Top priority: avoid all icebergs

8th September 2000 at 01:00
Ignorance is no defence if things go wrong. Being a critical friend helps you do the job properly, says Ian James.

Governors whose colleges have hit the iceberg of a grade 5 in governance were probably as blissfully unaware that they were about to sink as those in charge of the ill-fated Titanic. Common sense tells us if they had realised, they would have takenevasive action.

Just as icebergs are seven-eighths submerged, where some colleges are visible above the waterline, there are sure to be others just below it. Is yours such a college? And if it is, how would the average governor know that the board might be on a collision course?

The growing list of grade 5s reveals certain themes. Some boards clearly have not understood their responsibilities. Or, if they have, have had no idea how to discharge them. Others have been kept in the dark by senior management or erroneously reassured that all was well. Governors who thought they were doing a good job have been left baffled and angry because they have been held responsible for matters about which they were ill-informed or totally unaware.

This highlights a serious problem: boards are heavily dependent on the principal and other senior managers for information. As one newly appointed governor recently put it "Unless somebody tells us, we don't know what we don't know." I hope there is no such thing as a dishonest principal, but there can be few who have not been tempted to be economical with the truth or to put a particular spin on what they tell the board. Let's face it, any principal who hasn't the ability to bamboozle a group of amateurs shouldn't be in the job anyway.

But governors must be able to trust the principal to provide them with accurate and timely information. That trust is a vitally important element in their relationship. Nevertheless, the board's job is to see that the college is managed effectively. It must inquire into the operation of the college and not accept blindly what it is told.

Governors should assume the role of critical friend and question the principal in a supportive but rigorous mannr. Why? So that the board can discharge its responsibility for overseeing the activities of the college. However, members should not cross the line between governance and management by interfering with theprincipal's running of the college.

One of the most effective ways to avoid the grade 5 iceberg is to carry out a thorough self-assessment of governance. With the assistance of the clerk, boards should have no difficulty in identifying strengths and weaknesses. Bear in mind there are three priorities in undertaking such an exercise: evidence, evidence, evidence.

Evidence is what the FEFC inspector and auditor will be looking for when they come to validate the self-assessment. They might smile sweetly at you, but they will only believe what you say if you can prove it with hard facts. Assurances will simply not do.

The biggest paradox is the imbalance between the level of responsibility of governors and the rewards on offer. At best, it can be a pretty thankless task. When everything goes well, the principal and senior management take the credit. Perhaps rightly so since they run the show.

If the college gets into real difficulties, the principal can expect to be held accountable and is paid to take this responsibility. But such problems are likely to be blamed at least in part on a failure of governance - leaving the board to carry the can along with the principal. Governors can then be obliged to resign or be unceremoniously removed from office. Not a welcome prospect for individuals whose reputation in their local communities might well suffer as a result.

It is just as well then that many governors find the role interesting and rewarding. Asked why they want the job, many would-be governors say that they themselves benefited from a good education and want to put something back into the system for others.

Such altruism is commendable but governors do need to recognise that it is a serious job of work. Otherwise they could just find themselvesrearranging the deckchairs.

Ian James is external clerk to three boards: Cricklade, Halton and the Wirral

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