In Australia, governance in the independent schooling sector has increasingly been recognised in the social, economic and political domains as critical to ensuring school success. Yet, its effectiveness has gained little scrutiny from researchers. A key aspect of school governance is for directors to meet the mandatory governance standards to assure registration and school funding continuity. As ‘responsible persons’, directors utilise component elements of their professional identity and volunteer their time to achieve each of the four main elements of governance: compliance, accountability, transparency and leadership. However, recurring incidents of non-compliance, like those found in the Islamic schooling sector, raise questions about the role of directors’ professional identity on school boards. Essentially, there is concern that directors only engage in standard reporting practices, thus providing only part of what is required for governance in Islamic schools.
This study challenges the perspective that the universal mandatory governance standards of agency and control are sufficient elements of board effectiveness. It departs from the notion that boards govern exclusively through the four main elements (compliance, accountability, transparency and leadership). Instead, this study argues that governance is a more complex phenomenon that requires a behavioural approach. For Islamic school boards, a behavioural approach to governance must have a faith-based perspective because schools adopt a faith-based ethos and provide Islamic education, discipline, safety and care for Muslim children. Unlike the economic perspectives of agency and control, this study draws on sociology and seeks to explore the human side of governance through the utility of a professional identity framework. With this framework, informed by an Islamic worldview, the study adopts an unconventional approach to governance research, and is the first in Australia to undertake empirical research on the governance of Islamic school boards in this way.
Three critical strands of the literature framed the main research question. The first strand provided a context for the development, regulation and funding of the Islamic schooling sector. The second strand examined the board governance literature and explained the behavioural and Islamic governance perspectives. The third strand underscored identity theories, Muslim identity according to an Islamic worldview, and the conceptual elements of professional identity as the framework for this research.
The paucity of research in the school governance scholarship, particularly the Islamic schooling sector, led to the development of the research question: What role does the professional identity of directors play in the governance of Islamic school boards in New South Wales?
The inherent assumption in the research question that there is a connection between professional identity and governance led to the identification of five research objectives. First, the research objectives address an understanding of the Islamic schooling sector as the field of investigation. Second, they identify the elements of governance in the context of Islamic school boards and, third, discover the conceptual elements of professional identity. Fourth, the objectives identify the component elements of directors’ professional identity. Last, they examine the dynamics of boards and how professional identity relates to the governance of boards.
Informed by a constructivist methodology, the empirical research for this study was data collection through semi-structured interviews with directors (14 drawn from seven Islamic school boards in New South Wales) and focus groups and interviews of parents (29 participants). Data analysis via themes was undertaken through six phases. An outcome of the study was participants’ perspectives of Islamic values, principles and practices. So, an Islamic worldview informed the data analysis.
The findings from parents indicated that Islamic schools are complex, dynamic and unique institutions. They play an essential role in maintaining Australian Muslim students’ cultural and religious freedoms and providing children with Islamic education. As the data revealed, parents considered Islamic discipline and academic achievement as critical characteristics of Islamic schooling. Safety emerged as a vital element of schooling. It had two dimensions; first, from fears of secular cultures in the public schooling system; and second, Islamophobia and anti-Islamic sentiments experienced by the community. For parents, safety was an expectation, obligation and responsibility of the school principal and board.
However, parents highlighted disparities between the board and school communities. In exposing the hidden truths of Islamic schooling from the voices and experiences of parents, the study identified that Islamic school boards needed to incorporate additional elements of governance. It was revealed that governance frameworks in use failed to yield transparency between school boards and the Muslim community.
The findings from directors confirmed parents’ concerns that most Islamic school boards engaged in compliance-focused practices, which appeared mostly to benefit the institution’s continuity. This left little room for boards to focus on more essential elements of schooling like strategic planning, education and the well-being of the school community. Parents, a key stakeholder group, felt disempowered and neglected, creating uncertainty about the future of Islamic schooling.
This study argues that governance deficiencies can be understood through board behaviours that are in turn shaped by directors’ identities. As found in the study, the work of boards was impacted by directors’ professional identity (their professional qualifications and expertise, values, attributes and beliefs) and their Muslim identity. In connecting directors’ professional identity with governance, the findings revealed that boards were specialised institutions. While directors identified with specific professions, they interpreted component elements of professional identity in the context of the board. The findings also show that directors used their professional qualifications and expertise for compliance. Their values, attributes and beliefs guided much of the values-based practices in the boardroom, and reflections on their purpose, attitude and actions demonstrated directors’ awareness of their Muslim identity. This highlighted an understanding of the types of governance frameworks needed in Islamic school boards.
Using the study’s unconventional approach, this research identified the complexities of governance beyond the traditional elements of agency and control. The findings underscore that board dynamics play an essential role in developing a school climate that reflects the essence of a genuinely Islamic ethos. Also, the findings underline the importance of adopting a behavioural and faith-based lens when developing governance frameworks. Essentially, directors need to consider, more broadly, elements beyond compliance, accountability, transparency and leadership. This requires the cooperation, consultation and interaction of multiple stakeholder groups that include the Muslim community.
This study makes three contributions to knowledge in the fields of inquiry: the organisational, behavioural and Islamic fields. The first contribution confirms that in Islamic school boards, component elements of directors’ professional identity do in fact influence governance practices in the boardroom. The second contribution extends existing knowledge in the board and behavioural governance scholarship by incorporating additional elements of governance that align with a school’s religious ethos and address the needs of stakeholders. The third contribution expands the Islamic governance scholarship by adopting an Islamic worldview in understanding the Muslim identity of directors and uncovering Islamic values and principles that shaped directors’ behaviours in the boardroom. The study also makes three contributions to practice that Commonwealth and State governments, independent school regulators and the Muslim community may find beneficial. The contributions to knowledge and practice point to the need for governance renewal in the Islamic schooling sector.