A Compendium of Thinking on Innovative Governance in the FE and Skills Sector
Dame Ruth Silver, President of the Further Education Trust for Leadership
The importance of good and enterprising governance to the success and wellbeing of further education and skills is increasingly well recognised, yet it remains, by some distance, the most under-scrutinised authoritative role in the sector. Ensuring governance that is fit for purpose, fit for context, fit for phase, fit for circumstance and, finally, fit for place is a big issue; one of the biggest facing the sector.Yet there is little in the literature to support governors in working with their executive teams to adapt to change or to help them innovate in appropriate, context-relevant ways, and comparatively little in the way of oversight of the work they do.
Building on the shifting sands of policy reform and curriculum change demands creative, adaptable governors who are able to think both strategically and differently.The modern world of governance has changed in ways people have perhaps not noticed. Freedoms have been granted to boards and freedoms have been taken away. Like the professionals in the sector, governors have found their discretions changing all the time, like the shifting shapes of an amoeba.One thing has not changed, though. We continue to expect a huge amount of governors and boards; more, sometimes, than they have been able to deliver.
This report, and the project from which it arose, sought to create a space in which governors have been able to think about their role, how it can best contribute to the success of the sector, and how this is best achieved.One thing I have heard repeatedly in FETL’s work on governance is that while institutions have sought to bring in bright, adventurous governors from other worlds to be on their boards, in practice these individuals, great innovators and risk-takers in their own worlds, have become rather cautious and risk-averse when faced with the reality of public sector protocols and accountabilities.
Thrust into this new, largely unfamiliar and fast-evolving world, it can be tempting to reach for tried-and-tested approaches and fall into entrenched coping strategies, developed to meet the challenges of yesterday, even when the circumstances call for new ideas and a re-evaluation of current practice. We don’t want to lose this wonderful spirit of innovation and we want to ensure that the relationship between board and executive is dynamic and challenging as well as open and trusting.We do well to remember that there is no training ground for governors before they take up their role.Their learning is very much all work-based learning.Given these challenges and the paucity of relevant material currently available,there is a clear need for resources which support and stimulate boards and governors in thinking about innovation in the context both of national-level policy and of their own institutions and the communities they serve.This is what this project sought to do, first soliciting the thoughts and experiences of governors and governance experts in the sector, through in-depth interviews and focus groups, before conceptualising those thoughts and experiences in useful and interesting ways.
This is very much the way in which FETL wants its projects to operate.We are not interested in imposing an agenda on the FE and skills sector: it has many already.All the ideas we support come from the sector in its system.That is what is different about us.We recognise that there is significant wisdom out there, about what is going on, what works and what doesn’t.There is also a wish to step up to the plate and make a difference, as well as a will to learn and a willingness to get involved in the process of inquiry about that. FETL’s role is to offer the invitation to think, to harvest the responses, and help sector leaders and connected colleagues to think further and conceptualise those ideas and experiences with others so that they can be shared and applied to the wider life and experience of the sector.The think pieces and other papers and resources that emerge from this are offered as footprints for the future, taking us from practice to theory and back again, with alterations in both. I am delighted to see this emerging methodology reflected now in a number of FETL projects, this one in particular. 6 8 9 What particularly excites me about this project, and, in particular, its conclusions, is its message of liberation and the invitation it offers,simply, to be different. It tells us that there is no one right kind of innovation, no authoritative map or rule book.That, to me, is in itself extremely energising. We need to understand that we can make our own innovation, that what works for one might not work elsewhere, and that what is innovative in one place might be deeply old-fashioned somewhere else. In other words, you have to find the innovation that fits your particular institution in its particular context, and which helps serve your particular communities. What worked in Lewisham would not necessarily work in Lewis.To have that formally set out in a document like this is really important.And to provide governors both with a sense of what good, innovative governance can look like, and with a framework though which they can reflect on their current practice and think about how to improve it, is extremely useful and timely. Adaptation, as we know, is a constant in the FE and skills world, but there is no point in adapting to yesterday’s circumstances. That is not renewal.