Dr Sue Pember, director of policy and external relations at Holex, answers your questions on college governance, backed by her experience as principal of Canterbury College and in senior civil service posts in education and skills

Question One: Executive pay

Academy governors and trustees have received a letter from the DfE asking them to justify high headteacher salaries. Are we subject to the same criteria for college principals?

As yet, there has been no sign that the DfE wants to send out a similar letter to colleges. Colleges are independent of the government, while academies are part of the DfE. This is an important feature of a college’s legal status and why the DfE may not feel it is in a position to offer such direct advice.

However, the sentiments in the letter about justifying salary levels and the need to benchmark are as relevant to governors of colleges as they are for academies. We only have to look at the row going on in HE regarding vice-chancellor salaries to see how divisive it is to pay more than what the public thinks is appropriate. It might be prudent for your remuneration committee to consider the letter and make decisions in light of it.


Question Two: Meeting staff

We are keen to be a proactive governing body but we feel the executive blocks us from getting too close to college staff. What can we do to be assured what senior staff tell us is true?

I am not sure what you mean about getting too close to college staff, but I am assuming that you want to be able to get information that helps to triangulate or correlate the data you receive at board meetings.

It is important to trust your executive team and you need to work with them, so it will take time to restore this relationship. You need to be up-front about the issue and ask the executive to set up a series of staff meetings with the governors, and organise a set of learning walks. But remember you are not there to judge any member of staff, and concerns that are raised should be noted and given to the executive to resolve and report back to you.


Question Three: Council relations

We will be in a devolved combined authority that has a skills deal, but they have not talked to us about their vision or recognised our role in setting strategy. When there is so little engagement, what should we do?

Your role as governors is clear: you have the statutory responsibility for determining the ‎mission and vision, and ensuring a secure financial future for your college – that role has not been given to the combined authority.

However, as the combined authority will have a commissioning role for a part of your adult budget, you and the executive team will need to build a relationship with them. So be proactive and arrange to meet them; write to them, explaining what you think the strategic issues are, how your college can help meet them, and what it would be useful for them to do to support you. But I think you will also need to be patient. These are new times with new teams of officers trying to get their head round a complex, integrated system that relies on several funding routes for financial stability.

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