Demands on unpaid college chairs are growing. Waltham Forest College chair Paul Butler tells Jessica Hill about the importance of finding college governors who are rooted in their communities.
College governors are told to ask challenging questions. But preparing interview questions to ask a highly experienced college governor is a tough ask. And Paul Butler is one of the biggest names in college governance.
Yet his online footprint is virtually non-existent: he’s not on X or LinkedIn and didn’t give much away in the only interview he’s done before this – a set-piece Q&A with the Education & Training Foundation (for whom he is a governance adviser) about his position as chair of Waltham Forest College.
Butler is slightly wary of me as a journalist. In a former role as a Department for Education civil servant, he had rigorous media training and is very careful in his use of words. He tells me that he “doesn’t see the necessity” of having an online presence.
“All my career has been focused around community and education, but I feel no need to present myself on the web in that way. I get my joy and satisfaction from the work that I do.”
Working for free
Butler’s main career has always been either in the civil service or the voluntary sector. It is hard to fathom how he has time for his many commitments. He is currently chief executive of the Selby Trust, a community hub in Harringay, and is “really excited” it has just secured levelling up funding with the council to build a new community centre and housing.
He also holds FE roles with the Education and Training Foundation and the Association of Colleges, which involves advising colleges through governance reviews and providing “mediation where there are difficult issues”. There is also his (unpaid) chairmanship of Waltham Forest College.
The position takes up more time than it used to 15 years ago when he took on his first chair role, for Leyton Sixth Form College. That’s because “there are now more expectations from government and regulators in terms of how many activities I need to get involved with as a governor”. A “marathon meeting” the night before our interview took close to three hours, although such a long session is fortunately “unusual”.
Butler “could” spend a day and a half a week on the role. It’s an admirable thing to give up your time for free, but it’s harder now for colleges to find people willing to do so. But, he has no gripes about the lack of remuneration.
He spent five years as a councillor for ACAS (the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service), which was paid, and believes that “sometimes if you professionalise a sector, it becomes extremely competitive. I’d rather we place the emphasis on people’s skills, energy, and genuine commitment to FE.”
Diversity with purpose
Butler is passionate about making FE more diverse. But for him, diversity is not necessarily about hiring more senior people from ethnic minority backgrounds. He recalls recently advising a college board in a diverse community, who told him they were concerned they had no ethnic minority representation.
There was “deafly silence” when he responded that he was “unsure why you think you have a problem”. Butler wanted the board to first question “why they want diversity”, in the same way they might consider gender balance and people with experience in HR or digital skills.
“I wanted them to think about the lived experiences and skills missing from not having those people around the table, as opposed to ‘we just need to get someone’.”
Butler then told them: “‘I’m sure you didn’t appoint me as your governance advisor because I am black’. Then they understood, because if that’s all I brought to the table then why have me?” He believes “as much effort” needs to be put into thinking about the “support structures” required to retain people from minority communities, as goes into recruiting them.
He is also co-chair of the policing panel for Enfield and Harringay and notes the problem police forces have with retaining ethnic minority officers. “Because if they feel isolated, then people will leave”. But diversity is not a problem for Waltham Forest College’s board.
Its 13 governors include a finance company chief executive, two auditors and two former directors from ETF and DfE. Around 50 per cent of the board and senior leadership are from ethnic minority backgrounds. Butler is the second oldest, with most members still being “in the heights” of their careers. Such a diverse board is “extremely unusual” in FE.
“You’re not going to survive our recruitment process if you can’t demonstrate an understanding of not just what the local economy is about, but what the community’s needs and challenges are.”
The brave soldier
Butler knows those challenges well, as he’s lived in Waltham Forest most of his life. His dad was a carpenter for the local council and his mum a nurse, “so pretty typical of the Windrush generation”.
Waltham Forest has many English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) learners who came to the UK as refugees or economic migrants, and in some ways, Butler can relate to that.
When he was 12, his family moved to Jamaica (where his parents are from) for several years.
Attending a school where 90 per cent of the teaching staff were black made him reflect years later on the importance of role models for young people, “to be inspirational about what they can achieve.”
Butler got to know his large extended family in Jamaica – both his grandmothers had 14 children.
Moving back to the UK several years later was hard. He recalls trying to walk back to his grandfather, a farmer, for a final farewell. He told his grandson to “turn around and walk like a brave soldier”.
