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Interview: Fiona Chalk

Fiona Chalk, winner of Governance Champion of the Year at The Chartered Governance Institute Awards 2020, talks to Governance and Compliance about challenges in the Further Education sector and her goals for the next year.


How does it feel to win the Governance Champion of the Year award at The Chartered Governance Institute Awards 2020?

I did not expect to win as the shortlist was such a strong field. In fact, I was booked to do a live radio slot on FE News concerning new governance proposals in the Further Education (FE) sector at the same time the awards were taking place. Then the announcement came through just as I was about to go live on Skills World Live, so it was all rather exciting for about half an hour. Of course, it was a real privilege to be part of such a wonderful event. A live event would have been nice so that I could have met more people, but even though it was not live, it was certainly a memorable evening for sure.

Why did you choose to pursue a career in governance?

was a PA to a CEO and got involved in the boardroom that way, by taking minutes. I was fascinated by the dynamics in the boardroom, the psychology and how decision-making happens. It’s a very privileged position. I really like the combination of working with people in the boardroom and C-suite, many of whom are at the top of their game and from whom you can learn so much, together with the relative autonomy that the role brings and often you have the chance to make a role your own. Gone are the days when the clerk was just a minute taker. I love the psychology of groups and there’s none more fascinating than that in the boardroom. Now that I am in it, I really enjoy and appreciate the friendly and supportive networks of governance professionals that see you through the dark days and celebrate your successes with you. Also my grandfather was a company secretary at International Printing Corporation in Stanford Street in London so perhaps it runs in the genes.

How long have you been in your current role and can you talk us through your route into Governance4FE?

Most of my career has been in governance within the charity and education sectors. Latterly, I spent some of that time as an independent governance consultant supporting colleges through the implementation of a government policy which saw the merger of many colleges in the sector. This involved the merging of governance functions and setting up new governance structures across large college groups. I experienced frustrations, as did many others, in that information and resources were held by several organisations across multiple platforms, with varying cohesion, accessibility and current relevance. I thought ‘wouldn’t it be a good idea if everything was in one place?’, so that was when I decided to solve the problem. I set up Governance4FE nearly one year ago to meet the gap in the market for a solely governance focused community resource within the FE sector. It primarily acts as a shop window for governance resources, a one-stop-shop for everything those operating in the governance arena in FE need to know. It has expanded to include online tools for reviewing such things as the performance of your governance provision, as well as chair, CEO and governance professional performance, and it continues to develop and grow. There are over 250 FE colleges in the UK and the number of users has risen to about 6,500 since it was first set up. Since being nominated for Governance Champion of the Year, I’ve taken up a role as National Head of Governance Development at the Education and Training Foundation, so my work with Governance4FE must now fit around that.

What does your job involve on a day-to-day basis?

My role as National Head of Governance Development at the Education and Training Foundation is primarily focused on the design and development of training and support for chairs, governors/trustees and governance professionals. This involves everything from high-level leadership courses to induction courses for new student governors, to online modular self-study programmes and networking groups. This keeps me very close to those working in the sector which is great, whilst allowing me to be creative and deliver programmes not only to support current needs, but also to participate in thought leadership on what the future of governance within FE might look like. FE is no different from any other sector in that COVID-19 has had a huge impact, not least the transition to online learning for thousands and thousands of students, for which there are significant governance implications.

What would you consider the main governance challenges currently in the Further Education sector ?

The FE sector is under huge financial pressure. Many colleges have looked to diversify their income streams over recent years, looking to build commercial income rather than be solely reliant on government funding that has significantly reduced over the last few years. Consequently, many have been badly hit in the current crisis. To address the issues arising from both Brexit and COVID-19, however, the government has acknowledged through the recent Skills for Jobs White Paper that colleges will be at the forefront of training, re-training and upskilling the workforce to address the national skills shortages. To ensure this happens in a sustainable way, colleges will need to be involved in greater collaboration both inside and outside the sector, so setting up suitable governance structures regionally and beyond to allow and maintain this, is the next big governance challenge the sector faces. In terms of other challenges, increasing diversity in FE leadership and Ed tech are both issues that require work. We need to be thinking about what Ed tech will look like going forward, for example will we start using AI and virtual reality in classrooms? Will trustees and board members conduct visits to colleges virtually or in person going forward? Virtual learning walks are being done by governors at the moment. One of the biggest challenges will be to ensure secure, safe platforms for young learners. This is a key safeguarding issue. There is also the issue of equality of access to technology. Finally, there is the issue of the mental health of staff and students and the mental health of CEOs. Boards have had to balance the requirement to hold executives to account alongside the need to support them throughout the pandemic, and this balance needs constant review and adjustment as challenges to the business continue to evolve.

What has been your biggest achievement in your role so far?

Setting up Governance4fe – seeing the site stats continue to grow month on month and have so many people in the sector say how useful they find it. It is something I wish I had had access to when I started out, so it’s great to be able to give something back that will help others on their journey. Something that will hopefully, ultimately, lead to better outcomes and life chances for all FE students through better governed colleges.

What advice would you give to those beginning their governance career?

Understand the unique value you have in your role and align it with what others around you are doing, so governance grows as an enabler of improved organisational performance. Likewise, your own performance is enhanced through working with others. Network with like-minded persons in your profession for support and learning, and attend as much CPD as you can afford. I didn’t have the opportunity to go to university when I was younger or follow a traditional route through Chartered Status, but I never let that hold me back. I went to a FE college, which served as a portal to better things for me, hence my passion for the FE sector. Also, read or listen to those who have gone before you. I always have a podcast on the go, whether I am driving, ironing, cooking dinner, etc. – you can never stop learning.

Looking forward to 2021, what does the next year hold for you? Are there any particular goals you are hoping to reach?

To design and develop impactful training and development programmes to enable others to fully inhabit their roles with confidence and expertise, which will see them positively impact on the institutions in which they work. Also, to continue learning all the things that I don’t know, in order to develop and enable me to more effectively support others in their own development.

The Chartered Governance Institute UK & Ireland Awards 2020