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NSM Focus | There needs to be scope for variation in educational governance

School boards in primary education are being given increasing responsibility for school policy, strategy and quality assurance. Assistant professor of public administration Dr Marlies Honingh and researcher Prof. Femke Geijsel are questioning the assumed governance in this system: “The starting point that this always works well is naive.”

Schools must adhere to the plans of their school board, and with sometimes fifty schools under one board it is unlikely that the policy mapped out will be acceptable for all schools. What kind of dialogue is there between board and schools and how much scope is there for custom-made solutions? Researchers at Radboud University are looking for the answer to these questions. “The way in which you can offer customised solutions differs from school to school”, says public administrator Marlies Honingh.

It is a known problem of governance in organisations that carry out a public task: on the one hand accountability is expected from governance, while at the same time schools must respond flexibly to demands from students, parents and other partners involved with the school. Take an issue like ‘future-oriented education’. How does governance from above relate to the ideas within the schools and that may differ from school to school?

No one way of governance

According to the researchers there is no one correct way of governance, as governance is given form and meaning by interaction. With something like quality assurance in education it is important whether administrators and school leaders adopt a broad or a narrow vision. Narrow focusses on the cognitive and management aspects, broad stands for focus on other qualities, in the realisation that not everything is feasible.

The researchers have no preference for narrow or broad, but want to know how governance will be given form in the interaction between board and school leaders, also in cases where there is a conscious (or unconscious) difference of opinion. Femke Geijsel of the Radboud Teachers Academy outlines the consequences of a ‘mismatch’: “Then a school leader will stop sharing all the relevant information, and also the dilemmas and uncertainties.” According to Honingh a lack of trust puts governance at risk, and with it also the assumed guarantee of education quality.

More dynamic

Should we spare ourselves the misery and abolish the governance layer, as Ton van Haperen recently put forward in his book 'Het bezwaar van de leraar' (The objection of the teacher)? This goes too far for the researchers. According to Honingh it is desirable for the authorities to have one contact point, instead of separate consultation with all the schools. “Governance from the top has brought us a long way. But the current system is also one size fits all, while we know that in practice it is problematic and full of uncertainties.”

Honingh calls for more play in the system. “This is missing at present. Take something like-future-oriented education: as it is uncertain what this actually means, governance purely based on output will probably be found to be inadequate. Room is needed for creativity.” Femke Geijsel considers it high time that we face the lack of flexibility. And the researchers aren’t the only ones. “We see that our research questions are also relevant in practice.”

Together with Femke Geijsel and Martijn Nolen, assistant professor of public administration Marlies Honingh obtained a € 450.000 research grant to study governance relations in primary education. Femke Geijsel works as a researcher at the Radboud Teachers Academy and until the end of this year was professor by special appointment at the University of Amsterdam. Martijn Nolen is affiliated to Tilburg University as an education lawyer.

This article was published in Radboud Recharge.