Should colleges require level 4s or 5s of the new GCSEs for A Level entry?

Dr Sue answers your questions on Board Composition, Having an impact & New A-level entry grades.


Question One: Board composition

I am the new clerk of a recently merged college and I am increasingly worried about the makeup of the governing body. It seems to be largely made up of colleagues and acquaintances of the chair. How can I ensure a better mix?

Successful governance requires a balanced mix of skills, knowledge and experience that is directed effectively to ensure the work of the governing body is shared equally by all governors.

To ensure that individual governors are empowered to actively participate in the work of the college, they must have up-to-date knowledge, the right skills and remain motivated to gain the experience that can only come from good attendance at meetings. They must also be impartial and prepared to challenge the executive and/or the chair. Appointing friends or acquaintances of other board members who may not be prepared to challenge in this way is not a healthy situation.

Use this opportunity to bring about change by starting with an audit of the existing blend of skills, knowledge and experience amongst the current governors. There are several tools available to help with this and I’m sure the National Clerks’ Network will be able to point you in the right direction.

The next stage is to get the board to agree to recruit new members who fill the identified gaps. You will need to set up a process where the search committee (or equivalent) prioritises applications which demonstrate the particular skills, knowledge and/or experience that meet the needs of the work of the governing body.


Question 2: Having impact

I have been a governor for 12 months and I don’t know whether I am wasting my time. I try to be supportive and get the right balance of challenge but sometimes I feel my contribution isn’t valued by the executive. How can I judge the impact I am having?


You are not alone in this and it is one of the most frequently asked questions. One way to judge this is to get the clerk to organise a board effectiveness exercise. This should include questions about the quality of discussion and minutes, the impact of the board and feedback on the outcomes of previous decisions. Alternatively, why not meet up with the principal for a coffee and just ask the question.

Often principals value a challenging governor – knowing that a governor is going to ask the difficult questions encourages them get their act together and prepare much better for meetings. But they are sometimes not very good at saying thank you to those governors.

I still remember those governors who asked the awkward questions

From my time as a principal I still remember those governors who‎ asked the awkward questions. I might not have enjoyed it at the time but, looking back, I now see they fully understood their role. Having those challenging questions minuted and addressed made it much easier to demonstrate to auditors, regulators and the inspectorate that governors were holding the executive to account. Or as one previous skills minister said, “holding their feet to the fire”.


Question 3: New A-level entry grades

I am worried we have set our entry grades too low and are undermining our local schools by saying we will accept students onto our A-level programmes with only four or five 4s at GCSE when the local feeder schools are trying to encourage their pupils to aim at five 5s, including English and maths. What do you think we should be doing?


You raise a serious and complex issue. The Ofqual chart has tried to made it clear that both grade 5 and 4 are equivalent to an old grade C, but I am with you. The college should try and support schools to encourage pupils to raise their sights and should consider setting their minimum entry requirement for a 3 A-level programme at four or five grade 5’s. We need to help schools by setting the same aspiration and achievement levels. However, we need to be aware as the recent research highlighted that young people from poorer backgrounds don’t do well at GCSEs, so there needs to be some flexibility and support for them.

This is one of those issues where the college should talk to their feeder schools and try to agree an approach.

I understand your executive’s concerns about making sure you meet your student number targets but, if you felt the right level was at least 5 C’s including English and maths before the change, then you should stick with that expectation and ask for five grade 5’s, even though they are at the top end of a C.

Help schools by setting the same achievement levels

There are those who have said that getting four C’s was not enough in the past and we know that if students don’t have the right grades they struggle with the content and rigour of an A-level programme.

That doesn’t mean you should not offer them a programme at your college, it just might not be A-levels.


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