Do we ask the impossible of governors?;Comment;Opinion;FE Focus

21st May 1999 at 01:00
I NEED to draft an advertisement for the "Situations Vacant" pages of our local newspaper: "Wanted - active, intelligent, committed, perceptive and articulate individual. Prepared to work several evenings per month and occasional days, plus at least one weekend per year. The ability to assimilate extensive amount of complex written information in own time is essential. Prepared to be questioned at length by various teams of auditors and to be held responsible and publicly identified in the event of any problems. Remuneration and rewards: nil, although limited expenses may be paid in exceptional circumstances."

This is, of course, the job description for a new governor of any college in our sector.

Perhaps it is not surprising that in discussions over recent weeks, several colleges have highlighted an increasing difficulty in recruiting the governors they need to carry them forward. And there is increasing concern about the risk of unfavourable personal publicity if their college falls into difficulties.

Clearly governors must shoulder their share of the blame when a college fails, where educational outcomes are below par, or where senior postholders do not maintain acceptable personal standards, but this is being seized upon by some of those who wish to see colleges return to the control of local authorities. The argument runs like this: governing bodies are responsible for the operations of colleges. Business governors are currently in the majority and thus they are to blame where colleges are failing. Training and enterprise councils are business-led and see where it has got them. Business cannot afford to release its best people, and only offer time off for college work to those people who are nearing the end of their career, hold unimportant posts, or are ineffective.

I totally reject this as a model. The vast majority of business governors are able and effective, and many hold key posts within their organisations. Nevertheless, like many arguments built on sweeping generalisations, there is a grain of truth within it.

The demands on people operating in the private sector have undoubtedly increased in recent years. Small businesses face fierce competitive pressures while dealing with shortages of skilled labour and an increasing tide of statutory paperwork. Larger businesses have to grapple with the Asian recession, a strong currency, high (by international comparisons) interest rates, successive rounds of "de-layering", and a long-term squeeze on operating margins. Those of us left face real challenges in time management, which I personally respond to by a mixture of juggling meetings and long hours.

But while the increased demands on time for people at work has been a progressive and long-term trend, for governors within the FE sector it seems likely to be a tidal wave. The problems of a few colleges are inevitably leading to increased monitoring and control for all, with the fear of being "named and shamed" acting as a spur for higher levels of direct involvement. Achieving either a 1 or 2 in governance at an inspection will be increasingly critical and time- consuming, while if recent experiences indicate a deliberate trend, the inspection demands of the Further Education Funding Council in the areas of governance and management are intensifying.

I have a real concern that the result will be the loss of some existing governors, and increasing difficulties in recruiting a proper balance of new ones. Of course, some governors are already able to spend considerable time in their colleges, and these increasing demands will not create a problem for them, but others cannot. Despite all the juggling and long hours, on occasions I am still left with a feeling that my contribution has not been as effective as I know it could have been, or that I could have done more. And that is frustrating.

Colleges need good people on their corporation, and it would be perverse if one consequence of the pressures being imposed to improve governance was an inability to recruit and retain effective governors, particularly from business. We need to devise a solution to this.

Of course we have courses and conferences on governance, run by the Association of Colleges, the Further Education Development Agency and several other providers, but the people most at risk are just those who do not have the time for yet another day away from the office.

I am convinced that governors still have an enormous amount that they can learn from each other: how meetings are run; what key performance indicators are used; where failing colleges have gone wrong and how successful ones operate; how to be strategic, and avoid dabbling in management issues.

Board members of successful public companies will frequently move to new ones, and non-executive directors often sit on several boards; this leads to a cross-fertilisation of ideas to an extent that we do not have in FE. There has to be scope for a research project which provides this cross- fertilisation, giving factual information on the current composition of governing bodies, teasing out good practice and common pitfalls. The outcome needs to be a practical tool, helping governors to be effective even when time is limited. And it needs to be deliverable directly to a corporation meeting.

I don't expect a reply to my advertisement for a new governor this week. But I can live in hope for the future.

Jim Scrimshaw is chair of the Association of Colleges

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