External governance reviewers ‘must understand the local context’, conference delegates are told

For upcoming external board audits, providers have been told to 'start thinking about reviewers in your locality in your region'

For upcoming external board audits, providers have been told to 'start thinking about reviewers in your locality in your region'

governance

A senior Ofsted inspector has warned colleges against using “reviewers for hire” who would “fly from one end of the country to another” for new external governance reviews.

Colleges should instead call upon reviewers with knowledge of the local context and stakeholders to investigate how governors can improve their effectiveness.

This comes after the skills for jobs white paper revealed in January that the government would be setting out new requirements for boards to be regularly appraised by an external reviewer.

New FE Commissioner Shelagh Legrave was among a panel of her team members and Department for Education officials speaking about the reviews at this week’s Association of Colleges annual conference.

Using ‘reviewers for hire’ for governance audits would be a ‘shame and a waste’

During a question-and-answer session, audience member and Ofsted senior inspector for further education and skills Richard Beynon warned attendees: “If people are going to get underneath governance and the relationship between governance and leadership, they can’t do that if they’re flying from one end of the country to another.”

This, he explained, was because the review would not understand the local context and stakeholder base of the college.

“It fills me with disappointment that perhaps we’re going to have a fleet of reviewers for hire who circulate around colleges in the country,” said Beynon, as this would “be a shame and a waste”.

Instead, colleges should “start thinking about reviewers in your locality in your region. Think about how they can bring value because they understand the mission, the purpose and the context in which the college operates.”

Deputy FE Commissioner and panellist Meredydd David said reviewers “understanding the local context” of a college was a “very, very good point”.

However, Legrave highlighted how the national leaders of governance, nine governors and clerks who mentor and support struggling college boards, do travel from one part of the country to another, which “works very effectively”.

While understanding the context a college operated in was “vital”, she believes “expertise could be geographically spread”.

Reviewers will have to be ‘independent and suitably experienced’

The commissioner’s FE adviser Esme Winch told delegates that reviewers ought not to provide any other service to the college which could be a conflict of interest, should be independent of every board member, should have a breadth of experience of education and charity governance and ought to be accredited by an organisation such as the Chartered Governance Institute, or Institute of Directors.

The DfE has said guidance on the reviews will be published in spring 2022.

But interim DfE guidance dated this month and seen by FE Week mandates that the
reviews must take place on a three-year cycle, so a college board’s first one will fall due between 2021/22 and 2023/2024.

It will be up to each board to commission an “independent and suitably experienced provider” to deliver the external review.

The guidance says there is no prescribed model for self-assessments or external reviews, but they should look at a board’s impact and how it can be enhanced.

Despite having been first mooted for English colleges in the white paper, external governance reviews have been a requirement for the FTSE 350 companies – the largest businesses in the UK – since 2010.

The boards of Scottish colleges must have their effectiveness externally validated every three years under the Code of Good Governance for Scotland’s Colleges.

The Education Training Foundation, supported by the Association of Colleges, was commissioned by the DfE in August 2020 to carry out pilot external governance reviews.

The 28 reviews that followed found boards were composed of a range of different expertise and skills, but most boards did not review their impact or evaluate individual governor performance.

The Association of Colleges’ governance advisor Kurt Hall told Tuesday’s session the reviews also found there was a “big gap” where most boards had not created an “inclusive culture”.

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