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Foxed by dark governor riddle

Let's try a bit of word association. The word in question is "governor". To someone who teaches in FE what comes to mind?

Absentee landlord perhaps? Or how about, invisible man? (although as FE teachers we are aware that women too can be governors, provided they can first pass the "I am a hologram" test.) Now it seems that college governors themselves have begun to recognise the great chasm which exists between the rulers and the ruled.

A new report from the Learning and Skills Development Agency reveals that governors feel cut off from many areas of college life. Apparently they are fine with budgets and all things monetary, but people are more problematic.

Or, to put it another way, "What's a student?" and "What's a lecturer?" are questions to be found on many a gubernatorial lip.

Personally, I am not convinced that FE governors exist. I mean, have you ever met one socially? Do they live in houses and go to the toilet like the rest of us? To borrow a phrase, there is definitely something of the night about them.

School governors are different animals altogether. They are everywhere, 10 a penny, buy one get one free. There are lots of schools, each with its own multi-member panel. If you have had kids, you might even have been a school governor yourself.

And then of course you are likely to have vivid memories of "the governors" from your own schooldays. At my grammar school they used to turn up mob-handed at all the sports days and speech days, prizegivings and school plays - whenever, in fact, there was the chance of a glass of sherry and a cheese straw.

To us back then they were like beings from another planet: impossibly old and very peculiar. No doubt that was a requirement of the job in those days.

There were three of them I particularly remember, who together constituted a sort of travelling freak show. One really was old, like he had died and been dug up especially for the occasion. Another - a woman - always wore a hat on her head and a dead fox around her neck. It wasn't just the fur of the animal, it was the whole thing, complete with shrunken head and shrivelled-up little legs at either end. The fox didn't look so great either. She never actually said anything, not a single word, but for us it was enough just to look at her.

The one who did talk invariably stood inbetween the other two. That was how we knew he was important. He was a weaselly little man in a grey suit, prone to giving out useful advice like "work hard" and "lead a clean life".

He would tell us how, as grammar school pupils, we were the cream of the cream, and as such could look down on the secondary modern kids up the road. I discovered later that he was a governor there too, and that he used to tell them precisely the opposite.

So school governors, freaks or otherwise, were, are, most definitely real.

The FE lot, though, seem only to exist in those full-colour photographs you find hanging in some colleges' foyers.

Next time you see one, take a closer look. Check if you can see the joins.

Is it really a group photograph or just a carefully constructed montage? The one exception to this rule of invisibility is the chair of college governors. He or she definitely does exist, albeit as a sort of dark twin to the principal.

Think about it. Have you ever seen the chair of governors without the principal at his side?

If you are the cynical type you might say that is because he needs to work the wires, or ensure there is no straying from the agreed script.

In the old days, before Mrs Thatcher closed it all down, the chair of governors used to be a captain of local industry, a blunt, no-nonsense engineer who had come up the hard way and now wanted to help others do the same.

Today it is invariably someone younger and more skilled in public relations who gets the job. Not that that prevents them from peddling the same old line: work hard and lead a clean life.

What can be done to bring our governors out of the shadows? Maybe they could hang out in the student canteen, wearing baseball caps and a "Governors' Posse" label round their necks. Or perhaps we could have governors' beauty contests.

If all else fails, why not let them lead the karaoke at the office Christmas party? Just think of the fun you could have coming up with appropriate songs for them. I suggest the Bruce Springsteen number Dancing in the Dark.

Stephen Jones lectures in art at a college in south London

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