What is to be done?

2nd June 1995 at 01:00
Governors are frequently reminded that the governing body plays a crucial role in ensuring the health and success of a college. But how exactly can an individual governor contribute effectively? In particular, how can lay governors with no background in education add value to the way in which a college is governed and assume the increasingly real responsibilities placed on college governing bodies?

Membership of a governing body can certainly be a stimulating and rewarding experience. However, individual governors can also find themselves confused by the complexity of the business, frustrated by the number and length of meetings and effectively detached from the day to day routines of the college itself and the experiences of its students. This can be particularly true in the case of a new governor who has not had previous experience of further education or of school or college governance.

In an ideal world, all new governors would be offered induction training which would brief them on the world of further education and introduce them to their role as governors. In reality, governors are generally appointed individually, as and when vacancies occur, join a group of experienced but busy governors, are given copious quantities of papers to read and are expected to pick it up as they go along.

Written guidance is of course provided for governors by the Funding Councils. However, the statutory framework of college governance and the nature of the Councils' relationship with colleges inevitably means that official guidance is often couched in formal and legalistic language. With the addition of a liberal helping of educational acronyms and jargon, such guidance can be hard to absorb. As a result the answers to the basic questions which the new lay governor is likely to ask, will not always readily be found.

What follows, therefore, is an attempt to remedy this by posing those questions and by providing some informal answers.

What do college governors do?

Governors oversee the running of the college. They appoint the senior staff, including the principal. With the advice of the principal they take the key decisions about the college's management arrangements and strategic development, in particular those related to finance and property. They are responsible for ensuring the solvency of the college, for safeguarding the public funds and assets in their care and for making sure that the college obtains value for money in its spending. The governing body also is accountable to the Funding Council for the use of the money it receives and for meeting any conditions attached to that funding.

Doesn't this cut across the principal's job?

The day to day management of the college, and its professional leadership, is delegated by the governors to the principal and, through her or him, to the senior management team of the college. The principal is a member of the governing body and its main professional adviser but is also accountable to the governing body for hisher management of the college. The relationship and division of responsibilities is very similar to that between the non-executive directors of a company (the lay governors) and its chief executive (the principal).

An effective governing body, advised by the principal, will have established an agreed financial and strategic framework within which the college is managed. It will also have discussed and agreed arrangements for the monitoring of financial performance and for reviewing the effectiveness of that framework. Well-founded arrangements will include a regular cycle of reports to the governing body and its committees providing the key management and financial information necessary for the governors to undertake their responsibilities.

Shouldn't the governors also be concerned with the quality of education?

The quality of education provided and the standards achieved by students are areas which governors should keep under regular review. However, these are principally matters for the senior professional staff of the college and the academic board. The governors' main concern should be to ensure that the college has effective internal quality control capable of identifying and dealing with poor performance, and that external advice on quality assurance is sought when there are more fundamental concerns about performance. Only if there is persistent evidence of poor performance or adverse criticism in an external inspection report need governors become more directly involved in quality issues.

What are the instrument and articles of government?

These are the documents which set out the framework within which the governing body must work. The Instrument is concerned with the constitution of the governing body, the appointment and dismissal of its members and the conduct of meetings.

The Articles of Government define the powers and duties of the governing body and the principal and set-out the basis for dealing with certain matters including appointment and dismissal of staff, student discipline and financial management. Both the Instrument and the Articles of each college are subject to approval by the Secretary of State for Education and much of the content is determined by Regulations made by Parliament.

What is the difference between the terms "corporation" and "governing body"?

The term corporation distinguishes college governing bodies as corporate bodies (as distinct for instance from most school governing bodies). A corporate body is a body whose existence and status consist of more than one person but which is authorised by law to act as a single person with a separate legal identity from its individual members. As free-standing corporate bodies with charitable status, college governing bodies or corporations are much more directly responsible and accountable for the government of the college than their local authority appointed predecessors as they existed prior to incorporation in April 1993.

The terms corporation and governing body are interchangeable. It is a matter of choice for individual colleges as to which they choose to adopt for general use. Similarly the term chief executive is synonymous with that of principal. Whatever the terminology chosen all members of the governing body are also members of the corporation and the college principal is its chief executive.

Do governors have legal responsibilities?

Yes. The governing body, acting corporately, has certain specific responsibilities or duties under the law. These are set out in the college's articles of government. In brief, the governing body's legal responsibilities include: * determining the educational character and mission of the college; * exercising oversight of its activities; * ensuring the effective and efficient use of resources, the solvency of the college and the safeguardingof its assets; * approving annual estimatesof income and expenditure; * acting as employer of all collegestaff and directly appointing and setting the conditions ofservice of senior staff.

Are there other requirementson governors?

