Chapter 7. Strengthening accountability and capacity in Dutch school boards

School boards in the Netherlands enjoy extensive autonomy in various areas and have become increasingly responsible for the quality of education. However, their accountability is open to question. School boards, which vary in scale, sometimes also face significant capacity challenges. This chapter examines the major policy developments and performance of school boards in the Dutch school system. It explores how the accountability of school boards can be improved by making their workings more transparent, and opening up their operations to meaningful challenge. It highlights the importance of strengthened management capacity in school boards, which is balanced by giving more authority to school leaders.

  

School governance

School boards have a key governance role and are highly diverse

In the decentralised Dutch educational system, religious organisations and associations of citizens are free to start a school and receive public funding, provided they meet government regulations. Since the 1980s, the government has devolved further responsibilities to schools. Schools managed by local government have been taken over by private foundations (although schools themselves remain public) and lump sum financing1 has been introduced, which gives school boards the freedom to make their own spending choices (van Twist et al., 2013). Conversely, some re-centralisation has taken place through the establishment of national learning objectives and examination programmes. Mergers of school boards have been promoted as larger school boards were considered to be more professional and financially stable (Van Wieringen, 2010; Hooge, 2013; Frissen et al., 2015). Nowadays, close to half of school boards in primary education and secondary education consist of one school (Table 7.1), with the school principal fulfilling the double role of governor and principal. The other half of school boards run more than one school and are responsible for the vast majority of schools and students in the Netherlands.

Table 7.1. Number of school boards and schools by level of education, 2014

Primary education (PO)

Secondary education (VO)

Upper secondary vocational education (MBO)

Number of schools

7156*

642*

68

Number of school boards

Number of schools managed by school boards

1 115

335

66

1

491

240

64

2 to 5

216

77

2

6 to 9

124

11

0

10 to 19

201

6

0

More than 20

83

1

0

Note:

* Includes special primary education schools and (secondary) special schools.

Source: Data provided by MoECS.

School governance has improved

School boards in the Netherlands enjoy extensive autonomy (OECD, 2011) regarding the allocation of resources, personnel, infrastructure of buildings, and curriculum and assessment. The recently adopted Good Education, Good Governance Act 2010 further confirmed their responsibility for the quality of education. According to the Inspectorate of Education (2015a), most schools are properly governed, and school boards, internal supervision and employee participation are becoming increasingly professional. The percentage of school boards facing multiple or long-term quality problems is falling, especially in secondary education

Sectoral associations represent school boards at the national level

Following the example of MBO-Raad (the Netherlands Association of Vocational Education and Training (VET) Colleges), during the last decade similar associations have been established for primary and secondary education: the PO-Raad (2006) and VO-Raad (2007) respectively. These associations represent school boards at the national level and their influence on policy making has grown, as is evidenced by the sector agreements (see Chapter 6). Table 1.1 in Chapter 1 summarised the roles of the different stakeholders in the school governance structure.

Financial instability

The vast majority of schools are of good quality

The lump-sum funding model was introduced in upper secondary vocational education in 1991, in secondary education in 1995, and in primary education in 2006. This provided school boards with the freedom to make their own spending choices. As this approach depends upon the capacity of school boards (Fullan and Levin, 2009; Honig, 2003, 2006), a positive development is that school boards, as well as internal supervisors, are becoming increasingly professional (Inspectorate of Education, 2015a). This seems to have had a positive impact on the financial situation and quality of education.

The weak finances of some schools creates risks

The financial situation of schools has improved in all sectors in recent years, partly due to additional government funds in 2013 (Inspectorate of Education, 2015a, 2015b). However, schools do not have much financial leeway: the number of primary schools under financial supervision by the Inspectorate of Education has increased considerably, although this is partly due to a change in financial monitoring by the Inspectorate (Figure 7.1) (Inspectorate of Education, 2015b).

Figure 7.1. Schools under special financial supervision, 2012-2015
picture

Source: Inspectorate of Education (2015b), De financiële staat van het onderwijs, 2014 [The Financial Situation of Education, 2014], Inspectorate of Education, Utrecht, www.onderwijsinspectie.nl/binaries/content/assets/nieuwsberichten/2015/de-financiele-situatie-in-het-onderwijs-2014.pdf.

Capacity challenges in school boards

Not all school boards have the capacity to resolve problems

Unstable financial circumstances, sometimes linked to declining school rolls, make it difficult for some school boards to safeguard the quality of education. While the annual report of school boards requires a thorough analysis of risk, reporting is often still too general (Inspectorate of Education, 2015b).

