Further education (FE) governance in the spotlight

Last month the government released its white paper on the future of the FE sector. The paper aims to provide FE colleges (corporations) with a new core purpose

Further education (FE) governance has been under the spotlight in recent years. With the sector facing challenges to its funding, ongoing relevance to learners (as more students opt for university) and governance arrangements, the government’s response has been widely anticipated.

Last month the government released its white paper on the future of the FE sector. The Department for Education’s (DfE) Skills for Jobs: Lifelong learning for opportunity and growth set out a vision that ultimately aims to better link up technical education provision with better employment opportunities and increased productivity. In short, the paper aims to provide FE colleges (corporations) with a new core purpose: to give people the technical skills they need to get good jobs, boost productivity and develop or progress skill acquisition and development. The white paper proposes doing this via bringing employers into the design and delivery of technical and highly technical skills; delivering a flexible Lifelong Skills Guarantee to challenge the primacy of university education; creating an FE sector that is more adept at meeting the nation’s employment skills needs; and supporting teaching excellence in the provision of technical qualifications.

For governance professionals, those aspects detailing changes in FE college governance and finance and the backstop powers of the Secretary of State to intervene will be of direct interest. As with the academy trust sector, the DfEs desire to drive good governance practice in the college sector is visible to all. Their commitment is welcome; especially the recognition that potential high flying leaders will be supported via an ‘end to end’ programme for FE leadership and governance.

The good governance triumvirate of the chair, chief executive and governance professional can be undermined when one of those positions does not fully appreciate the importance of good governance. It is welcome to see the DfE supporting each player in that relationship.

The fourth chapter of the white paper details the governance and accountability proposals, including intervention, governance expectations and wider accountability. The new powers to be made available to the Secretary of State include changing the membership and composition of governing bodies and leadership, closing and setting up corporations. On the face of it, the proposals don’t seem that unusual. However, given that FE corporations are exempt charities, the detail will need to be looked at more closely.

The chapter proposes work to ‘level up’ governance standards across the sector building on the Ney Review’s recommendations. The major proposals regarding governance will be subject to consultation in the coming months, but of note are the sections relating to:

  • being clear as to what good governance and good leadership looks like;
  • being more specific about governing body composition, skills, competencies, recruitment, retention and development;
  • revising the department’s guidance on senior leadership recruitment, including the composition of interview panels;
  • formal requirements for governing bodies to annually self-assess their performance with an additional regular external governance review;
  • competency frameworks for governors and the governance professional; and
  • looking at how to make it possible to pay the chairs of governing bodies in specific circumstances.

Alongside this, the intention is to change funding and accountability frameworks. New performance measures will focus more on outcomes rather than processes, and there will be an ‘annual strategic conversation’ between the department and colleges to discuss organisational objectives, risks, opportunities, good practice and plans. These changes will impact the work of the governing body to provide strategic leadership, oversight, and accountability.

The Institute looks forward to continuing conversations with the DfE as to how best deliver on their intentions to drive up governance understanding and practice in the sector. We will also respond to relevant consultations on the broader themes of oversight and accountability and welcome the input of members to inform our submissions.

Louise Thomson FCG, Head of Policy (NFP), The Chartered Governance Institute UK & Ireland.

How can we help?

We provide practical guidance, knowledge and training to help company secretaries, clerks and leaders in academy schools to meet their legal and highest standards of governance. We also help trusts to develop good practice that goes beyond compliance and contributes to the achievement of educational aims.

To find out more, visit our Academy Governance hub page.

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