“Governors are the backbone of college accountability and are the faithful custodians of public funds” in the words of Judith Evans, chair of ColegauCymru, the Welsh colleges association.
The remit of governors, sitting above the senior leadership teams of FE colleges, is vast, covering financial, legal and safeguarding procedures and adherence to national quality and audit frameworks.
Governing bodies challenge and support the senior leadership to ensure the provision of an outstanding environment for teaching, learning and achievement, and ensure that student outcomes are aligned to the needs of local and regional employers and the prerequisites of higher education establishments.
In addition to these regular duties, pressure for governors to perform is heightened by government initiatives. “There are lots of demands on governors’ time – not least area reviews but also Ofsted, curriculum changes, 14-19 performance measures, apprenticeships and English and maths to name but a few,” says David Walker, director of governance at the Association of Colleges (AoC).
This brings the composition of FE boards into sharp focus. A 2015 analysis by the AoC and the Education and Training Foundation (bit.ly/CollegeBoards) found that of the 5,900 governors serving on the boards of 332 English colleges, there were some 630 students, 630 staff, around 130 parent governors (mainly in sixth-form colleges), and 335 executive governors (usually college principals). These groups accounted for roughly 30 per cent of board composition. The remaining 4,200 members were independent, external governors who offered their services as volunteers.
The most common reason these volunteers cite for becoming governors is the desire to “give something back”, to contribute directly to the future of the next generation. But is that enough? And are the right people doing the job? According to the 2015 AoC survey, a quarter of governors had a background in education, with a further 7 per cent having worked in local government. While this is a traditional source of governors, new skill sets have been sought over time to reflect different management trends.
The advent of greater financial accountability and risk management has drawn in specialists in these areas; now, approximately 36 per cent of volunteer governors have a financial, legal, business or management background. In these changing times, particularly given the spectre of area reviews and the appetite for “fewer and larger” colleges, boards may need to encourage more tightly honed skill sets.
Governor experience could be required in very specific financial management areas such as due diligence, and mergers and acquisitions. There could also be a greater need for softer skills such as culture change and organisational design, creativity and agile thinking, digital marketing and engagement.
Given that 57 per cent of external governors, in the AoC survey were over the age of 55 and 21 per cent were over 65, there may be a risk that some governors won’t have been exposed to these more contemporary practices during their working lives.
That said, it might also be equally important for boards to exhibit the rather more timeless trait of digging their heels in and holding firm. Many of the projects corporations deal with – particularly long-term capital investments in premises and facilities – run on a more extended timescale than policy fads. Even a relatively straightforward deal to lease computers could last longer than a political party’s term in government.
Some colleges still remember spending many years planning vast capital projects on government advice, only to see funding from the former Learning and Skills Council run out. This led to projects being abandoned and thousands of hours of effort being wasted.
Demonstrating pragmatism and an unwavering focus on students’ needs is not the same as inaction and complacency. Most governors, thankfully, know the difference.
One criticism levelled at some boards is that they are too “male, pale and stale”. The 2015 AoC report found that boards were 86 per cent white British; 91 per cent of chairs of corporation were white British; and 71 per cent of governors were male.
As Peter Corrigan, principal at Worthing College in West Sussex, says: “It is often challenging to recruit good governors when the responsibilities are so huge but these are not remunerated positions.”
Notwithstanding, there is clearly some work to be done to recruit governors who best represent the gender, diversity and demographics of their colleges.
Corrigan further states that the need to make sure new governors are fully informed and up to date can be onerous for colleges. Thankfully, there is tremendous support available from within the sector.
As well as the culture among governors of collaborating and networking, there is no shortage of expertise available from the national membership bodies, which increasingly offer webinars, training videos and information to ensure governors can more easily stay abreast of major issues.
Richard Bradford is managing director of digital education consultancy Disquiet Dog, and a governor at Worthing College @disquietdog
How to be a great governor
The 10 principal responsibilities of good college governance:
Formulating and agreeing the mission and strategy of the college, including defining the ethos of the institution.
Being collectively accountable for the business of the college and making decisions on all matters that fall under governors’ duties and responsibilities.
Ensuring that there are effective underpinning policies and systems that help student voice to be heard.
Fostering exceptional teaching and learning.
Ensuring the college is responsive to workforce trends and employs appropriate stakeholder engagement strategies.
Adopting a financial strategy and funding plans that are compatible with the duty to ensure the sustainability and solvency of the college.
Ensuring that effective control and due diligence take place in all matters, including acquisitions, subcontracting and partnership activity.
Meeting and aiming to exceed statutory responsibilities for equality and diversity.
Ensuring that there are organised and clear governance and management structures, with well-understood delegations.
Regularly reviewing the performance and effectiveness of governance.
Source: Code of Good Governance for English Colleges, 2015, Association of Colleges, bit.ly/GovernanceCode