Developing a strong, healthy relationship between the board of trustees and the principal is one of the most crucial aspects of governing your school effectively. To do that, you need to balance two seemingly conflicting needs: the need to build a respectful and trusting relationship and the need for accountability.

As boards of trustees, we sometimes tie ourselves up in knots over how far we can challenge what our principal says and does, and still claim to respect and trust their professionalism. The dilemma seems to be that at some level, trust and accountability are incompatible − as if asking someone to be accountable for what they do implies that, at some level, you don’t really trust them. But is that true? To be brutally honest, occasionally (unfortunately) the answer has to be yes, (and sometimes that’s for good reason). But not usually.

Usually, the answer is no, that’s not it at all.

Accountability and trust − two sides of the same coin

How do we know who we can trust? Onora O’Neill, a leader in thinking about the way trust and accountability relate to each other, says1 that an effective system of accountability:

  • encourages us to be trustworthy, and
  • reassures us that we can safely place our trust in each other.

As she points out, being trustworthy is not always the same as being trusted. These observations have become an important part of the thinking about what accountability means, and how to make it work.

So, accountability and trust are really two sides of the same coin. For example, when the Education Review Office (ERO) visits a school, checks its performance against its indicators, and finds everything running smoothly – which is not uncommon – it confirms that it can trust the board and the staff to keep things on track for another 3-5 years before it comes back to confirm things are still going smoothly.

Trust is not an all-or-nothing thing. In our daily life, we make lots of decisions about who we trust, and, more importantly, what it is we trust them to do. We don’t usually write blank cheques when it comes to trusting other people, even people we have great confidence in. We assess the situation, including the risks, the circumstances, their skills and experience (and ours), and we factor in the possibility that we may need to step in and help them complete the task.

The sensible questions are not “do I trust X?” but “do I trust X to do Y?” So, the question −

  • Do I trust my child?” may have a different answer from −
  • Do I trust my child to remember there’s a newsletter from school in his/her backpack?” or
  • Do I trust my child to use the chainsaw safely without supervision?

In the same way, the issue for boards is not a blanket question of −

  • Do we trust our principal?” It’s more complicated than that. The questions we as boards need to be asking are more specific, like −
  • Do we trust that our principal has the tools and resources they need to manage this situation well?
  • Do we trust our own understanding of the issues facing our school without considering the information our principal can provide?”
  • Do we trust the information we based our decision on last year, or might it have changed this year?”

The limits of our trust are the areas where we know we need to provide more support, give or get more information, allow more time, or perhaps, adjust our world view. We need to be sensible about it, so we can be confident we are placing our trust wisely, and, equally important, that we are not making unrealistic or unreasonable demands on the person we are placing our trust in – in other words, it provides a framework for them to know that they can trust us back.

Accountability as communication

Accountability is a process of communicating about the school’s performance in a way that enables everyone to know if things are “on track”. Typically, it involves agreed benchmarks or targets that are agreed on in advance, to help measure whether the performance is coming up to expectations. If not, that’s a clear indication we need to pay attention to that area of the school’s operations.

One of the big changes over the past decade has been the move away from accountability for outputs (“How busy have you been?”) to accountability for outcomes (“How much closer has what you’re doing got us towards the goals we’ve set?”). This means focusing clearly on information that’s actually relevant to the decisions you need to make as a board.

We tend to think of “accountability” as being complicated and difficult, or at least time-consuming and bureaucratic, but it doesn’t need to be either of those things.

A State Services Commission working paper from 2003 talks about accountability as:

“…a relationship based on the provision of information about performance from those who have it to those who have a right to it2 …”

In other words, when your principal has information that you have a right to, such as student achievement data or budgets, part of their job is to make sure you get that information quickly, accurately, and in a form that is useful to you. Likewise, when you have information that your school community or the government have a right to, such as student achievement data, or budgets, it’s your job to make sure they get that information quickly, accurately, and in a form that is useful to them. In New Zealand the main purpose of accountability is to let stakeholders know that responsibilities have been properly carried out (to “provide closure”). It also has a second purpose − to provide consequences (“incentives” or “sanctions”) so as to influence future behaviour.

Does accountability promote trusting relationships in your school?

One of the crucial things about accountability is that when it is working well it is a natural part of a trusting relationship. But like everything else, accountability can be done in a way that helps us make progress towards our goals, or it can get in the way.

So how can you, as a board of trustees, make sure that your accountability processes are actually strengthening the relationships with your principal and with your community, not undermining them?

Here are some common-sense questions to help you work out whether your processes for accountability are likely to be promoting a trusting relationship with your principal (and wider school community):

1. Purposeful − Do your accountability arrangements focus clearly on how you are progressing towards your school’s vision and strategic goals?

2. Meaningful − Are they meaningful to the people who have the information and the people who need it? For example:

  • are reports given in a format that makes sense to the person who is reporting, as well as to the people receiving the report?
  • do they say just what they need to say, no more and no less?
  • are they made at relevant times and sensible intervals?

3. Relevant − Do your accountability arrangements communicate useful information about the things you as a board consider most important to the success of the school?

4. Focused − Do they leave out the stuff that doesn’t really matter so you can focus on the things that do?

5. Desirable − Do they encourage desired behaviour or results and discourage undesired behaviour or results?

6. Planned − Are your processes and desired outcomes identified ahead of time?

7. Predictable – Can you be confident there will be no big surprises – for yourselves or for anyone else?

8. A good fit − Do your accountability arrangements line up easily with other ways of operating and reporting within the school?

9. Seen to be fair − What informal accountability processes operate in your school, and how easy or hard is it for “outsiders” to understand how they work and whether they are fair?

10. Informative − Do they help you learn from your experiences by providing information that lets you:

  • make good decisions about the future, and
  • identify the things you still need to address, as well as
  • confirm the progress you’ve already made?

If you’d like to find out more, you can find links to the papers we’ve talked about on our website, under News and Publications/Relevant research.

1 Reith Lectures, 2002.
2 Whither Accountability? Working Paper No.18. State Services Commission, 2003.