Local control calls for top-notch governance

16th July 2010 at 01:00
In the recently published The Coalition: Our Programme for Government, we are informed that "it is our ambition to distribute power and opportunity to people rather than hoarding authority within government".

In the last section of the document, under the heading "Universities and Further Education", are the words, "We will set colleges free from direct state control and abolish many of the further education quangos".

But what might these statements mean in practice for our vocational education and training colleges in what used to be the "further education sector" and was rebranded under the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) to be the "learning and skills sector".

First, and perhaps most important, the expressions "colleges" and "further education" have returned. These words give a critical and distinctive identity for those who study, work and govern in FE colleges.

Second, there may be a hint of a much-requested change by college governors. In a study by Warwick University's institute of education (LSIS, 2009), the majority of college governors interviewed lamented the way in which strategic planning had been effectively removed from their governors' role, leaving them with a rump agenda of compliance matters and the receiving of the latest LSC missive. College governors want a more creative role that enables them to address student and community priorities as they see fit.

Third, it might be inferred that localism is returning to college governance. It could be assumed that "distributing power and opportunity" means re-equipping local teams of governors to address their local issues. Here could lurk some tension when colleges in financial difficulty look to the marketplace for a buyer that could be based at the other end of the country. This issue needs tidying up to make sure the Government's words have meaning everywhere, and not just for successful colleges and their communities. Local people will also want the power to deal with local problems as well as celebrate local successes.

There is also an important connection within the localism theme to the recent LSIS document The Importance of Being Local, in which the case was made for "a local and cross-sector approach to delivery" so that services can "be designed around the holistic needs of an individual". To achieve this approach within colleges, and between colleges and other public services, will require the Government's positive encouragement to college governors to make it happen. Rhetoric about "total place" will not be enough. As the report argues, "greater headroom and flexibility" needs to be devolved to local level.

Fourth, following the recent review of further education college governance in England, here is an ideal opportunity to make some explicit statements about the importance of college governance in local community development, and to promote serving as a volunteer college governor as a fulfilling and creative way of taking part in this resurgence of the devolution of power and opportunity to people.

However, experience tells us that such democracy only works if the calibre of our college governors is the highest. Now if Dave and Nick could help us with college governor recruitment, that would be a very good start.

Ron Hill and Ian James are practising clerks to college governing bodies and LSIS governance associates.

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