This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
Speech at an event to thank college governors for their contribution to the further education sector.
I want to start by expressing my personal thanks for the work you are doing within your colleges. Since taking this job I have been constantly impressed and surprised by the dynamic nature of the sector.I am deeply grateful for the commitment and energy you bring to your roles as governors.
The work of colleges is vital. Vital for our country, which cannot succeed at our best unless everyone reaches their potential. Vital for individuals who study at an FE college; like you were vital for me when my school didn’t offer the courses I wanted, so I went to West Cheshire College instead.
I would like to talk today about your pivotal role in raising standards in Further Education. Back in November I set out my four priorities: Traineeships, Apprenticeship reform, which we are considering in light of the Richard Review, Qualifications and qualifications reform, and Standards. These priorities are all directly aimed at raising the value, the esteem and the reputation of Further Education and skills and all those who work and study in this area. My principle is clear. We will only raise the reputation of FE when we raise the quality of FE across the board, so that every college is as good as outstanding colleges are now.
Just over a year ago, ‘New Challenges, New Chances’ advocated an increasingly important role for college governors in their institutions’ decision-making processes. It called on colleges themselves to become more responsive to local needs and more accountable to their learners, employers and broader communities. And we removed a plethora of controls on college corporations to give colleges the freedom and flexibility to respond.
I have been impressed with the way the best colleges have taken ownership of this new approach and responded positively.
And this evening’s video has shown us two very positive examples, in Nottingham and Yeovil, of colleges taking a fresh look at how to engage their governors effectively.
There are many other such examples that I could cite. I know FE is justly proud of how it has seized the opportunity to embrace change. And I’m sure you would agree with me that there is still plenty more to do.
So what I want to talk to you about tonight, and hear your responses, is: what do we do to incentivise, support, and demand better standards in this new framework of flexibilities? My approach is first that the sector, under the Guild, should take control of, and responsibility for, promoting best practice, professionalism, support and improved teaching. I would like to see it take the lead in enhancing the reputation and status of the sector as a whole through providing a single collective focus for raising standards. This would include building upon and integrating the development of the ‘Leadership Exchange’, and taking forward Margaret Sharp’s recommendations to ensure that colleges really become the dynamic force in their communities that she envisaged.
The Guild and the forthcoming Chartered Status are important steps, and development is going well. So, as LSIS programmes cease, its vital role on spreading best practice and supporting improvement should be taken forward by the guild.
Second, the Government’s role is to be tougher in ensuring the right incentives, and in not tolerating poor performance and poor governance.
On incentives, we are reforming accountability. We are recognising only the best vocational occupational qualifications, starting with the Wolf list of qualifications at 14-16, now for 16-18, and will be going on in the future to apply the same principles to adult qualifications. The new Tech Bacc will have an important role to play. And funding reforms need to be mindful of their impact on incentives.
But all these things: best practice, accountability and incentives, are nothing without good governance and leadership.
All the evidence shows that effective governance and leadership are essential ingredients of a strong institution. The recent Ofsted annual report highlighted accountability, leadership and governance as vital to any college’s success.
There is a direct link between weak governance and leadership and poor financial and curriculum health. It is almost always the reason or the root cause of poor performance.
Of the 25 colleges judged inadequate overall in the last 4 academic years, every one of these was graded inadequate for their leadership and management. And in every college that improved, they had improved their rating for leadership.
In his report, the Chief Inspector identified some critical problems with governance in some colleges. Among these were a lack of effective accountability systems, inadequate self-assessment, and failure to monitor performance or provide the right kind of challenge. These problems were compounded by senior managers not having a clear oversight of college performance.
I know that, since ‘New Challenges, New Chances’ was published, much has been done to support governors in their new roles. The Association of Colleges and the Governors’ Council, working with other sector bodies, have made significant strides towards providing a comprehensive and dynamic programme; especially through embedding the standards set in the new Foundation Code.
But we must not allow the pace of change to slacken: I’m sure you will agree with me that it is college leaders who must show themselves to be absolutely intolerant of poor performance. Recognising this and taking decisive remedial action is key to achieving improvement.
Let me make clear that I will continue to look to the sector to take the lead in improving standards. But where there is insufficient evidence of prompt and decisive remedial action being taken we need to be clear that Government has a role to play.
In some cases this could entail supporting the current governor team to develop their own capacity to take the necessary steps. But it could also involve a change of leadership; or bringing in new governors; or tendering of provision to new providers where it is clear that a fresh approach is needed.
I know that achieving effective college governance is not easy. Colleges are large and complex businesses serving a wide range of customers. Striving to meet the aspirations of learners and employers alike, as well as performing a vital role at the centre of their local communities.
But I am sure we all have a good idea of what effective practice and successful governance looks like. Where decision-making processes are transparent, properly informed, rigorous and timely. Where there are appropriate and effective systems of financial and operational control.
Above all, where there is a strong commitment to providing a quality service for all those that the college serves.
From that perspective, colleges are no different from any other business. You are big businesses, with turnover, in the biggest cases, of over £100 million. For a business of that size, governance is vital. Being a College Governor is a serious job, requiring significant commitment especially from Chairs. I think it is therefore timely to consider how we support Governors. We want to work with you to look at this matter.
It is your responsibility and duty to ensure that your board has the breadth and skills it needs, whilst being nimble enough to work flexibly and in a way appropriate to modern business. You now also have the freedom to form a wider range of strategic partnerships than hitherto.
Strong and effective leadership is essential if Further Education is to take its proper place as an engine for growth in local areas; delivering high-quality teaching and learning which meets local needs. Much has already been delivered, but there is more to do. And rest assured, we will help you in whatever way we can to ensure you get the support and development that you need.
I believe, as John W Gardner, President Johnson’s education secretary put it, that ‘excellence lies in doing ordinary things extraordinarily well’.
In essence, that is the main challenge that colleges now face.
Many more people will expect excellence in Further Education and skills than only a few years ago. And the work to spread that quality throughout the system and to raise the bar still higher goes on. I am confident that, in your hands, we will achieve this.