All aboard: parents and the school committee

Parents who sit on school committees can be agents for positive change, with commitment, time and the right skills, writes Linda Yeung

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 April, 2013, 9:50am

Parent representatives are a fixture on all school boards or management committees, but those where they play a dominant role are a minority. Kellett School and the French International School (FIS) are among the rare few. Parents make up 12 out of the 15 executive committee members with voting rights at FIS and 75 per cent of Kellett's governing body.

In fact, Kellett was set up in 1976 by a group of parents who wanted a British-style education, with emphasis on arts and smaller classes, for their children. Such parental support has now enabled the school to build a US$100 million new campus in Kowloon Bay, with a capacity of 900 students.

Due to open in August, it will feature a primary section that will bolster its existing facility in Pok Fu Lam, as well as a senior school, which will accommodate secondary students occupying a temporary site in Shau Kei Wan.

Recognising a shortage of international school places, the board decided on the extension project several years ago. The Education Bureau gave it the Kowloon Bay site in 2009, and construction began last year.

Kellett board member Duncan Abate, a lawyer, says: "The vast majority of parents have been involved in the hundreds of decisions made for the massive venture. Every decision of the board is a parent initiative."

The board has also worked to foster a spirit of community. Besides serving as school governors, parents often take on multiple roles, from volunteering in the library and organising after-school events, to helping with concerts and assemblies.

Board members, drawn from a variety of professionals, also sit on various committees related to their skills and interests. "Every parent knows a board member," says Emma Hanrahan, a newly elected member who has three children at the school.

"My kids love seeing me get involved, seeing me [act as] guide on camp. For other parents, it's a great line of communication; they know who their representatives are. People like to know they have a trusted voice on the board. It does bring a strong sense of community to the school."

Kellett places a strong emphasis on extracurricular activities and residential camps, which begin in junior years. Last month, for instance, a group of Year Eight students flew to Penang, Malaysia, on a trip jointly organised with the Federation of British International Schools in South East Asia.

The 400 families who enrol their children at Kellett don't always agree on the direction taken. But Abate says the school management operates by consensus, and in the four years that he has served on the board, they have had to resort to a vote only twice on sensitive matters.

"The path of least resistance for a school would be not to send students on trips, to keep them learning in the classroom. We want them to have well-rounded education. The number of trips our children go on is exceptional," he says.

Disputes do arise, and these make for vigorous discussions at meetings. But Abate says they are usually resolved in a "respectful manner".

Serving on the school board can mean a steep learning curve for newer members such as Hanrahan. "Kellett is not something you just walk in and understand immediately," Abate says. "Emma does bring an enormous number of valuable skills to the table, but it will take time for her to understand all of the aspects, from the debenture structure, to dealing with teaching staff."

There is no time limit for Kellett board members, but they are required to resign every three years and seek re-election if they want to continue. All parents in the school vote on new board members.

Schools should put children at the heart of their decisions. That is what our model does
Duncan Abate, Kellett school

Another board member, financier Peter Goulston, equates the workings of the board to that of a government cabinet. He reckons their current composition works well because everyone is focused on the best interests of the children.

"You don't have people who are there because they want to put something on their CV, or to fill in three hours of their day. People are all busy, but I think being on the board is one of the most rewarding things people have done," he says.

In the 14 primary and secondary schools and two private colleges in the English Schools Foundation (ESF) network, parents make up a little less than one-third of the individual governing councils. The councils work with the principal to establish the school's strategic direction, approve the curriculum and ensure that the needs of students are met. In addition, a Committee of Parents advise the ESF chief executive on matters such as quality of education, admission of students and fee levels.

But as parents at the ESF-run Discovery College have found, this representation may not be sufficient to push families' priorities to the top of the agenda. Many were furious when the college recently announced a fee increase of nearly 10 per cent, along with a non-refundable building levy, and some families have said they will not pay the fee. Discovery College is set to host a forum with parents after the Easter break.

At FIS, parents on the executive committee have strived to enhance school facilities and keep fees down, and offered voluntary services, such as consultancies, that helped the school save money.

"In the past few years, we have really pushed things to a higher standard," says Florence de Changy, who chairs its executive committee. "The workload of the board members can be high, but it is rarely incompatible with a full-time job. Most people who have worked on the executive committee have found the experience fascinating and enriching."

But involving parents on boards can be a problem if they are not sufficiently skilled or qualified, says de Changy.

"It is excellent when you can gather highly skilled, honest and dedicated parents. You see the school improving, and its standards increase. I believe this is the situation we have at the moment [at FIS], and it partly explains the improvements in every area: HR, facilities, communications, strategic planning and finances. We still manage to maintain very low fees, too."

"Of course, if the board is unable to attract the right parents, the system could become a liability. That is the weakness of the system." De Changy will quit the board in June to return to full-time work as correspondent for a French newspaper after her third son graduates from the school.

Family involvement on school boards remains a matter of how much time a parent can afford to contribute to children's education.

Can Kellett's parent-led model work for other school boards? Abate declines to speculate, but says: "Schools should put children at the heart of their decisions. That is what our model does.

"Everyone in Hong Kong moves very fast, so to get time to stop and think about ways in which you can improve the education of your child at any stage is hugely valuable. It is a massive, massive privilege."