There’s a “crucial” offstage layer in society, according to Dame Ruth Silver, chair of the Learning and Skills Improvement Service (LSIS).
This layer is governance and, she believes, it is vital to modern society and to the public sector — yet it remains in the shadows.
“All forms of governance are little known, under–scrutinised, and not given the status and stature they deserve,” says Dame Ruth (pictured right).
“I think governance is the most amazing piece of public contribution and completely undervalued within both public and private organisations.”
Drawing on her experience as Lewisham College principal where, before her arrival, senior staff were not invited into governors’ meetings, she says: “Our vice principals attended the meetings, whereas in the past they had been unknown territory.
“How can you be a principal without knowing anything about this group who can dismiss you in a heartbeat?”
Recently, she continues, society has seen many failures in governance.
“In the cases of the banks, the police force, the press and the food agencies, something was wrong not just in the management of the organisation, but also in the role of governance,” she says.
“When governance goes wrong you get these corruptions — I don’t mean criminal corruption, but transgressions and a distortion of people in their roles.
“Governance needs to come out of the shadows further in this sector, to take more authority and responsibility for the long–term future of a college.”
For Dame Ruth, the era of the ‘big society’ and New Challenges, New Chances, has created an extra focus and reliance on good governance.
She says: “In the end, governors’ responsibility is for the institution’s performance, but actually their authority comes from being that place where the community’s assets for the future are looked after.
“A college governing body has to take care of the college so that it is of service to the local community, which sometimes means doing things that are difficult for their colleges.
“The role of governing bodies is to steer, not row, the organisation and those behaviours of steering it, with the senior team’s advice, towards that moral course are underdeveloped.
“We need to ask ourselves ‘do we have governance for modern times?’
“I’m campaigning for governance to be recognised and modernised, to be developed, valued and not compromised, as it is in some cases by folks the principal knew and asked to help. It is a more formal role than that and a more formal authority.”
She points to governance in other areas of public life, such as hospitals, where governors are advertised for, trained and placed in the right institution.
“In this sector, the agenda, the context and the resources have changed, and there’s a real need to examine truthfully whether the governance layers and organisations have changed sufficiently to handle that.”
The way to do that, she insists, is through a sector–led commission on governance.
“The last major piece of work for the public sector world was the Nolan Commission on Principles of Public Life.
“We need a review exploring our modern contexts and responsibilities in this time of deregulation… something that moves on what we have now but really takes this chance to arrive at something new and wonderful. Had LSIS been continuing, that’s absolutely what we would have done.”
In spite of LSIS losing its funding and the challenges facing FE, Dame Ruth is optimistic about what she describes as “a terrifically exciting time for the sector”.
“The deal and resources have never been clearer; there is no rescue,” she says.
“It’s now in the hands of impressive professionals and I know my colleagues will be up for that. We’ve never had such policy stability, with little change in government or ministers.
“We’re finally getting a clear day in FE governance and leadership.”
Leaders should recognise that governors, not funders, set the agenda for their college, she believes.
“There are some fabulous governors in the sector, and my experience at Lewisham was that without such visionary, courageous governors, creativity wouldn’t have been invited and enabled in my staff,” adds Dame Ruth.
“We need to lift the ambition of governance — forget excellent, excellence is easy, let’s go for ‘amazing’.
“Governors need to not just do a good job, but to really amaze communities, to be there in service to them and their futures.”