Lack of governor know-how is holding colleges back

Our changing society and economy demand colleges with vision and adaptability, writes John Spindler, but our governance arrangements leave too many stuck in their ways

Our changing society and economy demand colleges with vision and adaptability, writes John Spindler, but our governance arrangements leave too many stuck in their ways

15 Nov 2022, 5:00

In the post-pandemic world, colleges need vision to transform, and the leadership provided by senior teams and governing bodies is under the spotlight like never before. With the joint threats of recession, inequality, labour shortages and inflation amid ongoing political chaos, the need to raise skill levels to transform the UK workforce only adds pressure to the cooker.

The Covid pandemic presented challenges to which most educational leaders adapted heroically. Many forward-looking colleges had already introduced alternative learning methodologies and were well placed to deal with the obstacles to learning presented by lockdowns. But many had not responded and continue not to do so. These colleges must urgently develop their leadership to establish a clear vision for the next crisis – which is already here.

I was fortunate to spend much of the pandemic in British Columbia, witnessing first-hand my daughter’s experience of remote teaching in the provincial capital, Victoria. The traditional learning environment was almost instantly substituted for Google Classroom, email and phone contact with teachers and chat rooms on a plethora of social media platforms. The pandemic presented huge social challenges, but teaching, learning and assessment continued.

My research has made it clear that across our education sector, the picture is mixed, ranging from seamless continuity to near-abandonment of learning altogether. In many cases it was clear that senior leaders and their governors had not fully understood the rapidly changing pre-pandemic environment and its impact on learning. It was more than just fortitude that enabled some colleges to flex their provision and keep the show on the road. So why are some colleges failing to transform and meet the needs of their communities?

Too many of our colleges are typified by inertia

In outstanding colleges, the harmony of educational leadership provided by management and their governing bodies works hugely to a college’s advantage. In others, governing bodies charged with overseeing the educational character and performance of the college lack the skills needed to respond to an ever-changing educational world.

Most colleges have recognised the need to transform, including their leadership and learning methodologies, but mechanisms must be established to enable stakeholders and communities to demand more from underperforming colleges. Those who should be establishing that clear vision are too often not capable of doing so.

In the best colleges, governors have a wealth of educational experience and the knowledge to contribute to the establishment of a clear vision and supporting strategies. These are complemented by corporate areas of expertise, including finance and HR, to support the development of the institution. The college then must be held accountable for the leadership and vision, and how this meets the needs of its local community.

But at present it is unclear how real accountability works in practice. As a result, some colleges continue to lack direction and fail to meet the needs of learners, contributing to the very disadvantage and inequality most leaders aim to reduce.

Our ever-changing political, social, economic and technological environment demands that colleges establish a clear vision involving innovation and determined leadership. Digital learning alone requires colleges to adopt transformed teaching skills, flexible estates, and new approaches to pedagogy and student support.

To the outside world these changes seem blindingly obvious. But too frequently college leaders remain in post despite under-performance and governors stay far longer than the guidance recommends. Even when what’s needed seems obvious to the leaders and governors in those colleges, a lack of know-how ensures they continue to change little, nearly a quarter of the way through the 21st century.

As a result, in spite of Department for Education and Association of Colleges guidance on leadership vision and accountability for meeting learners’ needs, too many of our colleges are typified by inertia and poor-quality learning. This is leading to increased disadvantage and inequality.

In this context, government proposals for elite colleges make sense. In these pages last week, Ian Pryce was right to say investment in our existing colleges is a better bet, but unless there is radical transformation in the training and accountability of governors, the underperformance of a few will continue to justify the lack of faith in the many.

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One comment

  1. An interesting observation regarding governance structures. Research shows that what the board does and how it behaves, has a far greater impact on organisational performance than the way governance is structured and skills and knowledge of individual members. Development on governance for all those sitting on and interacting with the Board is a must. Board members need to take responsibility for their own development and CEOs and senior leaders must not forget that it is also their responsibility to enable and inspire their board members to deliver added value.