Yes. From time to time Funding Councils are likely to place additional, detailed responsibilities on governing bodies as a condition of the college's annual funding. Examples of this include the requirements to draw up and approve strategic plans, to prepare and submit annual accounts, to supply information about student numbers, to establish an audit committee and to appoint external auditors.

In addition the Financial Memorandum in which the Funding Council sets out the terms of funding includes detailed conditions with which the governing body must comply.

What about governors' legal liability?

There is a theoretical, but very remote, chance of an individual being held to be negligent in relation to his or her legal responsibilities as a governor. Generally those responsibilities are corporate, ie they relate to the decisions and actions of the governing body as a whole, not to the actions of individuals.

Most governing bodies have insured themselves against the costs of any charges of negligence. Nevertheless it is important that individual governors satisfy themselves that the decisions in which they participate are properly made on the basis of adequate information, and where necessary, with appropriate professional advice.

What are the senior posts in a college and how are they filled?

It is for the governing body to decide which post in a college are to be designated as senior posts. Usually the term encompasses the principal, the deputy principal (if any) and the vice-principals. Appointments to all such posts are made by the governors. Governors are also responsible for appointing the clerk to the governors, a position which is often combined with one of the positions of vice-principal.

Vacancies for senior posts must be made subject to national advertisement. Selection is normally undertaken by a panel of governors including the principal, except when the panel is appointing his or her successor. Any appointment is subject to ratification by the governing body.

How can a lay governor make a useful contribution to decision-making in an educational institution?

The strength of a governing body will often lie in the diversity of the background and experience of its members. Each lay governor brings with her or himself experience from outside the college, and usually from outside the world of education. This external perspective and experience is an invaluable ingredient in balanced and well informed decision making. Those for instance who have specific experience in one of the professions will be able to draw on that knowledge in weighing the issues that governors must consider. In so doing they should however stop short of giving formal professional advice to their fellow governors - that is a matter for the college's own professional advisers. Those involved in business or active in other aspects of the local community can contribute their knowledge of the world of work and of its particular education and training needs, and their experience of financial management, to the discussions of the governing body.

What about committee work?

Much of the detailed work of a governing body will take place on its committees. Such committees usually include ones specialising in finance, personnel and property matters. The college must also have an audit committee to appoint - and receive reports from - the external auditors, and a remuneration committee which deals with senior staff salaries. There are likely to be other committees such as those which meet from time to time as part of disciplinary or appeals procedures.

It is particularly at this more detailed and specialised level of committee work that a lay governor can make an invaluable contribution to discussion and decision drawing on their wider experience outside the college. A new governor should therefore make sure that the chair of the governing body knows what is their particular area of expertise or interest based on their background and experience, and appoints them to the committee(s) on which that expertise is likely to be of the most practical value.

It is, however, also important that there is balance of decision making between the governing body and its committees. When urgent matters arise it is often easier to convene a committee meeting to consider the matter than to summon a meeting of the full governing body. If, however, key decisions of the governing body are regularly being taken in committees by small groups without the participation of the majority of governors, the balance may well be wrong and could put the corporate accountability of the governing body at risk. In such circumstances individual governors may wish to ask for the practice to be reviewed to ensure that there is full governor involvement in major decisions.

Doesn't a governor need to know something about education?

Any newly appointed governor will need to inform her or himself about the nature and role of further education. They will find this easiest, firstly by reading the college prospectus and other published documents such as the college charter which they should expect to receive on appointment; and secondly by visiting and getting to know their own college. Initially this is best done by making an appointment with the principal to visit and be shown round the college during term time. This can then be followed up by more detailed visits to individual departments or faculties. Such visits should always be by prior appointment with the appropriate member of staff - the principal can advise on who this should be. It is generally helpful to the staff and to the individual governor if the objectives of a visit are agreed in advance with the member of staff concerned.

What should a governor do if he or she doesn't really understand an issue under discussion at a meeting?

It is essential that decisions are taken on the basis of an understanding of the available facts, unbiased by partisan or representative views. If a governor feels that he or she is being asked to participate in a decision on an issue that is not fully understood, clarification should always be sought from the chair of the meeting or the principal. Governors cannot be expected to have detailed technical knowledge. It is therefore the principal's responsibility, as the governing body's adviser, to ensure that issues are clearly explained to governors before a decision is sought.

In what other ways can a governor take an interest in, and support, the work of the college?

Governors have a key role to play in promoting the interests of the college in the local community, and in particular in the local business community. A vital aspect of the college's role is to respond to the education and training needs of employers and of those seeking employment. Lay governors can help the college to keep in touch with those needs through their normal daily contact with people from the local community or through business organisations. While not necessarily being uncritical of all the college does, governors should generally regard themselves as ambassadors for the college. Thus they can make sure that their contacts in the outside world know what the college has to offer and are aware of its achievements.

