Malcolm Walton admits he has a tough job. Officially the national governance consultant to the Association of Colleges (AOC), he could,according to current fashion, be dubbed the FE governors' Tsar. It's snappier, but wouldn't describe the huge hill he has to climb in improving the quality of college governance and - his main concern - getting people to appreciate the work of unpaid college governors.
Colleges won't be able to attract the right people to fill up the seats on governing bodies unless that happens, he argues. The current view of governors needs changing. "We have to remember these people are volunteers - yes , the job goes on the CV and there is a lot of job satisfaction, but they are not paid. So every time we knock them or say we want you to do a better job, they might be tempted to go elsewhere."
In addition to an often-unappreciative public, governors face another challenge, he says, in dealing the huge change that there has been in further education. "It's moved from competition to collaboration almost overnight," he says. "We have to remember that up until 2000 the former Further Education Funding Council (FEFC) was encouraging colleges to compete with one another. Now all that has changed, and colleges are encouraged to collaborate not only with one another, but with other agencies, national and local, as well."
In the brave new world of collaboration route maps are obviously needed, and a new free hotline, set up to provide advice and information for governors, has seen the number of calls steadily rising. Walton knows he treads a fine line here. "We are not encouraging its use for whistle blowing," he says, "but genuine enquiries from governors, chairs, or clerks of governing bodies. We don't want it to be divisive."
To that end, callers will get advice on a range of problems from financial to ethical. What happens, for instance, if the firm of a local solicitor, who is on the board, also works for the college? Even if the board member is not the contact, is there a conflict of interest?
Walton and his team of consultants will also follow up any poor inspection report, turning up in person to help remedy any problems, and colleges can ask him to come along if they want advice. He plans many visits, as well as culling information from an online questionnaire he has sent to all governing bodies.
The culmination of this process comes tomorrow, when the results of that survey will be divulged at the first ever residential conference for governors held in York. High on the agenda will be the role of chairs of governing bodies. "One of the downsides of collaborative changes that came with advent of the Learning and Skills Council [LSC] is that people tended to want to talk to principals, not governors," says Walton. "Governors feel they should be consulted more directly, and we'll be bringing along some executive directors of the LSC to hear what they have to say at first hand."
Walton also wants to change the way bodies operate. "It can be very reactive - 18 people round a table from diverse backgrounds working to the agenda of the principal and his team, rather than an agenda prepared by the chair and his team. We need to tip that balance."
Stories like that of the governing body which ran up a very large financial deficit - because it believed what is was told by the principal - bear this out. In addition, says Walton, not enough governors have got to grips with the key business - the learning needs of students. "They tend to back off on curriculum issues," he says. "We want them to refocus and realise they can think about the curriculum and understand it."
David Kissman, the chair of governors at Broxtowe college, Nottingham, and an associate consultant of the AOC, agrees that initiatives such as the helpline are useful if governors are not to become "nodding donkeys". "The way things are dropped on you at short notice means it can be difficult to maintain the level of understanding needed to sign off and approve what the full-time staff are putting in front of you," he says.
The role needs redefining now that the LSC, unlike the old FEFC, has a planning as well as a funding role. "We want good people. That can be difficult if people are left feeling part of the responsibility they had has been taken away - they may feel, 'Why bother?' Now there is more strategic involvement with other groups, we need to explain how that works," he says.
Walton says governors also want more flexibility in how they appoint to boards, so that the right mix can be found for each college, reflecting local needs. The government is about to launch a review of college governance, and some hope it will abolish rules that restrict boards to quotas for groups such as local authority members or local business people.
Bill Stokoe, chair of Hammersmith and Ealing College which, with a £45m turnover, is the biggest recipient of funds from the LSC, would like more flexibility. Present rules mean he can only appoint one third of his board from local businesses, a figure he'd like to increase. "Local employers need to be explicit about what they want," he says. "I would like to see more of them on our board. And we need people with broad skills, people who come with an open mind, rather than pursuing their own agenda, because we are there to serve the students, and through them, the community."
'THE JOB IS TIME-CONSUMING, BUT REWARDING'
Governing bodies of FE colleges have changed since the days when they used to pitch up once a term to sign off financial statements. So says Nigel Goddard, a chartered surveyor who has returned to Bexley College to sit on the governing body to "give something back".
"Now there is a more strategic alignment of governors with the college senior leadership team over curriculum issues. You bring your own learning experiences to the table, but you don't want to step on the toes of the day-to-day managers of the college. On the other hand, some governors gettoo involved in detail and don't manage their strategic role properly.
"The job takes up a lot of time - at one stage I read loads of background guidance that was immediately superceded, and I had to start all over again. In addition to the two or three meetings a term - I'm chair of two committees - there are also events, presentations and launches. You have to keep up a certain profile.
"The spectrum of different governing bodies is quite wide, from those like select clubs to those where groundbreaking work is being done in an underprivileged area. It's an interesting and challenging role, and can be rewarding, but it's time-consuming, and undervalued generally." CHReuse content