Francis Beckett reports on findings of a TES survey of governing bodies in the FE sector which offers surprising insights into those who are running our colleges.
Our chairs of governors fell broadly into four categories, each with a distinctive set of views.
There were the former councillors, generally with years of experience chairing local education committees. The system is designed to weed them out, and colleges are not allowed to have more than two LEA people, whether employers or councillors, on their boards. So it is remarkable how many councillors have been asked to stay on, and even to take the chair. Perhaps the much-despised LEA ethic has something to offer after all.
Then there were the movers and shakers in the local business community: self-employed accountants, lawyers, and especially management consultants. They felt they were bringing the business ethic into education.
The third category was senior people from big employers - companies, universities, health trusts - which encourage managers to serve the community and give them the necessary flexibility in their working hours. Finally, there were people recently retired, or semi-retired, generally from high-powered jobs, or from running their own businesses.
Some of the categories overlapped. For example, Philip Newton at Grantham College is a long-standing councillor, but also a semi-retired Lincolnshire farmer.
The former councillors had a clear view about the distinction between governors and managers, a legacy of the LEA distinction between elected members and professionals. John Collins at Widnes Sixth Form College, a former Labour leader of Cheshire County Council who first became a councillor in 1945, says: "The principal is left to get on with it. No attempt is made for governors to sit in an office looking at things. I do not regard it as my job to tell the chief executive how to do his job."
Hartlepool College's Ray Waller, a former vice-chair of Cleveland's education committee and Labour's education spokesman in Hartlepool, says: "We pay people to manage the college and they run it from day to day. I would not like an office there, it would be a waste of space." Stoke City councillor George Mardle, who lectures in education at Keele University, says: "It's important not to become involved in day to day management decisions. I would hate to have an office in the college."
James Millington, an independent councillor who lost seat this month, keeps well away from day-to-day decision-making at Kidderminster College. "We make policy and we discuss it if things go wrong."
The self-employed business people tended to see it differently. Hotelier Mrs Audrey Simpson has "a very hands-on role" at Brighton College of Technology. Her private sector background is vital, she thinks: "The principal has worked in the public sector and did not have my experience of running a business. "
Management consultant Colin Tagg wants an office at Dunstable College and favours pairing governors with senior managers. "If you have inherited serious financial problems, you need to be fairly hands-on."
Jeremy Blatchford, a management accountant who chairs the governors of Norton Radstock College, says: "I worked in the construction industry and when the college was building I was able to spend a day a week on it. Another governor has experience of performance-related pay which is useful. But we pay executives to manage. When you are paying someone Pounds 50,000 to Pounds 60,000 a year you want good value from them."
Another management consultant, Geoff Nichol at Darlington, uses professionals on the governing body to evaluate the professional services the college buys.
An accountant governor monitors the retained accountants.
But human resource development consultant John Bruce at South East Essex College of Arts and Technology counsels caution, especially on curriculum matters. "You are either an executive or non-executive. You can't be half pregnant."
The other two categories - employed and retired governors -talked mostly of the importance of a good relationship between the chair and the principal. Phrases used included "supporting our management team" (Daventry Tertiary College's Wendy Farrow, a higher education lecturer, and Hinckley College's Kath Taylor, decisional general manager for an NHS Trust); a "good relationship between chairman and principal" (Monsignor John Coughlan from St Dominic's Sixth Form College, parish priest); and "the importance of personal chemistry" (Ron Goodwin, ICI manager, at Cleveland Tertiary College).
The relationship of the chairman and principal is crucial and must be got right," says Ivor Hockman of Woodhouse Sixth Form College, a former board member of a financial services company. John Roberts of Henley College, Coventry, a former group chief executive for a major company, said: "We get involved in the management of the managers."
John Ault at Yeovil College, still the chairman of a group of companies though he retired from Westland five years ago, says the role is that of a non-executive in a company. "The most important thing we do is to hire and fire a chief executive."
"On the whole we keep to our respective roles and relationships are excellent," says Ray Holden of South Trafford College, a teacher and former vice-president of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers. Sir Douglas Brown, retired clothing manufacturer at Leeds College of Art and Design, talked of "a relationship of participation and co-operation".
Judging how well the college was doing is not easy. John Ault says: "We can look at examination results - but then we read of concerns about the possibility of falling standards because of the desire of examining bodies to get more business. We can consult our customers and potential customers to see if they are happy about what is provided...but what we don't have is any tangible yardstick of how well we are doing compared to our international competitors."
Philip Newton admitted he was being subjective: "We have two selective grammar schools nearby which are taking the cream, yet we get better A-level results than they do." Bradford councillor Bob Sowman, chair of Bradford and Ilkley Community College, said it was "very difficult for me to answer" but that they had feedback from students and local employers - the users of the college. "Luton Sixth Form College has devised a questionnaire to review its performance," says its chairman, academic Dr Richard Bruckdorfer. Another academic, Professor Michael Eraut, has developed a quality programme with 13 standards for Lewes Tertiary College.
George Mardle talked of Investors in People and BS5750. He rejects raw league tables: "You could compare us with Stoke Sixth Form College and find, surprise surprise, that they have better A-level results" The past two years have forced governors somewhere near the front line on disputes with lecturers over redundancy and new contracts. Admiral Sir Ted Horlick has seen bitter disputes with lecturers at the City of Bath College, and is forthright about the changes he believes they will have to accept.
"Colleges individually have the authority and duty to set pay scales and all that goes with it," he says. "The sector has hitherto had national pay scales. The difficulty is that the lecturers and academics have suffered a large culture shock and I sympathise with that. It is difficult for them to accept that they are in an environment which is a form of business, where some colleges can afford a pay rise and others cannot."