Let's shed some light on our faceless governors

19th March 2010 at 00:00
Comment: Dr Mike Field

The Review of Governance and Strategic Leadership in English Further Education recently arrived in colleges and governors have been invited to comment on its recommendations, as part of a consultation process that will visit all English regions.

The opportunity that the report presents for governors to meet and discuss their work is to be especially welcomed at a time when a focus on effective and imaginative governance is going to be critical to the way in which colleges respond to the economic environment into which they are moving.

Unfortunately, the recommendations focus on structural aspects rather than on ideas for improving the dynamics and practice of governance. This is not surprising given the general lack of understanding about such practice among decision-takers.

Ofsted inspection processes, for instance, assume that good student outcomes equal good governance, and vice versa; this is simplistic and unhelpful, being too blunt to provide an indication of the actual performance of governors within boards.

If we want to improve governance, we should do three things quickly: find out the number and skill mix of governors so we know the size of the task; recognise that the most effective learning takes place within boards; and build a framework which places boards in charge of their own development, bringing the three parties involved in effective governance (the board and its chair, the college principal, the independent clerk) together to establish a new focus for governance development.

Symptomatic of the current approach towards governance development is that no one has yet collected data on the actual number of governors working in colleges, their personal and skills profile, or the ways in which they learn.

This begs the question of how we can claim to understand their needs, or provide them with support programmes, when we do not know the size of the client group we are setting out to serve or design programmes to meet their learning requirements. Returns should be expanded so that the data can be compiled.

Governors are recruited because of their background and the skills they can contribute. Their first task is to develop their understanding of the business of the college and its strategic context. This understanding is derived from a combination of experience, other governors, and presentations from their professional advisors.

To strengthen governance we should work with the reality of how boards actually learn by developing a new learning model which places the needs of boards at its centre and provides online messages, strategic information and learning materials.

Finally, we should build on the knowledge that governance at individual board level works best when it is based on a partnership of respect and trust between all three parties involved in the process.

If we genuinely want to drive the practice of governance forward we must bring these three together in a new grouping and move some of the current focus on structures and control towards addressing the ways in which the board members, senior management and clerks can work more effectively together, to develop new standards and practice.

Dr Mike Field, Chair of Governors, Great Yarmouth College, Norfolk; LSIS associate on governance and leadership; and elected member of AoC's governors council.

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