Once a month, Dr Sue, Holex’s director of policy and external relations, answers your questions, backed by the experience of almost a decade as principal of Canterbury College, in addition to time served in senior civil service posts at central government departments covering education and skills.

Question One: New principal

I am a new principal with little experience of governance. I have read the Code of Good Governance for English Colleges and talked to the clerk; what more do I need to do to facilitate a productive relationship?

Answer: First you need to go into this with the right frame of mind, which you seem to have. Governors will rely on you to be their lead advisor as well as the accountable officer.

Don’t spin as it will inevitably unwind

Second you need to put time into this side of the job. Good relationships are built on the ability to work openly and cooperatively with your governors from the beginning. Work with them on deciding what’s important to them, what type of paperwork is needed and how you can help them make sense of data and college performance information.

It’s a governor’s role to challenge, so don’t be defensive. Proactively pre-empt difficult questions by raising them yourself and assuring governors you have the right mitigating action in place. That way, they will gain confidence and can be supportive of your actions. Don’t spin because it will inevitably unwind, share the bad bits as well as the good.
And thirdly, go out and shadow other executives at their boards. See how others do it. It doesn’t have to be a college – it could be a university, a large health authority or housing association. The main attributes of good board and executive relationships are the same whatever the sector.


Question Two: Alienating staff

I took on the chair’s role of a failing college two years ago and my first task was to appoint a new principal. The transformation has been first class and our inspection report was full of praise. However, senior staff are showing signs of stress. I wouldn’t say the principal offends people, but he is not making friends or allowing staff to express their views. How do I tackle this?

Answer: Leadership and college ethos start with the governors. You brought in someone to turn round the college and they have done that.

Staff will use the success as a springboard to move on

It is not unusual when an organisation needs to be turned round quickly for a chief executive to take on an ‘I know best’ management style.

Having a centrally imposed framework and standards gives staff the clarity they need, especially after a period of uncertainly, but it only works for a short time.

It’s now time to modify behaviour and get your principal to move from an instructional leadership to one of shared collaborative ownership where he offers as much praise as criticism and shares the success with others around him. If you don’t do that the most able staff will use this newfound success of the college as a springboard to move on.

One way for your principal to consider new leadership styles is to attend one of the thought leadership sessions run by the leadership foundations.


Question Three: FE handbooks

I am a governor for a school as well as an FE college. the revised schools’ ‘Governance handbook and competency framework’, is 130+ pages, compared to 23 in the Code of Good Governance for English Colleges. Are we missing something in FE? 

Answer: No I don’t think so. The Code of Good Governance for English Colleges is similar in length and content to the Scottish and Welsh Codes and shares the same format with the University Sector Code.

I am taken by the section on principles and personal attributes

The schools’ guidance tries to cover all matters whereas, in FE, many of the issues are referred to in separate guidance, such as the financial memorandum.

The new criteria are interesting and I am taken by the section on principles and personal attributes. The principles and suggested behaviours and statements about time are similar to those in the College code. However, they have cleverly added an easy-to-remember section that encompasses the seven C’s.

“All those involved in governance should be: Committed, Confident, Curious, Challenging, Collaborative, Critical and Creative.”

These are all words that could be attributed to excellent governors in FE colleges. 


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