School boards need to do more to support weak schools

Alongside the work of the Inspectorate and other bodies, school boards themselves can do more to support weaker schools. Hooge et al. (2015) revealed that school boards interact less with schools that are known to function or perform poorly and/or where the school principal is known to be less competent. This is the opposite of what would be most useful.

But the capacity of school boards is very variable

School board members may be volunteers or professionals; parents of students in the school; citizens from the local community; members of a religious or life philosophy; or professionals with specific expertise, such as law, finance, human resources or education. In smaller school boards particularly there may not be any members with a professional educational background. While some school boards formulate ambitious performance demands, exert pressure and provide support to their schools, others seem to be less committed to quality goals (Nusche et al., 2014).

A strategic improvement culture is underdeveloped in many school boards

Several sources, including OECD interviews with key stakeholders, suggest that many school boards lack the capacity to drive improvement (Inspectorate of Education, 2015a; Bekkers et al., 2015; Nusche et al., 2014). School boards are often preoccupied with the short term, while research evidence shows that financial and human resource strategies need to be linked to leadership and effective management in order to deliver educational goals (Robinson, Hohepa and Lloyd, 2009). The growing number of staff on payroll and temporary contracts may make it difficult to build a high quality workforce (see Chapter 5).

Box 7.1. Board Leadership Development Strategy, Ontario, Canada

As part of the Ontario Leadership Strategy, each district in the province is provided with funding and support to develop and implement a Board Leadership Development Strategy (BLDS). The goals of the BLDS mirror the goals of the Ontario Leadership Strategy, that is, to: 1) attract the right people to leadership roles; 2) develop personal leadership resources in individuals and promote effective leadership practices in order to have the greatest possible impact on student achievement and well-being; and 3) develop leadership capacity and coherence in organisations to strengthen their ability to deliver on education priorities. The ministry support districts (i.e. school boards) by assessing impact; setting high-quality goals; implementing evidence-based strategies that will give the best results; and monitoring the implementation of those strategies.

The Board Leadership Development Strategy Manual was developed to support Ontario school boards (districts) in implementing their BLDS, and to guide planning and reporting. Directors, supervisory officers, principals, vice-principals, supervisors, managers, teachers, and others who work in the field of education may find the manual helpful in understanding leadership development in districts across the province.

Source: Ontario Ministry of Education (2015), Leadership Development, www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/policyfunding/leadership/actionPlan.html.

The professionalization of school boards should be intensified

The sector agreements encourage board members to share experiences by participating in networks; school boards can also call on a wide range of professional development opportunities. Following the examples of education systems such as Northern Ireland, Ontario (Canada) and Victoria (Australia) (OECD, 2013; Pont, Nusche and Moorman, 2008), work in the Netherlands has also started on competence standards for secondary school boards. Such capacity building may naturally be linked to that of school leaders and internal supervisors (see Chapter 6 and Box 7.1).

The accountability challenge for school boards

School boards lack democratic accountability

Current members of the school board jointly recruit and appoint ordinary board members, while professional board members are appointed by the internal supervisory council of the school. Board members are therefore different from their equivalents in many other OECD countries, such as England (United Kingdom), the Flemish Community of Belgium, Slovenia and Sweden, where professional board members are elected officials (Pont, Nusche and Moorman, 2008; OECD, 2011). Compared to these countries, school boards in the Netherlands therefore lack democratic accountability (Hooge and Honigh, 2014).

Internal supervisory bodies do not always hold school boards accountable

Internal supervisory councils do not always succeed in their role as an independent monitor of the school board. Some highly publicised incidents have revealed that internal supervisory councils have sometimes failed to address malpractice in school boards (Inspectorate of Education, 2015a; Bekkers et al., 2015). In response, MoECS has proposed the legislation: Strengthening of the Administrative Powers Law (2015), which requires the internal supervisory council to report any malpractice or risks in the quality of education to the Inspectorate. These changes may help clarify the roles and responsibilities of the internal supervisory council and hold them accountable. Parents and education staff are sometimes reluctant to become members of the council, and school boards do not always sufficiently involve the participation council in important decisions (Inspectorate of Education, 2015a). The proposed legislation usefully expands the powers of the participation council. Through other measures, like the support provided for the Strengthening Participation Council project (Versterking Medezeggenschapsraad project) up to 2019, MoECS aims to strengthen the functioning of the participation councils in primary and secondary schools.

