John Bingham: 'This reform will improve the support that governors need'

Chair of the board, Association of Colleges
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The Independent Online

People who are thinking about becoming a college governor often spend little time considering how the institutions work and how they are directed before deciding to join. Most become a governor because they want to put something back into their community – they possess knowledge or skills which they know will be of benefit to staff and the students they serve – and understandably they don't focus their thoughts too much on the intricacies of further education and the instruments and articles of governance.

But, on joining a board, they quickly need to become familiar with specialist knowledge. Unfortunately, the information, training and support offered to prospective, new – and, to a certain extent, existing – governors have often been limited and dependent on individual colleges. In many respects, there has been a tendency to assume governors will ask questions of areas they need to know about.

The sector needs to address this issue and provide more all-round support. The creation of the Governors' Council by the Association of Colleges is at last about to change this. It will provide guidance and assistance that governors tell us they need. The result is that governors are already having a greater impact – and reporting greater job satisfaction – than in the past.

I'm not suggesting college governors are crying out for help. In some ways, it's almost insulting to suggest they need to be trained at all in certain areas. A local business person who decides to become a college governor, for example, is unlikely to need training in strategy, finance or business. But they may need help grasping the idiosyncrasies of college funding rules.

While existing training already provides this to a certain extent, the new Governors' Council offers a number of ways in which governors will be able to explore this topic in greater detail, should they wish. Many do. After all, the key roles of college governors – setting strategic direction, ensuring accountability, and monitoring and evaluating college performance – require, at least in part, knowledge around how college funding streams can best be used.

The majority of colleges provide institution-specific inductions to all new governors, but governors are increasingly expressing an interest in training or induction of a more generic nature, so that they can learn more about other colleges and how they work, and also gain a better appreciation of the college sector in general.

Similarly, governors have told us they would like to be better briefed on the wider political context in which further education sits.

Because the Governors' Council was only formed last year, it is in many ways still somewhat embryonic, but it has already started to make an impact. We have introduced, or in a few instances revived, national and regional networks. Governors say they are benefiting enormously from better links with other colleges, and for the first time feel as though there is genuine collaboration.

We have produced a new national briefing system for governors that includes important information on national developments affecting colleges, and we have been instrumental in ensuring that governors are invited to the special events and seminars that have previously been seen as primarily for college principals.

There has long been an emphasis on chairs of governors, simply because they sit at the helm of all other governors. What is crucially different now is that this emphasis is being extended so that all governors are being provided for.

There's no doubt that being a college governor is a time-consuming and demanding position of responsibility, but those who take on the role speak passionately about the unrivalled satisfaction of seeing for themselves the tangible benefits of determining the overall pattern of the college's provision, and making sure that everyone within the college does their bit to make it happen.

Such a job allows governors to bring new ideas to the table and they get to see the results of their work in action. Any governor will tell you that there's nothing like attending a college presentation event, where they see the huge impact that colleges make on the lives of individuals from all backgrounds. I hope that the Governors' Council will increase this sense of pride and improve the support for governors to the level they need and deserve.