As every FE corporation, governance professional and principal knows, under the Skills and Post-16 Education Act there is a mandatory requirement for colleges to commission an external review of governance (EGR) by July 2024 and every three years going forward.
The DfE sets out the expected terms and it is heartening that they state the focus of a review should not only include compliance, structures, policies, and processes, but also “the effect of board culture and behaviours on decision-making, including facilitating appropriate challenge and contribution, and on the culture and tone of an organisation”.
This is against the backdrop of an unfortunate narrative that seems to lay the failures of colleges at the door of governing bodies. While there are undoubtedly examples of weak governance, no board operates in isolation from its senior leadership team (SLT) or the sufficient (or otherwise) allocation of adequate resources to support governance, including in its governance professional. A governing body can only be as effective as the relationships and culture that underpin it.
On a practical level, EGRs require colleges to spend thousands of pounds at a time when there are more pressures on already stretched budgets than ever before. It is essential, therefore, that the EGR brings real value and a set of recommendations that, when implemented, will have a positive impact on the quality of the learner experience and the success of the college.
To achieve this, it is vital that everybody involved in governance — governance professionals, chairs, governors, and senior leaders — agrees the purpose, understands the value and is prepared to contribute to the process.
The DfE guidance requires any EGR to take into account the Code of Governance (most usually the sector’s Code of Good Governance for English Colleges). The Code provides an excellent checklist of statutory, regulatory, and good practice markers to follow (namely, the process). In isolation, however, it cannot tell us how effective a college’s governance is. A board could comply fully with the Code and, arguably, still have meetings that fail to do their job.
Anyone who has worked with boards will recognise the scenario where agendas, papers, procedures, and processes are all in place, yet somehow there’s a disconnect in the boardroom. Maybe the meeting has gone rogue, the discussion has become fractious or has veered off at a tangent from the main purpose and valuable time has been lost. Or maybe proceedings are stilted, individuals are disengaged and decisions are made on the nod. People leave the meeting feeling dispirited and frustrated. All this despite having a diverse group of highly qualified, talented, and experienced individuals around the table.
The answer, to me, lies in the first P: People. People make a culture where the shared purpose (the college mission, vision, values and strategy) drives everything and strong performance oversight becomes the norm. Relationships at all levels are key: between the chair and individual governors; between governors and the SLT individually and collectively; and between the chair, principal and the governance professional. I’m not talking about being ‘mates’ — a relationship between chair and principal conducted in the pub or on the golf course is not good governance (and believe me, it happens!).
Through getting relationships right, a truly inclusive and dynamic governance culture can be built, based on mutual trust, strong communication and an understanding of and respect for each other’s roles. Within such a culture, every individual is confident to perform their role, and individual contributions — including those that don’t conform to the norm — are valued. Expectations are set and communicated, and strong challenge is part of the package when these are not met.
There is no doubt that in organisations where governance is most effective, any sense of ‘us and them’ has been eliminated and a ‘one team’ approach is evident. Governors operate true strategic leadership in pursuit of the college’s common purpose, leaving the principal and SLT to run the college, implement strategic goals and mitigate strategic risk (the performance).
Colleges should invest in developing relationships (including induction and training) not only for chairs and governors on their roles, but also for senior staff on the importance of good governance and their roles in supporting this.