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In the interests of Barking

Neil Merrick he looks at the way one college is governed. Earlier this month, governors at Barking College set up a register of their interests. Like most FE colleges, they were spurred into action by the damning inquiries at Derby and St Philip's colleges and the recommendations of the National Audit Office.

Not that governors at the East London college have anything to hide. Their annual report includes a full list of their names and, in the case of business members, where they work.

Students and parents are therefore aware that Jim Scrimshaw, the chair of the corporation, is a director at cable manufacturers Telephone Cables while vice-chair Bernard Condon works at House of Contina, a building company. Mr Scrimshaw says corporation members, as they are known, declare an interest if any matter comes up for discussion which affects their employers. But it is rare, he says, for the college to discuss business transactions with companies which employ a governor.

Barking will adopt the Further Education Funding Council's own model for registering interests and require its governors to register any shareholdings in a company which exceeds Pounds 25,000 or 1 per cent of the issued share capital. They will also be required to declare significant gifts and hospitality.

"There is a real sense of probity among both our corporation members and senior staff," adds college principal Ted Parker. "The FEFC clearly wants to be above reproach and so do we."

Unlike some colleges highlighted by the NAO, Barking has had no difficulty attracting governors with suitable experience. At incorporation, it reduced its governing body from more than 20 to the present 12. Half are independent or business members, but the college has tried to ensure it is not entirely taken over by the business community.

Although the Asian and Afro-Caribbean communities make up just 5 per cent of the local population, between one-third and a half of the college's 5,000 students come from ethnic minority groups.

"The local community is a major shareholder in the college," says Jim Scrimshaw, who has been chair of governors since incorporation. "It's vital we have their representatives." The corporation also includes a staff member and a student member. Three of the governors are women.

The corporation has three sub-committees, each of which either takes delegated decisions or makes recommendations to the full corporation.

The audit committee is chaired by Alan Skerry, a financial controller at Ford, but excludes both the principal and chair of governors. It meets once a term, in line with an FEFC recommendation.

Corporation meetings are usually attended by about three-quarters of governors. "I have never known a meeting where we were inquorate," says Mr Scrimshaw.

Attending a meeting of the corporation or a committee, which typically last about two hours, is only a small part of each governor's workload. Jim Scrimshaw and Ted Parker normally meet or talk on the telephone twice a week and, about once a month, Mr Scrimshaw attends a meeting of the strategic management team. Each year governors and senior managers attend a residential weekend to discuss the strategic plan.

"We are asking people to spend a fair bit of their own time on college business," says Mr Scrimshaw. "Meetings are only the tip of the iceberg. There is inevitably a need to get to know the college better."

But he favours remunerating governors only if, as a result of college work, they find themselves out-of-pocket. "If someone is self-employed or having their pay docked, there should be some way of compensating them."

When FEFC inspectors visited the college last November, they noted how governors acted correctly and did not become involved in operational matters. Day-to-day decisions are made by the principal and his strategic management team which includes a vice-principal, four directors of faculty and three other directors with cross-college responsibilities.

Mr Parker says: "There is clearly a distinction between governance, which is about monitoring and ethics, and executive management, which is what I do."

He agrees problems may have arisen in other colleges because senior managers declined to recognise the governors' role. "Teachers have tried to take over the role of governors. They want to decide what their college's objectives were as well as implementing them."

Edited by Ian Nash

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