“The thing is”, said the principal in a purposeful tone, “it’s not in anyone’s interests for the college to continue to put on provision of this standard where the success rates are so low. We have to focus on doing what we do best and ensuring the learners are set up to succeed, not fail”.

So asserted the Principal of West Herts College, a multi-campus general further education college in Watford, during a debate (at which I was present) in 2009 in a governing body meeting that resolved to close the college’s A Level provision after some eighteen years.

Up until that point in the debate, the reasoning for the proposal put forward to the board – a collection of lay business people, community volunteers and staff and students of the college, was largely technocratic – that teaching quality targets and success rates were not as high as vocational provision and thus it was a matter of management science that should cause us to agree to the proposal.

But suddenly, the question of interests was in sharp focus. Who did the college serve, and why? What if adult learners wanted to return to study at A Level? Should those failed (or not motivated) by the local school system be able to access A Levels in a college? And if so, was it our job to provide that despite the inevitable risks to success rates?

The college had been formed in 1991 as an amalgamation of a group of local further education colleges across Watford (with wonderful names like Cassio College, Dacorum College and George Stephenson College) each with a different history and role in providing non-school, non-university education for the town and surrounding areas. The merger – in direct response to government resolving to incorporate local FE Colleges and “free” them from local authority control in the early 90s – was designed to create a strong, multi-faceted general FE provider able to respond itself to the local area’s needs. Until that point, a central role of the local authority had been to determine the educational needs of the local area and provide for those needs centrally – now at least part of that role was to be carried out by and devolved to the FE corporation itself.

Once the principal had asserted that which she believed to be in the interests of Watford’s learners, the meeting made for an uncomfortable environment. The regular pattern of meetings had tended to be a collection of legalistic papers making clear to governors the ways in which the college was fulfilling fiduciary or legal compliance duties, peppered occasionally with papers inviting governors to scrutinise targets and management performance against them where few of the governors had any educational background or frames of reference with which to carry out such a task.

Suddenly, the duty which we knew we held (but rarely manifested itself in any practical sense) – that of determining the educational character and mission of the institution – was front and centre without any of the tools that would have been useful for that navigation job. The board was not given any data on A Levels provision or alternatives across Watford. It wasn’t supplied with evidence on demand for the qualification, or ideas on what else the leaners that would no longer be on the programmes would do. Floundering and uncertain, the chair steered the discussion back to the issue of success rates and teaching quality, coupled with the need to make the decision “now” or have to wait a year – and at a stroke any non-school A Level provision for Watford was voted away into history.

Strategy and skills

Almost all of the available material on governance stresses strategy and skills. Even in higher education’s “dual system” of academic boards and boards of governors, it’s the latter that sets the educational character and mission as well as holding leaders to account and ensuring that money is well spent. Much of the material then centres on seeking people with the right skills for governance. Governance is about effectiveness and technical ability, not representing interests.

But large swathes of public services are now delivered through organisations whose autonomous boards have been given the task – sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly – of determining, representing and resolving that which is in the interests of people such that those interests can be served. In times of economic comfort this perhaps matters less than when times are hard – and given that a reduction in the birth rate and the unit of resource may be coming, decisions to close, reduce or merge services or courses or provision may be on their way. If TEF and LEO say a course doesn’t provide the right outcomes, the science will say close it. But what about students for whom their local university is the only option? What if the department produces research that is essential? In these scenarios, it is critical that those making those decisions have the capacity and legitimacy to determine, represent and resolve competing interests.

Beneficiary participation is familiar to us in HE, with most student governors regularly invited to reflect on the interests of students at governing body level. And it is central to students’ unions – both in their representative function and in their democratic nature, where elections and democratic structures offer explicit opportunities to resolve competing interests. But there is little doubt that schools, colleges, universities, charities and even students unions in recent years have been nudged towards governance cultures and structures which don’t satisfactorily identify or resolve conflicts between the interests of beneficiaries or potential beneficiaries. They fail at this within themselves, and they fail across autonomous, competing providers.

