As I stood at Leeds City College and listened to CEO Colin Booth reflect on my work as chair of Luminate, I felt both deeply embarrassed and pained.
Embarrassed as I’m used to making these tributes for others, and pained as I have had such a long association with West Yorkshire FE and it has been an honour to lead, and hold the confidence of the board, for so many years as chair.
Standing down now is a decision I can thank my past self for: in 2021 I made a speech in which I said chairs should consider eight or nine years a reasonable limit for their tenure. And so, as 2023 and my ninth year at Luminate came into view late last year, I knew it was time for the organisation to continue to move forward without me.
Do I regret making that comment? While I’ll dearly miss everyone, no. I believe that boards need to be refreshed, and new members need to have the chance to progress to vice chair and chair positions. It’s almost about doing yourself out of a job: getting to the point when there is such strength in depth among governors and the executive team means leaving on a high, having played a small part in the journey of an institution that has the lives of many at its heart.
Of course, I’m not stepping away from the FE sector. I remain in post as the chair of the Association of Colleges. In this role, I feel there’s a lot more that can be achieved. As the AoC annual conference approaches, I’ve been reflecting hard on the role FE governance must play – not only in the sector, but across society as whole.
We know that the quality of governance inside our colleges is crucial to the success of our students and our country. From student success and accountability to financial stability and long-term planning, governors and chairs make a real difference to the organisations they serve. Chairs, specifically, are responsible for building trust, mastering conflict, achieving commitment, embracing accountability and ensuring that the board focuses on delivering results and improving the outcomes of learners.
And as we look ahead to a general election next year (on Halloween, if reports are to be believed), I have three requests of our governing bodies.
First, work more closely with the education eco-system, particularly universities. Reach out to your local universities and build alliances. They are major employers and increasingly looking to their role as entrepreneurial institutions to help economic regeneration, growth and productivity with local and regional footprints. There are opportunities for alliances on educational progression, job opportunities for students, T Level placements, apprenticeships, mentoring and coaching of staff, research, and development.
Second, be opportunistic in the run up the general election. With skills and FE the talk of the political party conferences this year, this is a fantastic time for the sector to work together with one voice. Why not consider playing your part in our ‘extended team’ for AoC’s campaigning and influencing on behalf of the sector. Engage your local councillors, MPs and their staff. Keep abreast of the communications from AoC and weave the key messages into your local communications and when they visit your colleges.
And third, be place leaders and shapers. As system leaders networked with local/mayoral authorities, employers, partners, stakeholders, schools and local communities, you can deploy these connections to best effect across a disconnected education landscape which has been hard-wired to compete. This puts you in a unique place to foster and nurture collaboration to deliver improved outcomes for learners at your college and across your communities.
Finally, if I may, I have a request of the rest of the FE sector too: please recognise your governors for their dedication and hard work in your colleges. They are under-appreciated, under-valued and often misunderstood – barely receiving a mention in Ofsted reports. And yet, they are incredibly accountable for our organisations and vital to our successes.