with these issues, and how BOTs deal with them, have to be good examples to the students.’

‘We initially used an audit process at Nelson College,’ said Hamish ‘to get clear about what we were doing and where we should be going. We found there was a hidden cost in not looking at these things, which would outweigh any investment in implementing the audit.

‘Schools are very stressful places, and there are not enough resources put into management to create a healthy and cohesive workplace. The ultimate goal of any business is to have satisfied customers, in this case, the students. To have happy students we need happy staff, and to have happy staff we need to ensure workplace stress and dysfunction are minimalised. The audit does exactly this by looking beneath the surface, and is what we call a ‘front-end’ measure.

‘The audit identifies potential blocks in the management of the school. Once recognised this can put less pressure on resources and is better for the kids and the staff. The Ministry of Education is now asking for a Comprehensive Strategic Plan for each school, so schools need to be clear that they are focusing on the right outcomes for that plan.

‘Once the audit process is completed the data is collected and analysed. We come back and talk about the problem areas, and the areas of risk and stress. We identify the greatest areas for improvement. A list of guidelines is drawn up and a protocol set for what the school would be like if it was working well.

‘As we work with more and more organizations we are able to set up a benchmark process for a particular group,’ Hamish added.

‘The audit is complementary to the ERO process. But whereas the ERO looks more at academic outcomes the audit is much more about people, and looks below the surface of the greater school community. Schools, as employers need to be looking at that level, to be looking deeper.’

It’s a more holistic approach to the school community. Bill compares it to an ‘oil and grease’ for the car – it’s a preventative measure that can solve all sorts of problems before they start.


Sue Farley

Sue Farley is an award-winning freelance writer and photographer working in New Zealand, Australia and the South Pacific. MORE >

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