A dying model

Charity in Britain is much marked by the distinction between altruism and self-help, reflecting two strands of 19th century activity – philanthropy by the well-to-do towards the poor, and mutuality by the working classes for self-help. Alongside charity, charity law and the Charity Commission, the whole movement of co-operatives, mutuals and friendly societies developed during the 19th century with its own framework of law and regulation, in particular the Registrar of Friendly Societies. But that whole tradition, which inherently understands involving beneficiaries in resolving competing interests, has not flourished in comparison with charity – and the result is a dominant hegemony of understanding around boards, governance and skills that reduces tensions over interests to a consultation function instead of a governance role. Both in the private sector board tradition and the old fashioned charity tradition, there’s no need for the messiness of deliberation or accountability – because the purpose is clear and the board knows best.

This is a scary enough business in and of itself. Plenty of research into commercialisation in the not for profit sector argues that governance can become less “responsive to community needs and more concerned with issues such as productivity and accountability”, and that boards “focus too much on output measures (e.g. are we serving more people than we were last year?) of effectiveness” and ignore other measures- such as which people it is best to serve.

So what?

The real question is why all of this should matter to us. Arguably, we should want the governance of public things should be carried out in public. In schools, colleges and universities, there is little specific regulation that determines the circumstances under which beneficiary governors may have a paper withheld from them or the circumstances under which they might be removed from a meeting. We should pay close attention to this – participation of staff and students is there in part to ensure that governance in done in the presence of those whose the decisions will principally affect and keeps those in power on their toes as a result.

It also matters because we ought to value old-fashioned concepts like representation and legitimacy. Anyone can learn how to get a manager to write a strategic plan or read a set of accounts. But while this might make them skilled and knowledgeable, it doesn’t make them legitimate. In fulfilling their “educational character and mission” purpose, all boards should contain members drawn from stakeholder groups that best reflect their range of activity – and interact with those wider communities regularly. This might mean all sorts of people depending on the context. But a non-varying quality of schools, colleges and universities is that they all have staff and students (or by proxy parents), so there should always be at least some activity for these internal stakeholder groups.

And while it is true that many “amateur” governors report that meetings paperwork is too onerous; that issues under discussion and jargon are heavily complex; that the environment of debate and responses from management to scrutiny is intimidating and that they are unclear on what they have achieved at the end of a meeting, in voicing these concerns (which they are often happy to raise “out loud”) they are highly likely to be reflecting the views of thousands of other governors. The only difference is that having applied and been recruited, those professional governors that “suffer in silence” and nod through decisions are highly unlikely to stop attending. We would do well to regard the active participation of amateur, beneficiary governors as a clear sign of governance health, not some unobtainable.

My guess is that the old, structurally democratic alternatives – just relying on a local authority or a funding council – are gone or, at best, very hard to revive. And if they returned, the sector would only moan about autonomy anyway. We thus owe it to ourselves to revive the traditions of deliberation, democracy and mutuality – first within our own institutions, then in our wider lives.

The concept, process, methodology and behaviours required to get this right – getting governance to behave in the interests of the community its organisations are made up to serve – all need further research, focus and work. And they need us – staff, students, wonks, leaders and national bodies that have until now focussed on a board’s role in fiduciary, legal and management capability – to change the way we think and alter the value that good governance perceived to bring. We do need technocratic grown-ups that can run things efficiently and know the law. But in a democracy, we also need each other.

2 responses to “Amateur hour at the governing body

  1. This note ignores the very powerful incentives to the contrary created by ill-contrived performance metrics created both by government and by the private entities that provide “ranking” of educational institutions. Teaching quality measured by the TEF is, essentially, based on “raw” results rather than “value-added”. For example, ultimate salaries or employment percentages. These favour universities that admit predominantly the best-prepared students, who come from families with more “social capital” and from better schools. Similarly, students and their families and advisors, in the UK and overseas, look to “rankings” of universities, which depend heavily on research outputs and the same flawed “raw” outcome numbers. So, too heavy consideration of true beneficiaries, such as entailed in widening participation, makes it likely that an institution will be penalised in its ability to recruit and will fall into financial difficulties. It is an old management adage that “people don’t do what is expected, they do what is inspected”. Our government, and the entities that rank universities, have defined what is inspected. Is it any wonder that the results are as described?

  2. Around 50 FE colleges closed their A-level departments between 2005 and 2015. I’d put this down more to amateurish policy making rather than blame the governors and principals. Success rate benchmarks, Ofsted ratings and reductions in post 16 funding have removed a layer of courses that were previously available (sometimes on a second chance basis) for young adults. Access courses, BTECs and £9,250 year zero courses have made up some of the slack.

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