Governors told: 'Focus on teaching not finance'

7th December 2012 at 00:00
A shift in priorities is required to raise standards, report argues

Governors need to concentrate more on what goes on in the classroom and less on the balance sheet if FE colleges are to live up to Ofsted targets on teaching and learning, according to a report by the Learning and Skills Improvement Service (LSIS).

The call comes after Sir Michael Wilshaw used his first annual report as chief inspector to strongly criticise colleges for failing to provide outstanding teaching and learning. The report states that "often, the quality of teaching is still not good enough".

Improving inspection grades is a key challenge for the FE sector, according to LSIS. Colleges need to make improvements in leadership and management, which requires a change in emphasis from governors, who are often more experienced at handling business matters than educational ones, the report argues.

"Governing bodies are frequently well served in dealing with finance, business and estates but do this at the expense of focusing on the core educational issues of student performance, teaching and learning," it says. Some governors are "in denial", it adds, believing that their job is only to appoint professionals to lead and manage academic activities, rather than to take a direct interest themselves. "Hence many boards need to look again at how much time they devote to this key core area of college work: teaching and learning targets and monitoring outcomes robustly."

LSIS chief executive Rob Wye said that teaching and learning is "the most important thing" that colleges do, and that too many governing bodies have failed to give it enough attention.

"All governing bodies need to have it higher up their agenda," he told TES. "It hasn't been as high up as it should have been. Colleges have a different funding arrangement and client group (from schools), but I don't think that should take away from the fact that the fundamentals are the same."

But Julian Gravatt, assistant chief executive at the Association of Colleges, warned that colleges have to focus on the bottom line because of how funding arrangements are set up.

"It's important for governing bodies to maintain a resolute focus on teaching and learning," he said. "But it would also be naive to expect them to ignore college balance sheets given that the average further education college has had to borrow #163;5 million to fund investment.

"Unlike schools, colleges do not get 100 per cent capital grants and they operate in a more turbulent environment, something Ofsted would do well to consider."

In criticising teaching standards at FE colleges, Sir Michael said they needed to show marked improvements in subjects including English and mathematics.

"The FE sector is a real concern for me at a time when the nation needs skilled and qualified people entering the workforce more than ever before," he said last week.

The LSIS report says that governors need to collate simpler facts and figures to monitor standards. "Many governors struggle with performance data, especially on academic performance, as presented to them. Success rate data presented to boards is often over-complex," it states.

There is a danger that colleges could suffer from so-called "Prozac leadership", the report found, repeating a phrase coined earlier this year by a former LSIS director, Professor David Collinson, who described it as "leaders (believing) their own narratives that everything is going well and (discouraging) followers from raising problems or admitting mistakes".

Mr Wye added that governors have to ask principals difficult questions. "They're not just there to tick boxes," he said.

The report also found that too many boards are still made up of white, middle-aged men. "There needs to be a broader mix but how you go about that is another matter," it says.

Key findings

- Governors need to focus more on teaching and learning and less on financial performance.

- Boards need to be more gender and ethnically diverse.

- There is too much polite consensus and "compliance governance".

- Boards have a limited understanding of staff views.

- The impact of student governors is open to question.

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