Don't get downgraded

3rd November 2000 at 00:00
John Graystone says the role of the governors is changing: the emphasis is less on strategic thinking, more on monitoring their colleges' performance.

The job of a college is to provide effective teaching and learning - not effective governance. A potential student does not choose one college rather than another because it has a better set of governors. But the apparent downgrading of governance for inspection purposes is curious at a time when there has been much emphasis by the Government on just that. It has published training materials for governors and has used the Standards Fund to support governor training.

11 = For the first four years after incorporation, inspections assessed college boards under "governance and management"; after 1997, they were assessed separately under simply "governance". Now we learn that the proposed new arrangements reduce the focus on that area even further.

I have analysed the marks awarded to boards in England (see tables, right). Around one in seven colleges achieved grade 1 (outstanding provision which has many strengths and few weaknesses), around 50 per cent, grade two (good) and just over a quarter, grade 3 (satisfactory).

If the figures are broken down over each of the three years of inspection since 1997, interesting trends emerge . The percentage of grade ones has fallen dramatically from 23.6 per cent to 9 per cent with a slight rise to 10.7 per cent in the third year. The figures for the other four grades have all shifted, with grade 4s more than trebling in proportion.

The message is clear: getting a grade 1 is now much more difficult and the proportion of grades 4 and 5 - (less than satisfactory and poor) - has increased markedly. The proportion of "satisfactory or above" grades has fallen from 95.2 per cent to 86.4 per cent.

Why? An answer may be found in analysing the important issues identified by inspectors over the three years. The strengths and weaknesses listed in each report can be broken down into 14 key issues. The emphasis has switched from governors' involvement in determining strategy and mission and the conduct of business towards ne of monitoring - much more difficult for lay governors. Governors need to be on top of their college's academic performance, paying close attention to student enrolment, retention and achievement. But they must not take their eyes off the financial ball. Their responsibilities for financial monitoring and ensuring the solvency of their college are not reduced by one iota. On top of these, they have to keep tracks on their own performance.

The analysis reveals the changing emphasis of inspectors. Monitoring is top of the list. But other issues such as commitment and the experience of governors, clerking arrangements, probity, openness and compliance, and links with the college, staff and students have risen up the league table.

The monitoring role is challenging for governors. College targets must be realistic and achievable. Governors must understand their implications - an emphasis on retention may require investment in guidance and support to ensure that potential students take the right courses and have effective tutorial support. To ensure they know targets are being met, governors need to have a system of regular and up-to-date key indicators. Governors may prefer "exception" reports, setting out areas where the college is failing to meet targets, as well as those where it is doing well.

Appropriate benchmarking data helps governors understand how their college is performing compared with previous years and compared with other colleges.

The governors' quality committee might audit the college's academic performance, scrutinising student performance of the college and making recommendations and reports to the governing body. A useful analogy might be that of a House of Commons Select Committee, which can call evidence and carry out an investigation independently of the executive.

But will there continue to be such emphasis on the role of governing bodies in the future? Or will the local learning and skills councils and the common inspectorate have other more important matters to consider?

John Graystone is the regional director of the Association of Collegesfor the South West

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