Huge responsibilities, you don’t get paid and there’s little in the way of a public profile — why would anybody want to be a college governors’ chair?
The role of governance has been nudged into the spotlight by a joint report from the Learning and Skills Improvement Service (LSIS) and Ofsted, and by a new debate on whether governing bodies – and particularly their chairs – should be paid.
The joint report, How Colleges Improve, highlights the need for strong and effective leaders. The debate on payments for the legions of volunteers in schools and colleges was prompted by Ofsted’s chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw.
So what are the qualities that you need to become a chair?
For Mike Parker, who holds the post at the Grimsby Institute of Further & Higher Education, it’s something of a balancing act.
“You’ve got to be a good listener and sounding board, and you’ve got to be able to walk this line between the executive and governance . . . and you’ve got to do that skilfully,” he says.
Janet Morgan, who has been chair of Derby College for three years, shares that view.
She says: “You need someone who is available to support the principal, and work well with them, but who realises their role is one of governance and not of operating the college.
“They should be able to draw the distinction between fulfilling their role as a governor rather than getting involved in the operational side of it and keeping an objective view of what management is doing.”
Meanwhile, for Angela Lloyd, chair of governors at Coleg Gwent since October 2011, previous experience of a management role is essential.
“In the same way you look for leadership qualities in a principal and chief executive, to be an effective chair you also need good leadership qualities,” she explains.
“You also need to come up with ideas to be innovative and creative in your contribution.”
But, according to Iain Mackinnon, who was chair of Ealing, Hammersmith & West London College for five years from 2005 and continues to govern there, the perfect chair doesn’t exist.
“I don’t think there is such a thing,” he says.
“Part of it is having some variety, people are different — there are people at the end of their careers who devote quite a bit of time, there are people who are currently working who can bring in knowledge and experience and expertise from their work, there are people who’ve got fingers in pies locally, which is invaluable, and there are people who can offer a bridge across from another sector they’ve worked in.”
The one thing that it seems all chairs must have is time, something that often surprises new incumbents.
“It’s probably been more involved than I expected,” says Janet Morgan.
“As a board member you perhaps don’t see how much extra the chair puts into the role, you feel that they come, they chair the committee meeting and that’s probably it . . . but it’s quite a lot more.”
Angela Lloyd agrees. “Until you actually take on the role, you don’t realise the amount of work that is involved,” she says.
“On top of your main responsibilities there are things like additional meetings, chair’s meeting with the principal, the agenda planning, which you carry out, events which you might be invited to, as well as individual responsibilities that you have as chair.”
Iain Mackinnon thought long and hard before he took on the role at his West London college.
Angela Lloyd, chair of governors at Coleg Gwent and Iain Mackinnon, former chair of governors at Ealing, Hammersmith & West London College
“I wanted to do it properly, but I was anxious and I was aware that finding the time would be difficult, and so it has proved,” he says.
He decided to take up the position because he felt he could make a difference to the college, and although he was forced to step down to focus on his own business, he feels he succeeded.
“I enjoyed my work as a governor, I think the work that colleges do is important, I think I got to the stage where I’d got some things I wanted to say and things I wanted to see happen,” he explains.
But it was a much swifter process for Mike Parker. He was fast–tracked into the role after a long–standing chair stepped down, and no one from the existing board stepped forward.
When the college principal approached him, Parker says it was his commitment to the Grimsby community that persuaded him to agree.
“I was born and bred in Grimsby,” he says. “I’d spent my whole business career working in Grimsby. I am committed to the area and recognised the importance of such a substantial institution to the local community. I wanted to be involved.
“Doing it the way I did really gives you a fresh eye.
“I’m not sure that’s a bad thing in the current climate actually, because you do have to be very innovative and ask questions that might have been asked before. I wasn’t too precious about getting lots of previews about the institution.”
You’ve got to be able to walk this line between the executive and governance”
Following his stint as chair, Mackinnon has some sympathy with Parker’s view, but says his advice would be to talk to the current chair.
“Get to understand how they play the role, you may well want to do it differently, but you’ll learn a lot talking to them,” says the London governor.
Chairs don’t need to have an education background, he thinks, but they do need to keep themselves informed about the wider sector.
“You can’t simply rely on you principal as a source of information, Chairs have to build their own source of information,” he says, advising chairs to read the sector press and use Twitter to follow influential figures in the sector.
“Also, you need to be sure you’ve got the confidence of senior managers, the principal and fellow governors.”
This is a key piece of advice from Morgan, too, who says: “Work closely with your principal, work closely with the clerk, find out what the life of the college is about really, get out and meet the students, get out and meet the staff, find out what they feel about it.”
For many chairs, this final piece of advice is also the most rewarding part of the role, which makes all the commitment worthwhile.
To this end, the best bits for Morgan have been, “meeting with the students, being able to support the students, their enthusiasm, and being a part of the achievements of the college”.
And Mackinnon also talks warmly about his college.
“You don’t want to get in the way of what the principal and their team are up to, but just popping your nose in and finding out what’s going on can be helpful, because as a governor you can understand where there are barriers which people have just accepted which you can find a way around,” he says.
And for Parker, who describes himself as “relative newcomer,” the entire process has been “extremely rewarding”. He adds: “I have absolutely no regrets getting involved in the sector at all.”
Caption for featured image: Mike Parker, chair of governors at the Grimsby Institute of Further & Higher Education and Janet Morgan, chair of governors at Derby College