“I still wish I’d had that last hug from him, because he died the year after. Those impressions count.”
Back in the UK, Butler had planned to study full-time. But because his family had been abroad for over three years, he was classed as a foreign student and had to earn money too. At first, he had to claim benefits, the first time anyone in his family had done so. “It burned me, I literally cried,” he recalled.
But “things happen for a reason”. Two weeks later, he was offered a job at the same job centre marking the start of a 16-year civil service career.
He rose through the ranks to become a DfE senior training development manager, where he had “absolute flexibility to do things and not be too concerned about resource”. (Nowadays, “resource is always an issue”.)
Butler left DfE because his office moved to Sheffield, and having just got married he was reluctant to up sticks. He moved into the voluntary sector, taking on director roles for the Council of Somali Organisations and the East London Training and Enterprise Council.
Needing time out
The most difficult moment in Butler’s life came when he ran a national charity, Path National, focused on addressing under-representation of ethnic minority groups in the public sector. There were “ongoing challenges around resources and bidding” and it was “quite a competitive environment”. But he “absolutely loved” it.
In New Year 2004, just when the charity was at the height of success, Butler recalls he and his wife looking out their front room window together and reflecting on how their eldest daughter, then 15 (now 34, and working for a law firm) would soon be taking her A levels. Their other daughter was 12 and their son was 8.
A month later, his wife was diagnosed with a brain tumour and died three months later.
It was a “nightmare”. Butler still doesn’t know how he got through it. But he was back at work within two weeks.
His first move was to buy a double freezer for the garage, so when he was home late, his daughters could sort out dinner. Now, Butler believes he should have taken more time out to heal.
He did make some work-life changes though. After taking Path National into a merger he became a consultant, which gave him flexibility to work from home.
The pandemic further mellowed his views around work life balance. Before that, he would never have allowed an employee the flexibility to move out of London and work remotely. Now, three of Butler’s senior managers work flexibly, including one who moved to York.
“Covid taught me that family life and flexibility is more important than I thought previously. That’s part of my learning.” He applies that flexible thinking to colleges too.
Learners who miss lessons to work more hours “because cash doesn’t quite stack up for them” should be helped, through “systems which allow them to then dip into other modules to do at different times”.
“I don’t think we have much choice but to embrace that [flexibility] if we’re going to retain those learners.”
Current challenges of boards
All colleges must commission an external governance review by July 2024 and every three years going forwards. Butler has been involved in three of these in the last year.
The one he’s just completed took 11 days over eight months. During that time Butler conducted interviews, including with external stakeholders, and sat in on committees that his “desk research” compelled him to observe.
He feels the biggest challenge facing college boards is “succession planning”, with too many boards having “a great number of people who retired years ago” who “may not have the currency of current workforce issues.”
Boards need “refreshing” regularly, because “things can get quite cozy if you’re not careful”. He’s also wary of colleges that merge into large groups without putting structures in place allowing them to “understand their different community needs”, particularly in the context of devolution where a group sits within two areas.
He also emphasises the importance of “visioning” for boards. “If you’re unable to horizon scan, then you’re going to be in trouble.” Reclassification means colleges can no longer borrow privately, making forward planning harder when it comes to capital projects.
Butler believes some colleges made “high risk” borrowing decisions in the past which caused “problems”. But when DfE announced colleges’ return to the public sector last year, they should have given them more “lead in time” to understand the “alternative” funding solutions available. “That could have been better planned.”
At last night’s meeting, Waltham Forest governors discussed how their college is “bursting at the seams”. Whereas previously it might have borrowed to “buy a new site”, this is “currently challenging [and] we need greater clarity about what those [borrowing] processes are.”
Reviewing the chair
Butler is “not friends” with his principal Janet Gardner, although they “could have a coffee and chill”. He believes in keeping that professional distance, because “I’m also accountable to the rest of the board”.
Butler also believes that to dish out scrutiny, a chair should be able to receive it in return. So he gets his board to review his own performance regularly – an exercise that not all boards undertake.
When asked what he’s most proud of in his career, Butler squirms and says the question “sounds like one of those LinkedIn things that people post”. He evades answering. But it is evident that Butler has much to be proud of.
Faith has always been important to him, and it shows in his commitment to values. “Integrity, honesty and inclusivity – those things will be always close to my heart.”