Few can doubt the importance of college governance.
College governing bodies are responsible for determining the mission and character of their colleges and deciding which communities the colleges will serve and ensuring that they do this effectively. They are collectively responsible for the proper and efficient use of £3 billion of public money and assets, and for educating and training more than 2 million adults and more than 850,000 16 to 19-year-olds every year.
They must direct and oversee the quality and standards of teaching and learning and ensure the standards of their own governance arrangements and practice are of the highest order.
College governance has always been a challenging task but the increased freedoms for colleges set out in New Challenges, New Chances, have been matched by increased responsibility for governors. Less direction and control from the centre means more decisions and direction is required from the governing body.
Mindful of this increased responsibility and the subsequent heightened focus on governance, the Association of Colleges (AoC) and its Governors’ Council (AoCGC) determined that a review was essential to ensure that colleges were supported to achieve best practice in order to lead the critically important work of their institutions.
There are many examples of excellent practice in college governance but we could not guarantee that such excellence was universal. We needed governors to tell us exactly what challenges and obstacles they were facing. We also wanted to know what support they needed, how this would be best delivered and how to make such support sustainable, given the context of public funding cuts.
AoC was fortunate to secure Dr Susan Pember to undertake this work. There was a magnificent response to her call for evidence and we received a wealth of information, views and suggestions from governors, clerks, principals and others which provided a rich source of evidence to inform the review’s findings and recommendations.
Some very important messages became clear.
The rapidly changing, politically driven policy context in which colleges operate means that governing bodies sometimes battle to interpret exactly what is required of them. For example, recent policy changes include: 16–19 study programmes, including English and maths requirements; traineeships; Apprenticeships; reforms to adult skills; qualification reforms, and reforms for young people with special educational needs.
Many governors are also grappling with evolving models of delivering post-14 education, which they oversee. Alongside this, there is the changing role of Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) with a number of colleges dealing with two or more LEPs in their area.
Governors commented on a lack of clarity about performance monitoring in this complex landscape. They understand that the value of success rates has been undermined, but were less clear about the measures they should use to replace or supplement these in order to benchmark and judge college performance. There was uncertainty about the measures that will be used for Ofsted’s new dashboard for colleges, and most governing bodies are working hard to develop additional performance measures. This will allow them to direct and scrutinise quality improvements to reassure themselves and their communities about the quality and standards provided by their institutions.
Communication is also an issue. How does – and how will – Government, national and local agencies, and other key players communicate clearly and consistently with the governance community? Governors need to develop good communication channels with their communities and stakeholders and also need to receive clear, consistent information and messages about expectations of them. They also need better access to good practice and research evidence that is relevant to their roles and responsibilities.
Perhaps not surprisingly, some boards reported difficulty in recruiting and retaining good governors. The most effective governing bodies are diverse, with high-calibre individuals with a wide range of experience and skill sets. Succession planning and maintaining the right balance and expertise is a constant task. Some boards struggle to find governors from a business background, while others need support to recruit members from a more diverse background. In this demanding context strong and capable Chairs of governing bodies are essential to provide leadership; to build a team mentality; instil a strong sense of purpose and commitment, and must enable governors to walk the fine line between governance and management.
Creating Excellence in College Governance sets out a series of actions to support governors in all of this and more. Action is needed by college boards themselves, but further action and support is required of the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, AoC, the Governors’ Council, the Education and Training Foundation, Ofsted and the Skills Funding Agency.
AoC Governors’ Council has already developed a detailed action plan to implement the report’s recommendations. These include sharing evidence of good practice and research, establishing a Governance Delivery Unit to support the recruitment and retention of governors nationally, including those from business and more diverse backgrounds, and a new Governance Development Programme. Our work highlights the need for governors to receive appropriate induction, support, training, and mentoring and we believe the best people to provide this are other experienced governors. The programme will tap into this talent and experienced governors will be funded to offer peer group mentoring and governance health checks to others to support professional development.
We look forward to working with the governance community and other key stakeholders to support and champion the vital role that governors play.
Carole Stott is chair of the Association of Colleges (AoC)
Click here to download the report
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