Performance appraisals of board members by the internal supervisory board are not routine

If the school board includes professional salaried members, then the internal supervisory council is also the employer of the board members. While in this case the council is expected to regularly evaluate the performance of these professionals, this does not always happen. This is particularly concerning given the findings by Hooge et al. (2015) that some school boards are less engaged with poor performing schools than with better performers. The Inspectorate of Education should monitor whether internal supervisory councils have the capacity to and are conducting performance appraisals.

Some competence standards for school board members are under development

Agreed competence standards for school board members could usefully guide the professionalisation of school boards, and steps in this direction at secondary level are therefore to be welcomed. Such standards should be developed for all levels of education and be used by school boards and internal supervisory councils to guide boards and inform their professional development.

The division of labour between school leaders and school boards is unclear

Good governance depends on the clarity of roles and responsibilities (Inspectorate of Education, 2015a; Bekkers et al., 2015). Hofman et al. (2012) showed that while most school boards expected school leaders to be educational leaders (83%), less than half of school leaders saw themselves in this way (45%). School leaders regularly get caught between the school board and the participation council. While everybody looks to the school leader to guide decision-making in the school, this role is not formalised. As discussed in Chapter 6, the role of school leaders needs to be strengthened in relation to school boards and the participation council. For example, the co-signing by all school leaders of the board’s annual report could usefully strengthen their role (OECD, 2015; Pont, Nusche and Moorman, 2008).

Accountability through transparency

Good progress has been made in improving access to data

Public knowledge of the work of school boards – transparency – is a precondition of proper accountability. The Netherlands is in a strong position in this regard, with various online websites (e.g. www.scholenkeuze.nl, www.1000scholen.nl, www.scholenopdekaart.nl) that provide information about schools to parents, students and other potential users. MoECS work in this respect is considered good practice among ministries in the Netherlands by the General Accounting Office (General Accounting Office, 2014). However, there remains scope for improvement (MoECS, 2015; Inspectorate of Education, 2015a; Van Dael and Hooge, 2013). A recent study (GfK, 2015) showed that shared data and information, and their presentation, do not always meet the needs of parents, many of whom do not know where to look for information about schools (MoECS, 2015). In response, MoECS is involving parents in the further development of the website www.scholenopdekaart.nl, and intends to promote its existence to parents in collaboration with the sector councils.

Some internal supervisors and school leaders have indicated that they need more and/or better information to do their job properly. Although a lack of skills and experience to interpret and use data and information plays a part (see also Chapter 6), reports suggest that school boards are not always providing supervisors and leaders with easy-to-use information (Blokdijk and Goodijk, 2012; Honingh and Hooge, 2012; Bekkers et al., 2015).

Annual reports should all be available online

The annual report by school boards should draw together information on resources and what the school boards achieve with those resources. However, although the sector codes of good governance call for making annual reports publically available online, only half of the general secondary school boards, and even fewer primary school boards, did so in 2014 (Kersten, 2015; Honingh and van Genugten, 2014). The Netherlands should consider following the examples of England (United Kingdom), New Zealand and Victoria (Australia) by making the public posting of annual reports mandatory as this reinforces public accountability and informs stakeholders about school objectives, achievements and use of resources (Tooley and Hooks, 2010; OECD, 2013; OECD/SSAT, 2008).

Lump sum financing creates an additional accountability challenge

Under “lump sum” financing, school boards have full discretion over the funds supplied to them by central government. This approach is similar to that pursued by, for example, the Flemish Community of Belgium, Denmark and Latvia, and contrasts with some other decentralised education systems that earmark at least some funds for specific purposes (Fazekas, 2012). At the time of writing, the Netherlands is exploring alternative mechanisms of school financing. The stated goals of central government regarding funding – for example the Euro 150 million shared with schools in 2013 through the lump sum to recruit new teachers and improve mathematics teaching – is not always backed by earmarking of the funds, or even accountability mechanisms to report how much was actually spent on its stated purposes. While earmarking can be too rigid or an administratively burdensome approach, school boards should account for how they have used additional resources and to what end. This calls for capacity building among school boards and for stronger internal and external transparency, including through publicly available school board annual reporting (see Box 5.3).

