Governors must not be manager;Comment;Opinion;FE Focus

16th April 1999 at 01:00
Twenty-five years ago, an enthusiastic project manager, I joined a senior company lawyer on a business development trip to Iran. On our return, I produced a detailed feasibility study.

The lawyer 's proposal to the board was a note of about five lines. I was stunned to find that the decision-makers did not even seriously read the report on which I had lavished so much effort. The lawyer's brief recommendations were nodded through.

On reflection, I realised that what was needed was a simple distillation, backed by confidence in systems and people that were tried and tested.

I was reminded of this when thinking about the growing demands placed on FE governors, and the pressure to detect early signs of academic underachievement and financial impropriety. Unpaid - and in the case of business governors, apparently unloved - they must give significant time to this complex role.

Now governors are increasingly under scrutiny. We have always been audited and inspected. This holds no fear for most; indeed many welcome the chance to demonstrate good practice and to learn from others.

But now we have new pressures, around accountability, intervention and involvement, particularly in quality and standards. There are increasing calls for corporation members to be elected. As users of large sums of taxpayers' money, colleges have to be publicly accountable and, the argument goes, the only way that this can take place is through thedemocratic election of governors.

This is seductive, but does not stand up to scrutiny. It confuses responsibility with representation. Moreover, colleges have many stakeholders including local people. A corporation will perform better when it reflects that diversity.

And if it all goes wrong governors are accountable. There have been several well-publicised cases where ministers instructed the Further Education Funding Council to intervene; none of these governing bodies has survived. And now the FEFC is being encouraged to adopt a more interventionist attitude. Clearly, when a college is in danger of failing and cannot take action, change must be imposed.

But the most difficult area for governors surrounds the expectations of increased involvement. The recent government suggestion that corporations appoint a specific governor with responsibility for pursuing standards issues is well intentioned, but this brings a real risk of involvement in what are essentially management issues.

In my college we try to maintain the distinction between governance and management. If I were given responsibility for a single issue, I would feel obliged to stray beyond defining "the ends" and would become involved in "the means". I would probably start by seeking a detailed understanding of the issues and options. It is then a short step to imposing your views. That is management.

If governors are to maintain an effective strategic role, this is a pressure they must resist. In the terms of my simile, they must develop the situation where they can decide based on the summary, rather than the detailed rehearsal of the issues.

Jim Scrimshaw is chair of the Association of Colleges

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