Children of a revolution
Consultations about how college governance should change under the Learning and Skills Council started in March, but many boards are still struggling to come to terms with the current state of flux.
Following what seems, in retrospect, to have been a relatively quiet regime of benevolent rubber-stamping when the education authorities ran colleges, incorporation in 1992 marked not so much a new beginning as a state of permanent revolution for governors.
Colleges turned into businesses. The emphasis was on competition, increased productivity, financial viability, mergers and franchising. At least half of each college's governors had to be from the business community and students became fund-earning "units".
"Under incorporation the whole thrust was, how do we balance the books?"
says Nick Barclay, development adviser with the Learning and Skills Development Agency.
"Also, there was the dash for cash in government initiatives - the Nineties was characterised by that relationship.
But "Success for All" gives a steer away from that. Centrality of the learner is what we're about now."
"Success for All", the government's 14-19 policy document published in 2002, and the LSC are not the only reasons for change.
Under Ofsted's Common Inspection Framework governance and management are given a combined grade based on how they contribute to raising achievement.
Judgement on governance now depends much more closely on what goes on in the classroom and workshop.
Governing boards were once doing well if they kept the policies and paperwork in order, repaired the crumbling buildings and balanced the books.
Now they are more directly responsible for the quality of the learners'
experience, a matter many had thought was the province of professional teachers and managers.
Some are uncertain how to move into this area, while others doubt whether they should be in that territory at all.
Governors, who are happy to contribute their expertise in areas such as finance, administration or law, hesitate to get involved in teaching and learning.
"In many cases you're dealing with governors in high-powered jobs, confident in their own sphere of activity, but afraid they will be made to look foolish by some curriculum manager," says Mr Barclay.
And where once there was the competition of the marketplace, the local LSC now requires providers to collaborate to contribute to its overall Area Plan. Colleges have to be much more aware of the needs of the community and show how they plan to meet them.
Ofsted's use of benchmarking forces colleges to look outside their own campuses. They must compare their performance against others rather than take pride in uniqueness.
"They don't mean to be parochial and isolationist," says Nick Barclay, "but it's daunting to get to grips with the Learning and Skills sector. You can understand the tendency to want to look after your own back yard."
Some governors get too close to their college, he thinks, especially if the college is in difficulty and they want to protect it from the outside world.
They get too "hands on" and lose sight of their strategic role.
"There's a key distinction between governors and managers," he says.
"They do not manage the college and they must not manage the college.The safest mode is that of critical friend, gently but firmly asking the awkward questions. If the senior management team is not getting critical friend support, you get complacent or take your eye off the ball or get out of touch.
"You need somebody else there to be asking the questions."