Scots boards face up to Nolan

7th November 1997 at 00:00
More than a third of Scottish colleges have still to adopt the code of conduct recommended by the Nolan committee on standards in public life. Some colleges have also failed to establish a register of board members' interests.

These are among the main findings of an independent survey commissioned by the Scottish Office to assess the effectiveness of FE boards of management. The report, by the MVA Consultancy, urges colleges to be more open in line with the Nolan principles.

Thirty-seven principals (84 per cent), 27 chairs (61 per cent) and 282 board members (53 per cent) were consulted.

Brian Wilson, the Education Minister, has already served notice that the performance of boards will be closely monitored. Mr Wilson told the Association of Scottish Colleges in June: "The simple fact is that, to many people in your communities, there is no clear understanding of the arrangements for appointing board members and little knowledge of who they are, once appointed."

He added: "I urge you strongly to ensure that you review your appointment procedures very carefully, with a clear focus on the openness and transparency of your approach."

The MVA report confirms that some college boards have a considerable way to go. Nearly half do not publish written details of appointment processes or skills profile of any kind for recruiting members.

Bob Kay, who chairs the ASC, said it had been working with colleges for six months to improve matters. "The association has issued guidance on minimum requirements drawing from Nolan, the National Audit Office and advice from the Scottish Office. A programme of induction seminars is now under way for new board members and we are holding briefing and training seminars for chairs of boards of management."

MVA, however, said the quality of these sessions was "variable".

But Mr Kay added: "Since this report was commissioned, the sector has really grasped the nettle on Nolan and effective management generally - specifically on the issues where we know there is room for improvement."

In a letter to board chairs accompanying the survey report, Mr Wilson pays tribute to "the generally very positive findings" but said three areas required attention.

The survey found a high proportion of new members were not being assisted during their initial term in office by induction and training arrangements. "There is an interesting distinction between the perceptions of the chairs of induction training and that reported by members," the report states.

MVA also found that compliance with the Nolan recommendations on openness in the conduct of board business was "limited". These include publicising discussions and decisions, holding annual meetings at which board members can be questioned by public and press, and publishing audit reports.

Its report concludes: "While information is not withheld, little is actively done to make it widely accessible or raise awareness of its availability. There remains some work to be done to convince boards of the need to meet the standards and procedures set down by the Nolan committee."

The third area of concern centres on the range of management skills of board members. The consultants said there were particular gaps in knowledge of legal and marketing issues. Some colleges reported that boards required more expertise in seeking cash from Europe and other funding matters.

Fewer than a quarter of board chairs had anything in writing detailing the expertise of their board members, the survey found.

It also revealed different perceptions about the operations of boards. Fifty-four per cent of chairs described boards as "extremely effective" in setting the overall strategy for the college compared with only 41 per cent of principals and 33 per cent of board members.

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