Beyond our Ken

9th June 1995 at 01:00
In the first of a regular series for governors, John Graystone finds college boards lagging behind NHS trusts on equal opportunities. Kenneth Clarke, now busily trying to defend the pound, may occasionally turn from the commanding heights of the economy to cast an avuncular and nostalgic eye over the smaller peaks of health and further education.

For it was he who pushed through the legislation leading to the setting up of the FE corporations and, more controversially, the NHS trusts. How are his progeny faring?

Since April 1993, following the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act, FE colleges and sixth-form colleges have formed a new independent sector of post-16 education, funded as corporate bodies by the funding councils in England and Wales. FE governing bodies - legally, corporations - employ their staff, own their college's land, buildings and equipment, and may enter into contracts.

Governors determine their college's educational character and ensure its overall well-being and financial solvency. They serve in an individual capacity and are unpaid volunteers, although they can receive expenses. They give their valuable time freely; no lucrative share options or remuneration packages for them.

Each governing body appoints its own members and its own chair. On rare occasions, where the affairs of the college are mismanaged, the Secretary of State can dismiss governors (as at Wilmorton) and appoint others in their place. FE governing bodies must be no smaller than 10 and no larger than 20. At least half must be business governors, including a Training and Enterprise Council nomination, and the governors may decide whether or not to have a limited number of co-opted members, elected staff and students, and community nominations. The principal is a member if he or she wishes.

Research carried out by the Further Education Development Agency (FEDA) shows business governors make up 60.5 per cent of FE bodies (slightly less in sixth-form colleges where some have foundation governors). All FE college principals, and a large majority in sixth-form colleges, have taken up their right to be full board members. In a few colleges, the vice-principal and, in a very few, other senior managers, have been co-opted as full members.

The average size is 16.1 members (FE) and 17.4 (sixth-form colleges). Governors are typically white men - women make up only 21.9 per cent of members in FEs and 27 per cent in sixth-form colleges, and ethnic minorities only 3.2 per cent (FE) and 1.5 per cent (sixth-form colleges).

Out of 240 colleges surveyed, only one governing body had a majority (just) of female members while 10 boards were entirely male. Most are all white. Perhaps surprisingly, most colleges retained staff governors. Three-quarters of FE and well over four-fifths of sixth-form colleges had the maximum of two staff governors. Only 10.5 per cent of FE colleges chose not to have staff governors. All sixth-form colleges had at least one. Almost two-thirds of all colleges had one student governor.

The first NHS trusts were established in April 1991. Unlike FE colleges, where there was no choice, hospitals and health service units had to apply for trust status (they could be turned down).

There are now around 480 trusts funded primarily through contracts with district health authorities. They are run by boards of directors, usually comprising 11 members. The five non-executive directors are selected by the health minister from a list drawn up by the regional health authorities.

The chair is a direct government appointment. Senior managers, including the chief executive, take up the five executive director places. Staff and patients do not have a place on the board. Non-executive directors are remunerated for their services - up to Pounds 5,000 for board members and up to Pounds 20,000 for chairs, depending on the trust's size.

Trusts and FE governing bodies are run on business lines and seek to emulate best practice from industry. Both are subject to increased scrutiny and externally set indicators. There are no local authority nominations. Women and ethnic minorities are under-represented. Trusts, however, have the better track record.

About 26 per cent of trusts are chaired by women (compared with 14 per cent of colleges). Forty-one per cent of non-executive directors are female and 3.5 per cent from ethnic minority backgrounds. The health department has set clear goals for increasing the proportion of female and ethnic minority membership - unlike FE where membership is left to the individual board.

Trusts and FE governing bodies face the difficult challenges of improving the efficiency and productivity of staff, while maintaining their motivation and commitment. Both services face increased demands - from a longer-living population in the NHS and from increased participation rates in FE.

In response to public concern about accountability, around two-thirds of FE boards are currently drawing up, or have agreed, a code of conduct (sometimes called a code of ethics or behaviour), and many trusts are doing the same. Registers of members' interests are becoming more common. The recent Nolan report sets out seven key principles - selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. Not a bad list for every college governing body, every hospital trust and every public company.

The selection of members needs to be rigorous and, crucially, members must have enough time to devote to their duties. In successful boards there is a sound working relationship between chair and chief executive; the culture and climate of meetings encourage participation; and the selection of governors is conducted systematically and openly.

Members should share a common purpose and be fully committed to their institution. And importantly they should understand their roles and responsibilities. The FEFC chief inspector's annual report last year, while noting that FE governing bodies need to concentrate on policy matters rather than the minutiae of management, concluded that English colleges have been "well-served" by their governing bodies who have been a "source of strength". Kenneth Clarke can reluctantly turn away from reminiscing about the past to planning the Budget, satisfied that his progeny are going through the pain barrierIbut thriving.

John Graystone is senior staff tutor at FEDA. He has worked extensively with and published widely on FE governing bodies in the UK and abroad. Edited By Ian Nash

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