Governor 'fix' revealed

14th January 2000 at 00:00
Colleges aren't getting rid of business people, as the Government wants, they are simply giving them new titles. Ian Nash reports

COLLEGES have admitted "fixing" the figures to get round new limits on the number of business people who can serve as governors.

A common trick is to relabel them "community" or "parent" representatives. Another is to co-opt them and declare a vacancy in another membership group.

The colleges say they have been forced into the tactic. They blame the Government for a hasty attempt to "democratise" governance, without considering the impact on their day-to-day work.

A confidential national survey of 100 colleges by The TES revealed that they see the loss of business expertise as their biggest problem.

Before last August, colleges had to give half the seats on the board to industry. But from August 1, this was cut to a maximum of one third.

David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, introduced mandatory participation in decision-making by staff, students, local authorities, community interests and, in sixth-form colleges, parents.

The change was one of a tranche of reforms aimed at taking decision-making back into the local community. They were the latest in a huge programme of changes. But colleges are now saying the reforms have made it even harder to recruit governors.

Modifications to the instruments and articles of governance were announced in March last year. Further measures were unveiled in April.

"Our heads were spinning with reforms and working groups," a chair of governors told The TES.

The Department for Education and Employment set up a working group on auditing and asked it to come up with an implementation strategy for the reforms by July. Members of the group ranged from the Association of Colleges and Further Education Development Agency to the Catholic Education Service and Further Education National Training Organisation.

The Further Education Funding Council had already set up a separate good governance working group in February, under its chairman Lord Davies. This was charged with advising funding councils in England and Wales on the powers of FE corporations, the roles and responsibilities of governors and the need to ensure accountability and probity.

Meanwhile, governors were attacked by the then lifelong learning minister George Mudie for weaknesses leading to failing colleges. They were told that if they did not sharpen up they would be shown the "red card".

After a number of high-profile failures, the Government decided to impose tougher measures on governing bodies, giving new powers of intervention to funding councils - including the right to nominate up to two members to a board.

"Is it any wonder that we are finding it ever more difficult to recruit good governors?" said on respondent to the survey.

Just over 40 per cent of the colleges said it was harder than ever to recruit governors. Only one college reported finding things easier. Half of those who reckoned there was no change in the ease of recruitment also said that it was hard enough already.

In interviews following the questionnaire survey, many governors expressed the hope that recruitment would be easier once proper training was offered. The multi-million pound governor training programme which starts this year would make things easier, some said.

The problem is that some of the most vital posts are also the most difficult to fill. One college said: "The major problem the board has had recently has been that of appointing a suitable independent clerk to the corporation. There is an advertisement currently in place."

The shortage of governors which, according to the survey, now stands at 12 per cent (see table), is not because of any failure to advertise. Colleges have publicised vacancies in the local press and on the radio. They have also lobbied specialist and business organisations, such as the chambers of commerce, and placed adverts in elite magazines such as the Journal of the Royal Society of Arts.

The question of payment for governors was cited often. There had been an outcry in the run-up to the Nolan inquiry into standards in public life when a handful of colleges admitted paying up to pound;5,000 for the services of "specialist" governors. Those colleges faced rebukes from Parliament, where ministers insisted there should be no financial benefit.

Some vacancies are being held open deliberately, pending post-16 reforms such as the introduction of learning and skills councils to oversee colleges. One college commented: "The only vacancy we have is for a training and enterprise council (soon to be abolished) representative - deliberately held vacant till new instruments of government are effective."

But the deliberate vacancies account for no more than 3 per cent, according to the TES survey, leaving a 9 per cent shortfall. A similar shortage in schools - identified in a survey by the Local Government Association - was described by schools' leaders as "a crisis".

Fewer than one in five colleges said the bad press around problem colleges such as Bilston or Halton had affected recruitment. The biggest deterrent to recruitment and retention was the burden placed on governors by the Government.

Many colleges also reported a sharp increase in "non-attenders". In 10 per cent of colleges, a fifth of governors were said to miss meetings regularly.

Additional research by Janet Buckelew

Further analysis of the survey will appear in the February edition of the new TES College Manager magazine. For a free copy contact Matthew Kelly on 0171 782 3320.

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