The new inspection arrangements are in full swing. Early indications are that the hand on the tiller is anything but light. Like completing a self-assessment tax form, exhaustion and relief are the dominant emotions when it is all over.
The main focus of the Further Education Funding Council inspection of colleges in England is the validation of the college's self-assessment."Know thyself" has become the rallying call. Governance is now separately assessed. The college's self-assessment report should contain governors' judgments assessing their involvement in their college's strategic direction, the monitoring of their own and their college's performance and their role as employers of senior staff. Inspectors visit the college to test the governors' own grading.
A clue to what inspectors are looking for can be gained from reading the chief inspector's annual reports. His most recent report for 19967 concludes that only a few governing bodies have developed "effective" indicators to measure their overall performance. Financial responsibilities have "sometimes" absorbed too much of their attention. Governing bodies are "not well enough informed" about student achievements or the academic standards of the college. The message is clear. Governors need to be more involved in the educational character of the college - its mission, ethos and pattern of courses.
The new inspection regime is meant to be more focused on outcomes. Curriculum grades, for example, will be strongly influenced by student achievements. In contrast, much of the evidence to support judgments about governance appear to be dominated by process. For example, emphasis is placed on the instruments of government, clerking arrangements, attendance records, views of governors and staff. The auditor, a full - and sometimes uncomfortable - member of the inspection team, has a checklist of detailed procedural (some might say, petty) points to be carefully ticked off.
A governing body which has good attendance, a code of conduct and a register of interests, and is viewed positively by other governors and by staff, might not necessarily be effective. What is crucial is the "value added" by the governors. What contribution do they make to the college's success?
Governors need to develop clear performance indicators identifying their contribution to the college's success. These may be quantitative, such as setting targets for attendance, or qualitative, such as the clarity of decisions.
It is an old conundrum that a college may be successful in spite of its governing body. It might be helpful to develop audit trails tracing the governors' contribution to decision-making, particularly strategic planning. How, for example, did the strategic plan change from its embryonic stage to its finished product? What expertise did governors contribute and how did their critical scrutiny improve it?
The new descriptors for the five grades are undoubtedly clearer. They are still based on strengths and weaknesses with the addition of adjectives - outstanding (grade 1) through to poor (grade 5). The interpretation may make it difficult for governors to form consistent judgments. "Outstanding", for example, implies "standing above others" (assuming it does not refer to unpaid in the sense of hotel bills).
While it is the case that college professionals in regular contact with each other may be in a position to judge their effectiveness in comparison with other colleges, it is much more difficult for volunteer governors. Their frames of reference may differ. One governor, for example, remarked that his governing body could not be outstanding because it fell short of the quality of ICI's board of directors!
Benchmarking with governing bodies from other colleges or the boards of public sector or private sector organisations provides a useful measure of performance. Many governors serve on a wide range of such boards. Comparing information, methods of working and appointment of members will help improve overall effectiveness.
Governors might find it useful to concentrate on the balance between strengths and weaknesses. A grade 1 should be awarded if there are many strengths and no "significant weaknesses".
Another comment has been the lack of direct experience of governance among inspectors. It is true that an excellent sports writer may be lousy at sport and a brilliant theatre critic may write awful plays. Direct experience of governance is not necessary for sound judgments about governance, but maybe the inspectorate needs to address this point.
These are early days yet. The first 40 or so inspections show that almost 30 per cent of grades awarded by inspectors for cross-college areas (including governance) are one grade less than that given in the college's own self-assessment. And the number of grade 1s has declined from last year while that of grade 2s has increased. Inspectors are gaining experience and colleges beginning to share experiences.
Governors need to build their self-assessment into an annual cycle. They should start now, even if they have no firm date for their inspection. The key messages are that governors should take a more active interest in the actual business of the college, separate their own performance from that of the college, and concentrate on continuous improvement. Knowing thyself is not a bad place from which to start.
John Graystone is chief executive of the Association of Colleges in the Eastern Region.