How colleges can recruit the community governors they need

20 Jan 2020, 5:00

Becoming a college governor is an intimidating prospect, writes Mark Trinick. Recognising that is the first step to recruiting your college community’s brightest and most committed

Community governors bring real value to a college’s decision making. This much is clear to me now, but I faced some barriers to becoming one, and I’m not uninformed about the sector. I have been a Group Board Governor at London South East Education Colleges for just over a year, but when I was first approached, though humbled, my initial reaction was to decline. If principals and their executive teams are serious about recruiting the untapped talent in their communities, they need to be aware of what keeps it away.

What’s obvious to insiders isn’t always obvious to outsiders. You might know that any and all experience is relevant, from running your own business to helping with a local charity or club, or simply being an interested neighbour, but your interested neighbour may not.

And while we know that a governing body is there to challenge and provide a fresh perspective, for many the idea of challenging an executive board can be intimidating. This is especially true of a sector reputed for its use of jargon.

Lastly, skilled and critical people are in high demand. Nobody wants to take up a position to make a bad job of it or to pull back again because they can’t sustain doing it, and being a governor is very obviously a commitment.

The truth is that a board of governors is broadly equivalent to a board of directors or trustees in commercial or charitable organisations – an important role that provides the checks and balances to ensure good governance of the institution, including spending of public funds. To many, that’s an unimaginable proposition.

People like this aren’t born; they are made

Yet we need ‘critical friends’ to push us forward and keep us grounded. To draw them in, we need to recognise these challenges and be the ones to tackle them. Fundamentally, they boil down to three questions: What could I possibly bring? What do I know about running a college? Will I have time?

To recruit the greatest range of voices then, executive teams should ensure they explicitly state they welcome applications from anyone with an interest, they should do it in the clearest and most open terms possible, and they should offer training upfront. In fact, is your college ‘recruiting a governor’, or is it really offering an excellent training opportunity to a lucky member of its community?

Time commitment may actually be the biggest barrier, and there is really little excuse not to set that out very clearly from the outset. And while every college hopes for a public-spirited volunteer who will give the role more than what is expected as a strict minimum, the truth is that people like this aren’t born; they are made.

From my initial appointment, I have in the space of a year come to sit on two sub-committees. If I’d been asked to do that from the outset, my mind would probably have been made up to decline the role. But I have grown quickly into it as I have received training and, importantly, started to feel part of a team. Other Governors and our clerk to the board were fantastic at helping me to settle in too. Let them be all the advertising you need for the position you need to fill.

And it’s not all about public-spiritedness. With my employer hat on, the role is an unparalleled opportunity to help steer the education of my future workforce, and to understand what influences them. Employers are often quoted pointing out perceived failings of education and you’re giving them the opportunity to do something about it. So don’t be shy about telling potential recruits what they stand to gain.

Education, and especially further education, inspires passion in good people who are willing to devote every waking moment to. But it can’t afford to stop at the college gate. Those who eat, sleep and breathe it need independent governors to remind them about the world they are preparing their students for, and recruiting them is a serious business.

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