February 2012


  • Fathoming governance
    Guidelines designed for college principals on how best to work with their self-governing boards may also offer useful insights for school leaders grappling with new-found independence, as John Smith explains. More
  • Vertigo
    The atmosphere is calmer, behaviour has improved, even results are up – Dorothy Lepkowska examines schools which have found that moving to mixed age or ‘vertical’ tutor groups has had a profound effect on school life. More
  • A healthier break
    Relying on snacks, cigarettes and alcohol to get you through another arduous working day? Susie Kearley has a better recipe for coping with stress. More
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Guidelines designed for college principals on how best to work with their self-governing boards may also offer useful insights for school leaders grappling with new-found independence, as John Smith explains.

Fathoming governance

Over the last decade the level of self-government of schools has steadily increased, manifested most recently in the explosive growth in academies. Further education colleges went down this path much earlier. In 1993 the then-Conservative government took colleges out of local authority control, vesting ultimate powers in legally established ‘corporations’, that is, governing boards.

It is a key point. Many principals welcomed the new freedoms but the real power lies finally with the board. The board’s powers include ownership of the estate and assets, employment of the staff, responsibility for the services provided, including the mission and character of the college and, importantly, full responsibility for the college’s financial health.

Much of this may seem very familiar to headteachers, particularly those leading academies or considering converting. Among the accompanying changes to colleges over time, two are highlighted here.

First, given the new position of colleges as self-governing institutions, principals took on the role of what in other public and private sectors would be designated chief executives, rather than the previously more restricted role of college principal.

Second, and perhaps less publicly noted, governing boards increasingly took their powers and responsibilities to heart, leading to new and sometimes more challenging relationships with principals.

This is graphically illustrated by the casework of the Principals’ Professional Council (PPC). At the heart of most of the cases involving college leaders was the issue of relationships with the governing board, either as the cause of the difficulties or as the outcome of other difficulties.

As a result of this, the Lancashire colleges, a group of 12 FE and sixth form colleges in the county which had co-operated on a formal basis for many years, commissioned guidelines on establishing positive principal-board relationships to be written from the principal’s perspective. The draft guidelines were presented in partnership with the PPC at the Association of Colleges annual conference in November 2011 and were warmly received. Now a dissemination strategy is being drawn up which will further involve the PPC.

Principle and pragmatism

There are three imperatives for establishing the best possible relationships between principal and board and these are a mixture of principle and pragmatism:

  • Morally, it is the right thing to do. Colleges are part of the public sector, and the governing board, in effect, holds this key public service in trust. This must be respected by principals who, after all, are not in the position of chief executives in the private business sector.
  • It is a key element in the success of the college and so of the principal. Mutually respectful and supportive relationships between the governing board and the chief executive of the organisation will provide a stable base for progress. The reverse will consume attention and energy to no purpose.
  • In a highly volatile climate, a positive relationship with the governing board is the best safeguard for a principal and for the stability of the college. The college sector has been characterised in recent years by increased student targets, cost constraints, volatile funding flows, challenging industrial relations and an expectation of ever-rising quality, focused on student outcomes. In this climate, principals have been increasingly vulnerable to some or all of financial difficulties, inspection outcomes and whistleblowing allegations. The circumstances in the next five years are likely to be even more challenging.

No two colleges are the same and the guidelines require interpretation to be applied by individual principals in their unique circumstances, taking due account of the history and culture of the college and its board and, importantly, the nature of the principal’s current relationship with the board. The potentially dynamic nature of the relationship, through for instance changing personnel, needs also to be acknowledged by individual principals. A change of chair, in particular, can be significant.

Remarkably, the practical issues related to principal/board relationships are seldom addressed nationally. Government, perhaps rightly, has confined itself to issuing instruments and articles of government for colleges which necessarily are legalistic; they are an essential starting point but are of limited practical help in supporting this key relationship on a day-to-day basis.

In the current 18-page document, less than a page is devoted to defining the respective responsibilities of board and principal. Perhaps principals and their boards should welcome this unusual restraint. As well as being brief the instruments and articles are, to a degree, ambiguous with no clear and certain delimitation of the powers and responsibilities of the board in relation to the principal.


The principal’s multiple accountabilities form the background for the relationship with the board. Clearly, the primary accountability is to the board itself. The board appoints the principal and only the board can dismiss the principal (unless the secretary of state wishes to dismiss the board itself). Most principals will have this fundamental relationship very much in mind.

Then there is accountability to Parliament directly through the principal’s role as the college’s accounting officer, which can in certain circumstances lead to tensions with the board this may be different for school leaders.

There is also accountability to the government’s agencies: currently, the Young People’s Learning Agency (soon to be Education Funding Agency), the local authority in the case of sixth form colleges, and the Skills Funding Agency for FE colleges. While this accountability is formally that of the institution, in normal circumstances it is the principal who is answerable. Accountability to government agencies is changing, with the intervention powers of the agencies set to reduce and those of boards to increase.

There is an informal but nevertheless real accountability to the community served by the college. This, of course, will include students, their parents and in some cases employers. This is set to increase with the relaxation of accountability to government agencies being replaced with accountability to the communities served.

There is also accountability to staff as stakeholders.

A particular issue for principals is the twin moral context within which they work which can be characterised as both a public service ethos and a business ethos.

The public service ethos will have expectations such as transparency, collaboration for the greater good and maintenance of a range of programmes and services to meet students’ needs, whether or not they are cost-effective.

By contrast, the business ethos will have expectations of competitiveness, growth, efficiency and financial success. In fact, the situation is not a choice of either/or but can be seen as a continuum with a pure public service ethos at one end and a pure business ethos at the opposite end. The key issue is that of aligning the values and priorities of the board and those of the principal to agree the appropriate position on the continuum for the individual college.

Building trust

The overarching goal of any principal should be to build the board’s trust in him/her. Trust can be seen as an intangible asset that can be banked against the times – and they will, of course, come – when it needs to be drawn on. It is trust which gives the principal maximum flexibility and leeway in decision-making in relation to the governing board. A key goal of any guidelines is to promote the building of trust.

Undoubtedly, given that successive governments have moved the schools sector towards the levels of self-government long established in the college sector, the issue of senior leader-governor relationships will also begin to reflect experience in colleges and will become an increasingly crucial area for school leaders to manage.

John Smith is a former college principal and works with the Lancashire Colleges group and the Principals’ Professional Council.

Fathoming governance