Within the context of the debate around school governors, Ian James looks at what lessons might be learned from the FE college sector - and suggests a recruitment opportunity for schools.
On the face of it, it may appear that being the governor of an FE college is much the same as being a school governor. Certainly, the statutory and 'good practice' requirements are similar in that governors must set strategic direction, monitor and evaluate performance and generally support the principal/head whilst challenging senior management to address weaknesses and bring about improvements.
But that may not be the end of the story. Ever since colleges were incorporated in 1993, there has been a specific focus on governance which started at that time with separate inspection and grading as part of colleges' overall inspection arrangements.
Governance has since been incorporated into Ofsted inspections under the heading of 'Leadership and Management' but the LSC still sends its auditors in, at the same time as the inspectors, to look separately at governance and financial management.
This focus on governance, which was given an added twist by several spectacular failures of governance in the late '90s, has concentrated the minds of FE governing bodies on their role and how their effectiveness can be maximised.
Most governing bodies now have arrangements in place to assess their effectiveness, often by the use of performance indicators to gauge progress and determine action for improvement. Many also define the skill mix they wish to maintain amongst governors and this is used as part of the recruitment process.
New governors must be given an induction and most boards will then have some on-going means of identifying and meeting the training needs of the whole governing body and of individual governors.
Assessing the performance of individual governors is less common; some governing bodies choose to adopt an appraisal scheme of one sort or another whilst others see this as a bridge too far for volunteers.
Significant emphasis has also been placed on the distinction between governance and management, with governors strongly discouraged from seeking to get involved in day-to-day college management.
But the danger of distancing governors too far from management is that governors may lose touch with how things really are in the college. This is one of the challenges for the volunteer governor because being out of touch means not being able to spot when things are going wrong.
Acknowledging this difficulty, most governing bodies now have arrangements in place whereby governors can have direct contact with issues on the ground. These range from various types of meetings with students to setting up linkage arrangements between individual governors and mid-level managers in the college.
Care has to be taken with such arrangements to ensure that all concerned understand that these are not opportunities for governors to become involved in management.
The importance of FE governors maintaining their strategic focus is more crucial now than ever before. The rate of change for colleges has never been faster or more dramatic than at present.
Colleges could be facing large fluctuations in their income as a result of the advent of 'contestability' and many smaller colleges now doubt that they have sufficient critical mass to withstand this instability.
The dilemma for governors and senior managers in smaller colleges is whether to seek to merge with one or more other institutions now from a position of strength or to try to continue alone with the risk of being forced to merge, or being taken over, later.
Pressure is therefore increasing on many FE governors as they and the senior managers weigh strategic options carefully and take decisions of fundamental importance.
Merger-mania has arrived and big is beautiful (or not). So quite a few stalwart folk who have seen their colleges through mergers will lose their places on FE boards - perhaps a recruiting opportunity for the schools sector? Just give them some time to recover from the ordeal first!
Ian James has served as clerk to the corporation of 13 FE boards and currently serves in that capacity for five colleges.
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