Q: Many of you have asked me what perfect governance should look like, and some have asked if it’s time for a change. I have therefore decided to dedicate this week’s Dear Sue column to answering this in detail.
A: There are too many variables for us to have absolutely perfect governance in all colleges at any one time, but we can certainly work to make things better.
I have said before that FE governance in England is far from broken, but I doubt whether we could call it dynamic.
The role of a college governor is both rewarding and challenging.
The focus of any dynamic board is on the twin goals of ensuring a first-class student experience, and managing finances in an open and transparent way.
The fundamentals of good governance don’t change, but the way a board is organised and behaves certainly can
These two intertwined activities should be at the heart of everything and, although there have been some failures, on the whole governors do this well.
They are the hidden force underpinning the success of FE, but the landscape is changing and governance should change with it.
I appreciate that the changes to landscape and policy make life in FE difficult.
However, governing bodies need to do more to inspire their colleges to provide a service that does their students justice and motivates them to reach their full potential, with high expectations of students and staff.
They must also give employers and the communities they serve the confidence to invest in college services.
Board members should visibly demonstrate they are sound custodians of public funds and are able to show they have undertaken their duty wisely and prudently.
Area reviews and the creation of new colleges are a once-in-a-decade opportunity to bring in new governors and new ways of working.
The fundamentals of good governance don’t change, but the way a board is organised and behaves certainly can.
Area reviews can provide the trigger to rethink and meet the accountability challenge in a dynamic way.
New governing bodies can start afresh, not just adopt the systems and membership of the past.
These governing bodies should review their composition, working practices, and the roles of key contributors such as employers, governors including staff and students, executives and clerks.
When I speak to chairs with extensive experience in both the public and private sector, they say the most effective boards have a membership of eight to 10, with a composition of people with complementary skills, considered before appointment and utilised once appointed.
They also say good discussion and challenge depends on the quality of material presented to them — and they are most effective when thought has been given to how reports and data are presented, with comparisons and benchmarking used in a consistent manner.
I’m also often told it is crucially important that they are able to provide the most effective challenge and assurance when issues are clearly communicated and potential solutions are offered by the executive.
Board members are least constructive when they have act as “detectives”, spending board time on interpreting data they are given and offering up possible solutions because the executive has not done so.
Many are saying that remunerating chairs would make a difference to the way their role is perceived.
Governing bodies are custodians and legally accountable for funds often in the excess of £100m annually.
Therefore, chairs should be seen as professional governance non-executive directors and should be compensated appropriately.
The accountability and expectations put on such individuals exceeds what can be expected of an unpaid volunteer.
The Charity Commission has recently recognised the extraordinary role governors are having to play in area reviews and have supported proposals to remunerate some chairs.
So should we be making the case for large new colleges to have paid chairs and/or introduce a new breed of remunerated governor whose main job is too scrutinise and challenge?
And, is it not time we dropped the term ‘clerk’ and replace it with ‘company secretary’ or ‘governance professional’.
FE colleges are exciting, dynamic places and governors of the future need to match that dynamism.
Now is the time for new college governing bodies and existing boards to refresh their membership and governance structures and to harness the skills of business leaders and key influencers in their area.