Alan Johnson, further and higher education minister, insisted governors'
strategic powers will be strengthened rather than weakened following a reassessment of college governance beginning this spring.
Mr Johnson reassured governors that they will continue to have a central role when he announced plans for the debate at the Association of Colleges'
annual conference for governors in York.
Since the creation of the Learning and Skills Council in 2001, governors have repeatedly expressed fears that their independence to determine college strategy would be undermined by the plans of the 47 local councils.
There was anger over the way the Government started the review last autumn. A letter to chairs announced that the Department for Education and Skills would consider "all aspects of governance" and gave them just three weeks to reply.
Colleges were already afraid that planning decisions would be imposed upon them.
But Mr Johnson assured the conference in York at the weekend that the latest debate would be extensive, lasting until May. He called on every governor to take part in the consultation on how governance could be made more effective.
"Nothing is off the agenda," he said. "The Government's objectives are to create a framework for more effective governing bodies, to give them more support and to reach a higher level of assurance about effective strategic planning and accountability."
In seeking to reassure governors of their importance, Mr Johnson reminded them of their strategic role in deciding on the college's mission, development planning, ensuring quality, equality and diversity and developing strong leadership at all levels.
"But it is important to remember that a college is not an island," he said.
"It is part of a collective group of learning and skills providers in local and sub-regional areas."
The LSC has "a role in encouraging providers to knit together to meet local needs," he added. In calling for an "active dialogue" between governing bodies and local LSCs, he spelled out a leading role for college chairs in "explaining your college's mission to the LSC and how you intend to contribute to meeting the learning needs of your local area".
The Government's intention was "to move from top-down reform to reforms that come from within the providers themselves," said Mr Johnson.
The stronger and more effective governing bodies are "the less intrusive accountability to central government and funding bodies will be".
The Government is keen to support governors and draw them more closely into policy formation, he said.
Following consultations in a series of conferences run by the AoC last summer, the DfES standards unit and the AoC have set up a governors'
helpline and published a CD-Rom as part of a developing package.
Mr Johnson plans to hold a dinner for governors later this year and DfES officials will be setting up a group of governors they can refer to for policy discussions.
A wide-ranging consultation will begin in March covering the role, composition and recruitment of governing bodies, whether there should be a national standard for their self-assessment and the role of external scrutiny. The consultation document will be sent to all governing bodies and written responses invited by the end of May.
John Brennan, chief executive of the AoC, said the governors would meet any challenge since "FE is the can-do sector." But any reforms that arose from the debate had to be clearly spelled out. "Any new model of governance must minimise burdens and clarify roles," he said.