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Governance Under Pressure: Lessons from Further Education

by David Allen OBE, Susie Hills | May 20, 2021 | Governance & Policy

Halpin CEO Susie Hills recently caught up with Halpin Consulting Fellow David Allen OBE on all things Covid, governance and further education. Here’s their conversation:

Susie: Covid has put governance under pressure – governing bodies in all sectors having to respond quickly to changes in government policy and to urgent needs. How well do you think FE governance has held up under this immense pressure? And what have FE colleges governors and leaders learnt?

David: I think FE governance has stood up pretty well under testing circumstances. There are fewer colleges in intervention than before the pandemic and colleges have had the advantage of continuing to be funded throughout the crisis. The zeitgeist has also shifted in favour of the 50% who don’t go to university with the publication of the Skills for Jobs White Paper and the report of the Colleges for the Future Commission. I have seen plenty of evidence of governors going above and beyond to support their staff and learners. One advantage of virtual meetings has been that they can be convened informally and flexibly in order to ensure governors are consulted and kept informed. I think governors and leaders have gained confidence from their ability to deal with everything that has been thrown at them over the past year. There has been a forensic focus on learners and their needs, with a real push to ensure as far as possible that disadvantaged students are not left behind.

In FE colleges staff have been under enormous strain and wellbeing has been affected. What do you think governing bodies should be doing now to look after their workforce?

It is important that staff feel their governors are listening to them and connecting with them. As a Chair of governors, I have written to all staff on occasion just to thank them for their efforts and let them know their governing body is acutely aware of the pressures on them. We have prioritised communication with staff even more than ever and listened carefully to staff concerns on a “you said we did” basis. We have carefully analysed and responded to the staff satisfaction survey and have ensured, notwithstanding financial pressures that staff have received a bonus and a significant pay increase. We have had occasional “flip weeks” with no teaching in order to give staff a break and take the opportunity to thoroughly check covid compliance. As we come out of the pandemic it will be important to pay attention to staff overstretch and exhaustion and to continue to provide support for mental health and wellness.

Do you think governance practice in the FE was well equipped to enable agile and effective responses?

I think this will vary across and between colleges. In general though I think the answer is yes. The Association of Colleges has been very supportive throughout and their regional meetings are very helpful (and good therapy!). We have all been keen to learn from and look after each other. The atmosphere has become less competitive and more collaborative. Colleges have been superb in supporting their learners and the amount of work that has gone into this is truly inspirational.

Most of our work is with universities. What lessons do you think University governing bodies can learn from how FE has been able to respond? And vice versa?

A key feature of the pandemic has been the way in which strong partnerships have been forged locally to support communities. Colleges are exceptionally good at this since they are rooted in their local communities in a way not all universities are. In some ways the pandemic has been more challenging for universities since they tend to recruit nationally and internationally and have many students in residence. Certainly in Exeter the university and college have worked cheek by jowl and shared each other’s facilities. I think the lesson for universities (if they are not doing so already) is to be embedded and enmeshed in their local communities and be willing to provide services pro bono to local people even if they are not funded to do so. The collateral benefits of so doing are huge.

Are there new opportunities for partnerships between universities and FE and what can governors do to facilitate this?

The combination of the pandemic and the shift in public policy towards the 50% who do not go to university is a powerful motivation for change. In Exeter, the university and the college have signed a MoU to work collaboratively together. For example, the College is contracted to provide nursery facilities for the University, we are part of the South West Institute of Technology, work together on the Ted Wragg Trust of local schools and have developed pathways to enable College learners to progress to the University. It is important that university and college governors get to know each other and have a presumption to work in partnerships together.

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