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How to win at board games

Governors would do well to heed the advice of US management guru John Carver, says David Kissman

BIASED I may be, having been on its board for three years, but the Association of Colleges pulled off a coup when it secured John Carver's services at its national governors' conference last month.

Mr Carver described in detail the key elements of his "policy governance model" that had been developed over many years and written about extensively in books, journals and other publications. Governors were offered a view of board structure and operating principles that was far removed from what generally exists today.

He advocates a board of fewer than 10 members, smaller than in the typical college board. I believe a large board, over-populated with "experts", is an inefficient one, where all members feel the need to have their say on every topic. Getting commitment to the majority decision becomes a fragile process.

We were advised to examine the balance between the proper exercise of control and micromanagement. His model seeks to restrict board involvement in all activities to the absolute minimum, leaving many of the decisions to the chief executive and his or her staff.

I heard distinct shuffling in seats when we were told that the board is not governing if it is not in control of its own job, and Mr Carver cited the management of the board agenda. He suggested that many boards defer to the chief executive in drawing up the agenda and as a result too much time is wasted debating issues that should be dealt with elsewhere. Much to learn here.

We were offered many more nuggets besides: the exclusion of the chief executive from being a board member; the chief executive works for the board and not the chair; reduce the amount of data that gets presented at board meetings; and if the board hasn't spoken with one voice "then it hasn't spoken". Not surprisingly, even before we had reached lunch there were those in the audience who were becoming concerned about this appealing but unattainable model. Cries of "it won't work here" were heard, and suggestions that Mr Carver should have been better briefed on the nature of FE governance and the restrictions placed upon us by "Instruments and Articles" and the Office for Standards in Education.

I was pleased to see that he had not been fettered by this exceedingly unhelpful knowledge of what happens in the UK. If we want to look for step-change in the way we run our colleges, there is little point in believing that we have the model about right and that it is simply a matter of tinkering at the edges. We should suspend judgment until we have evaluated the broader benefits of a new model and only then contemplate the hurdles that we need to overcome in order to reach our promised land.

Of course the Learning and Skills Council, Ofsted, the Department for Education and Skills and others will need to be shown the light on governance, but they have no reason for not listening. After all, "Success for All" stresses the need for improved strategic planning, reviews of mission statements and other responsibilities that are the remit of the board, so it is right to consider improvements in the way we manage and lead our colleges.

I am certain that the LSC and DfES do not have a monopoly on the best ideas for board structure and accountability. College boards are brimming over with experienced business and community representatives who could offer wise counsel on the subject. But how often has the voice of governors been heard in Sanctuary Buildings, the DfES headquarters? Hardly at all. I believe that it is an opportunity missed.

I am not advocating a petition or encouraging governors to write to their MPs or to Education Secretary Charles Clarke. Governors' voices need to be heard in a more co-ordinated way. Here, the AoC has spotted a need and is constructing a useful framework. I would encourage them to press on with their work, getting closer to governors, helping them understand more about the Carver model, picking elements that could be adopted now, and working together to lobby for the more radical statutory changes which would remove barriers to further reform.

Governors must play their part by finding time from their already busy diaries to commit to this work, but I am confident that the effort would be rewarding and beneficial to the successful transformation of the FE sector.

David Kissman is chair of governors at Broxtowe College, Nottingham

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