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Governance of the stakeholder;FE Focus;Debate;Opinion

Reform has reached FE governors. John Graystone argues that reducing business representation is Labour's way of boosting the community voice

However, Ken Ruddiman reckons that it is unfair to accuse people from the world of commerce of being insensitive to individual needs

With so much happening at present, FE governors might feel sympathy with GK Chesterton who cabled home saying "Am in Crewe, where should I be?". College governing bodies face their third radical shake-up in a decade.

Since 1970, when local authorities were required to set up governing bodies, there has been a slow, steady shift of powers. They have moved from being community focused, large and representative to being business-led and small with governors serving as individuals. The average size fell from 29 members before 1988 to16 five years ago.

Ten years ago, the 1988 Education Reform Act gave governing bodies greater responsibility - and required at least half the members to be from industry and commerce. Under the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act, control of college assets and staff switched from LEAs to newly reconstituted business-led governing bodies.

The bodies have considerable freedom over membership. One-third choose to include staff, student and community governors and co-opt at least one LEA person. Others exclude one or more of these groups.

The recent Department for Education and Employment consultation paper, Accountability in FE, proposes radical changes to the instruments of government, although not to the responsibilities of governing bodies. The minimum size will increase from 10 to 12 and, crucially, all governing bodies will be required to appoint staff, student, LEA and community governors (and for sixth-form colleges, one or two parents).

Business governors lose their in-built majority and will now account for one in three. Codes of conduct and registers of interests available for public inspection are likely to become mandatory. Each governing body will determine what committees to set up and who should serve on them.

At first, things went well but then the criticism began. There were a few damning inspection reports on governance and management. The Further Education Funding Council produced guides on governance and on the role of the clerk. The National Audit Office and the Committee of Public Accounts made proposals for improving governing bodies. The Committee on Standards in Public Life chaired by Lord Nolan turned its attention to governance.

Curiously, most official reports were complimentary about the contribution of governors. Nolan noted that the majority of governors were excellent and examples of poor practice were "isolated cases". He recommended that governing bodies should be open and appoint members on merit. They should draw up codes of conduct and registers of interests.

Many governing bodies were already doing this. The evidence from inspection reports showed two-thirds of colleges receiving grades 1 and 2 (the highest) for governance and management.

The real reason for the changes is that Labour ministers are less keen than their predecessors on competition as a major determinant of quality. They see colleges as institutions serving local communities which reflect a wide range of "stakeholders".

The Association of Colleges and the Local Government Association have broadly welcomed the proposed reforms. Others may be more lukewarm in their response. Will business members be content to continue to serve when they are in an overall minority? How can stakeholders put the interests of the college above that of their sectional interests? How can difficult decisions be taken, especially at a time of financial stringency? How will governing bodies respond to restrictions on their freedom?

The four-month period for consultation will, no doubt, lead to some amendments. But the main principles are likely to stay. The intention is for revised draft instruments to be published in the autumn, to take effect probably in spring 1999.

But governing bodies dragging their heels may find that the prized accredited status for successful colleges (giving new-found freedom from bureaucratic interference) may be withheld.

We are seeing a radical change in the governance of colleges; a move from the business-led to the stakeholder model. Whether or not it will work only the new millennium will tell.

John Graystone is the chief executive of the Association of Colleges in the eastern region

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