What if conflicts ofinterest arise?

All governors need to be alert to the need to avoid conflicts of interest between their role as governors and that of their personal or business life. The most likely areas where conflicts might arise are in the award of contracts, the supply of goods or the appointment of staff. The governing body will have procedures that require individual governors not to participate in decisions in which they have, or might have, a personal interest. By personal interest is generally meant a situation in which the individual governor could stand to gain financially from a decision of the governing body. The clerk to the governing body should also keep, and regularly update, a register of governors' financial interests. Ultimately however it rests with individual governors to declare their interest in a particular matter, or to seek advice and clarification from the chair or the clerk if they are not sure of their position.

What about the confidentiality of governors' business?

In general, governing bodies need to make themselves publicly accountable, and should therefore seek to be as open as possible about their proceedings. Indeed, the law requires them to make agendas, minutes and documents considered at meetings available in the college to anyone who wishes to see them. From time to time however there will be matters which they decide should be confidential. These generally affect individual members of staff or students, financial contracts or other sensitive matters. In these cases it is the responsibility of each individual governor to keep such matters confidential and to take care in the storing or disposal of papers relating to confidential issues. on non-confidential matters individual governors can respond to enquiries about matters discussed. However, they should bear in mind: * that decisions of the governing body are corporate decisions, and individual governors should not publicly express dissent from the majority decision of the governors; * individual governors do not have the right, unless authorised to make public statements on behalf of the governors.

How should governors respond to a complaint about the college?

Every college must have a published complaints procedure which enables a member of the public, employer or student to register a complaint about the college. In addition there will be procedures through which staff can raise grievances connected with their employment.

If a complaint is made direct to a governor, it should be passed on to whoever is responsible for complaints within the college. Complaints will normally only be considered by governors if the matter cannot be resolved by the principal or other appropriate member of staff. It is important therefore for individual governors to avoid becoming involved in the details of a complaint at an earlier stage.

What should a governor do if he or she has cause for concern about some aspect of the college?

If a governor is concerned about some aspect of the running of the college as a result of their own observations or from information brought to their attention, it is important that this concern is shared and discussed initially with the principal and the chair of governors. It is not usually helpful for an individual governor to raise such issues without prior warning in a governors' meeting. If the governor feels that, following discussion with the principal and the chair, that the matter would benefit from further discussion, then he or she can ask the clerk to put an item on the agenda of the next meeting.

Is it necessary to have so many meetings?

Meetings are a necessary evil. They provide the only forum in which decisions can be properly taken and recorded. Most governors will feel they are too frequent and too long. To be tolerable, meetings should use governors' time efficiently.

To this end governors are entitled to expect: * a forward programme of dates for the main meetings and adequate notice of individual meetings; * a full agenda at least a week in advance which makes clear the business to be discussed andthe decisions required; * supporting papers circulated with the agenda giving the information necessary to reach a decision; * the avoidance as far as possible of late items, tabled papers andspecial meetings.

In return, the individual governor should: * keep dates free for meetings fixedin advance and make every effort to attend meetings; * read the papers in advanceof the meeting; * respect the discipline of the chair and governing body's standing orders.

Generally the number of meetings is likely to proliferate if there is poor preparation for, or conduct of, meetings of the governing body.

Can a governor represent the views of others at a meeting?

A governor should always base his or her view of a matter on the available facts.

Although some governors will have been nominated by particular interests - the staff, students, the TEC and so on - they should not act as delegates for, or representatives of those interests. Their direct experience of issues will naturally inform their judgment on particular issues. They are, however, governors in their own right and should reach their own view on issues being considered by the governing body unbiased by partisan or representative views.

What about training for governors?

The government of colleges remains rooted in the tradition of voluntary service that underpins so many of our public institutions. It relies heavily on the sound common sense of individuals from diverse backgrounds and on their willingness to give generously of their free time. Recent legislation, and in particular the incorporation of colleges, has placed a heavier workload and more complex tasks on governors. It has sharpened the edge of accountability and raised concerns over personal liability. Governors undertake that enhanced role in a wholly voluntary and unpaid capacity. They deserve as much practical help and advice as can be given to support them in their task.

Without such support including easy access to high-quality training and balanced non-partisan advice, there is a danger that the spirit of public service on which college governance depends, will diminish and with it, one of the real strengths of our education system.

Specific governor training is an invaluable means of developing more effective college government. Such training can not only address the needs of individual governors but can also be particularly effective in helping a whole governing body to examine its own performance and identify areas for improvement. Involvement of governors together in such training can lead to improved team working and a better shared understanding of the college governors' role.

The governing body should expect to set aside resources training.

New governors should ask for details of governor training opportunities from the chair or the clerk.

Peter Howlett is a management consultant and a former deputy director of the Inner London Education Authority

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