Box 7.2. Peer learning among school boards – examples from the Netherlands

In September 2012, PO-Raad launched a number of activities around the theme “Steering on Education Quality”, including collegial visits. The aim of these visits is to support school boards with professionalisation, and the Code of Good Governance forms the starting point. The rationale of the collegial visitation is that school boards utilise each other’s expertise. Their professional drive gets a boost through structured visits to share knowledge and experiences and prepare their content properly. Until now, 24 school boards have participated in the collegial visitations. From this experience, the Primary Education Council aims to develop a solid, functional and durable visitation for the primary education sector.

In September 2015, Foundation LeerKRACHT presented the LeerKRACHT school boards programme for the coming year with the theme “Every day a little better together” for better education. In this programme, which is a collaboration with PO-Raad, VO-Raad and MBO-Raad, participants visit (large) commercial companies, such as Randstad, Philips, Achmea, Albert Heijn and Bol.com, that are known for their continuous improvement culture. In addition, participants are encouraged to share their experiences. The aim of the programme is for school boards to learn how to establish and maintain an improvement culture in their schools, and the role of leadership in this process.

Sources: Primary Education Council (2015), Bestuurlijke visitatie Spiegel voor bestuurlijk handelen [Governmental Visitations. Mirror for Administrative Action], Primary Education Council, The Hague, https://www.poraad.nl/files/publicaties/publicaties_pdf/brochure_bestuurlijke_visitatie_spiegel_voor_bestuurlijk_handelen.pdf; Foundation LeerKracht (2015), “Wat moeten we van schoolbesturen verwachten?” [What should we expect from school boards?], www.stichting-leerkracht.nl/blog/achtergrond/wat-moeten-we-van-schoolbesturen-verwachten/.

The “horizontal dialogue” is underdeveloped in many schools

The codes of good governance call for school boards and internal supervisory councils to organise dialogue with stakeholders at all levels, this is also referred to as the “horizontal dialogue”. Research shows the potential of such dialogue to promote organisational learning (Schechter and Mowafaq, 2013; Senge et al., 2012). While this dialogue needs to take place in an atmosphere of trust and respect (Fullan, Cutress and Kilcher, 2005; Cerna, 2014), this is not always the case in the Netherlands (Frissen et al., 2015; Hooge et al., 2013; Bekkers et al., 2015: Inspectorate of Education, 2015a).

Recommendations 10-11: Enhance the accountability and capacity of school boards and rebalance their authority

Recommendation 10: The accountability of school boards should be substantially improved by making their workings more transparent and by opening up their operations to meaningful challenge

Accountability mechanisms need to be strengthened

A lack of democratic accountability (for example when school systems are no longer run by locally elected individuals) needs to be balanced by more robust and transparent accountability arrangements. The annual reports of school boards should all be available online and should fully document how resources are used and to what end. Where funds are provided by central government for specific purposes, the reports should explain whether those resources have been used for those purposes, and if not provide a justification. These justifications, and indeed all operations of school boards, should be open to meaningful challenge by the Inspectorate and the internal supervisory council.

Recommendation 11: Building on existing initiatives, systematically enhance the strategic leadership capacity of school boards and develop their professionalism. Rebalance the authority of school boards by giving more authority to school leaders

The capacity of school boards and internal supervisory boards needs improvement

The professionalisation of school boards and internal supervisors has rightly received increasing policy attention. Efforts should focus on enhancing capacity, and peer-learning opportunities among board members and internal supervisors across the Netherlands should be pursued. Competence requirements for school board members should be developed (building on initiatives at the secondary level), and regular appraisals for board members should be a requirement.

Rebalance the authority of school boards, school leaders and teachers at local and national levels

Key actions often need to be taken at the school rather than board level. In recognition of this it would make sense for school leaders to be co-signatories of the school boards’ reports, and also be meaningfully involved in report drafting. School leaders could be given more responsibility for the quality of education. At the national level, school leaders could be given a stronger voice, as has been seen with the inclusion of representative organisations of school leaders (General School Leaders Association, AVS, and Network for School leaders, NVS) and teachers in future sector agreements.

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Note

← 1. Lump sum funding means that school boards receive an amount of funding based on the number of enrolled students on 1 October. The amount largely depends on the composition of the student population of the school (number of students, age and education type). Primary schools and general secondary schools also receive an additional amount for performance-oriented working and the professional development of teachers and school leaders (“the performance box”). Senior secondary vocational schools receive additional funding for quality agreements (MoECS, nd).