Scotland's colleges have called in business experts to help boards of management raise their game.
A new programme on governance, aimed at improving the way colleges are run, has been developed in conjunction with the Institute of Directors, alongside input from college boards. It was launched by the Scottish Further Education Unit and the Association of Scotland's Colleges at the latter's annual conference in St Andrews this week.
The programme, which is believed to be one of the first of its kind in the Scottish public sector, is expected to act as a blueprint for other public sector organisations to follow.
The initiative follows an independent investigation by DTZ Consulting and Research, which was carried out as part of the recent Review of Scotland's Colleges (RoSCO).
Their 2007 report was highly tentative. It concluded that standards of accountability and governance in FE colleges were "relatively good" - but then went on to admit they were not able to verify it.
The DTZ report was based on self-assessment by college chairs and case studies of eight colleges, and it conceded that such a limited approach meant it was "not in a position to provide a definitive assessment of accountability and governance across Scotland's colleges".
A conference held at Cumbernauld College last month, attended by board members from more than 30 colleges, backed the "governance support programme" and helped shape the initiative.
Brian Lister, chief executive of the Scottish Further Education Unit, said: "Developments in colleges have led to the traditional interpretation of governance, which tended to focus on financial responsibilities, being broadened to include aspects such as leadership and innovation in support of both staff and students.
"As a result, boards are finding themselves becoming ever more closely involved in issues surrounding the quality of learning and teaching, and in the approval and monitoring of quality assurance and improvement strategies in their colleges."
The new support programme will focus on the "big picture" skills involving corporate governance and strategic leadership, delivered through a national conference next March and a series of regional workshops, but it will also run tailored briefing sessions for individual boards.
Other elements will help boards deal with key issues around finance, charitable status, legal compliance, estates management, leadership, managing change, succession planning, team-building, codes of conduct, benchmarking, risk assessment, performance monitoring, continuous improvement, and stakeholder and community relations.
David Watt, director of the Institute of Directors in Scotland, commented: "Understanding the technical responsibilities related to governance is just one aspect of being a board member.
"To make informed decisions and provide the best strategic leadership for their college, it helps to have an opportunity to debate issues and identify opportunities in conjunction with members of other college boards.
"Being a board member is never easy, particularly with the time pressures of being part-time and often having other full-time jobs."
Howard McKenzie, acting chief executive of the Association of Scotland's Colleges, emphasised the importance of the new programme: "College boards, like many in the public sector, are often not afforded the respect, credit or level of support available to their equivalents in the private sector - probably because they consist of part-time, voluntary members.
"Their roles and responsibilities are, however, very similar and just as demanding."
The standards set by the programme will be benchmarked against recommendations by the Independent Commission on Good Governance in Public Services.
Allan McCashin, chair of Cumbernauld College board, emphasised that the benefits were not just one way. He said: "When I first joined the board, I was driven by a sense of using the private-sector expertise I had gained to give something back to the college and community that helped me.
"However, there has been a host of benefits that I didn't foresee, particularly in terms of helping develop management skills and processes which have benefited my business."