Words like governance, accountability, regulatory requirements and risk have always been an important part of every college’s vocabulary. However, in this new era of larger and more complex college groups – these words have taken on increased pertinence within our sector.
As colleges merge, governing boards often find themselves running a much more diverse business portfolio – including independent training providers, multi-academy trusts and charities as well as the FE college itself. As a result, governance structures must be fit for purpose and governors must be of a high enough calibre to effectively support and guide the organisation.
This is an issue we faced when London South East Colleges was created in 2016, following a three-way merger. We took time to completely restructure and update our governance arrangements, taking into account the increased need for clear accountability, transparency and expertise.
Background: FE governors to be scrutinised by researchers
With a larger and more complex business to run, managing risk appropriately is more critical than ever and must underpin the formulation of an efficient business strategy. This requires a greater connectivity between strategy and delivery, but within an accountability framework that continues to delineate management and governance relations, much along traditional lines.
Professionalising the role of governance
Having spent time putting the right structure in place (enabling us to run each strand of our business effectively, while continuing to have an essential overview of the organisation), we also appointed a director of governance. This was an important investment for our organisation, professionalising the role to ensure the efficient running of every board and group sub-committee.
We then faced the most significant challenge of all – finding the right people to sit within our governance structure. With the Department for Education’s new insolvency regulations coming into force, board positions come with a higher level of personal accountability than ever before, meaning we need governors who fully understand the sector and the complex, dynamic challenges it faces.
In the past, appointing governors could happen with a degree of informality – an old colleague or friend of a colleague, for example. But as we know, the sector has moved on and the matter of governor recruitment must be taken as seriously as the recruitment of the organisation’s senior leaders.
As our business has expanded and turnover increased, we have had to become more commercially savvy, operating in a business-like way. Yet we were adamant that this would not be at the expense of our local communities or adversely affect our provision of high-quality education across the region.
The importance of expertise
To manage this dichotomy, we needed our governors to have a high level of national expertise, across a wide range of industries – but with an all-important local connection to harness maximum value and longer-term impact, as well as a genuine passion for and a will to improve education.
This is no easy task and colleges are taking different approaches to overcome the challenge. Some are choosing to remunerate their governors; this is not common practice but a clear indication of how seriously colleges are about getting the right people in place.
Our pioneering approach has been to engage professional recruitment support from FE Associates. Universities regularly use headhunters to ensure they get the right skills on their governing boards. We wanted to do the same, reflecting the importance we are attaching to effective governance and professionalising it in the same way as other aspects of our business.
As a result, we have recruited some new outstanding high-level expertise onto our boards, bringing new breadth to the organisation and many different skill sets. The time-consuming nature of this search for expertise and passion would not have been possible without specialist external support.
We are confident that the investment we have made to recruit our governors is an important one and will benefit the entire organisation, most importantly our students. The fact is that good governors are no longer simply nice to have but a need to have.
Sam Parrett OBE is principal and chief executive of London South East Colleges