Ex-FE chief Dr Pember picks up on commissioner advice

Much has been made of the first annual report of FE Commissioner Dr David Collins.

He warned colleges against dropping expensive subjects, such as science and engineering, in straitened times for the sector.

But Dr Collins also laid out his findings, based on his visits to 11 colleges, on board chairs, governors, principals and clerks.

Dr Sue Pember (pictured), former head of FE and skills investment at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, looks deeper at these issues and offers advice.

“Although Dr Collins’s annual report only covers 6 per cent of the sector, it needs to be read by all of us in FE,” she told FE Week.

“It rightly draws attention to issues around governance, including the role of the clerk, and they accord with the recommendations in the Association of Colleges’ Governors’ Council-led Creating Excellence in Governance.

“It is really important for governors working with their senior leadership team to be clear on what each is there to do.

“Boards must be given the tools to govern and they will find that job difficult without senior staff help.

“Roles need to clear and written down and to support this understanding the new draft code of governance which will come out for consultation soon will make address a number of these issues.”

The principal

The principal must be responsible for the executive management of the college and its day-to-day direction. S/he should not seek to determine matters reserved for the governing board but should ensure the board business runs smoothly by providing timely advice. The specific responsibilities of the principal in relation to board business must include:

— ensuring that board decisions are implemented through the college’s management structure; advising the board as required; and as the ‘accountable officer’, informing the board if any actions would be incompatible with the financial memorandum. If the governing body nevertheless decides to proceed, then the principal must inform the chief executive of the relevant funding body

— responsible for prompt and coherent management reports to governors, including the emergence of major new risks and opportunities; and for facilitating appropriate opportunities for governors to see the college’s front-line activities and meet staff at all levels.

The chair

— is responsible for the leadership of the board and ultimately to the stakeholders for its effectiveness

— should take particular care that the board observes the values of college governance

— as a non-executive, should not be drawn into day-to-day management but should be able to challenge

— should promote effective and efficient operation of the board, ensuring that members work together effectively

— should ensure there is effective communication between the board and all its stakeholders, both internal and external

— is responsible for setting the agenda of the board, ensuring that adequate time is available for discussion of agenda items, particularly strategic items, and promoting a culture of openness and debate, facilitating the contribution of all members

— supported by the clerk, should ensure the necessary resources and opportunities are provided for developing and updating the knowledge and capabilities of governors both individually and collectively

— working with the clerk, principal and SLT should ensure governors receive timely papers and information in a form that facilitates their understanding and participation in the discussion.

The clerk

The board must safeguard the clerk’s ability to carry out his/her responsibilities and ensure the clerk has adequate time and available resources so that the clerk is able to:

— be solely responsible to the board and have a direct reporting link to its chair for the conduct of board business

— inform the board if s/he believes that any proposed action would exceed its powers or be contrary to legislation or the financial memorandum

— work closely with the chair and principal to advance business, keeping the principal fully informed on any matter relating to board business. If this is not possible because of inappropriate conduct by one of the parties involved, the board must take action.

Individual governors

— should be committed and contribute pro-actively to meetings, and be seen as college advocates. They should bring knowledge and expertise to the table and support and challenge the executive by ensuring student interest is first

— should be aware of the status and role of the corporation as an exempt charity and the status of the governors as charity

— should act with honesty, frankness and objectivity, taking decisions impartially, fairly and on merit, using the best evidence and without discrimination or bias

— are responsible for identifying gaps in their individual skills and knowledge and undertaking further training and development as appropriate.