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Principal who doesn't mind losing

Ruth Silver, principal of Lewisham College in south London, is proud of the independence shown by her governors. Proud too that she loses important battles with them. "I come out of my governors' meetings feeling bruised."

When the college was planning a new campus at Deptford, "they made me do a 10-year budget study, and insisted it was cheaper to build a new campus than to clear it (the old one) up. They got their way, and they were right and I was wrong."

A good clerk can do a great deal to ensure that governors are effective, and Lewisham has a full time clerk with a full time assistant and no other responsibilities.

Only five other London colleges can claim a full-time clerk, according to a study which Lewisham conducted before Christmas. Nine have part-time clerks, self-employed clerks, or a clerking firm. Nine combine the clerk's job with another job, such as director of personnel, or head of administration. Lewisham's clerk has a wide knowedge of the education system, is a member of the Association of CollegeRegistrars and Administrators, the clerks' professional association, and is completely independent of Ms Silver.

"I don't hire and fire the governors' clerk - the governors do that directly. They can call the clerk and ask questions, and I won't even know they've called. She has the right to independent legal advice. She needs to be clear about her role, and to belong to nobody."

Governors can serve two terms of office, a maximum of eight years, and the chair has a maximum of two years, so MsSilver does not have time to get too cosy with her chair.

A report published by the Further Education Funding Council last year said that at Lewisham "governance is outstanding". It said governors "have a clear understanding of the distinction between governance and management". They are "committed to a policy of openness". Whistleblowing procedures are "rigorous and effective".

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