Tightropes and tricky acts

January 10, 1997

I am not sure if the dog days of Christmas occur before the new year or after it when those who have not gone back to work wish they had done so and those who have resent those who have not. Either way the longueur is worse, I am told, when Christmas falls on a Wednesday. So this is a time to reflect and speculate.

There have been some significant changes at the Further Education Funding Council - a new chief executive and a new chief inspector - and at the Association of Colleges some new wine in an old bottle as Roger Ward gained the top job. The first two have difficult acts to follow but Ward has the more difficult job of following his own act and making it seem new.

The year has also seen some significant proposals for change. Two reports stick out. The first was Sir Ron Dearing's attempt to square the circle 16-19 provision. The second was Lord Nolan's invitation to the system to put its house in order on governance - to be more accountable even if the character of the appointment of governors might be thought to resemble that of a gentleman's club more than that of a democracy.

But the year closed with a scandal. The saga at Stoke will lead to renewed calls for change in the character of governance and management. In 1997 we will be lucky to satisfy the public by just installing better codes. But clearly there is a need. We will also need an independent mediation and arbitration service to sort things out when the most special of special relationships - between the board and the principal - goes wrong.

Last year saw a trickle of mergers, will 1997 see a flood? The economic reasons are compelling and in many cases the educational reasons are good too. But mergers can be distracting and destabilising, not the least for senior staff if the probity presumption is that all mergers require a clean sweep at the top. This is not realistic. Some mergers are takeovers, a transfer of assets from the weak to the strong, and governors need guidance on when they are in the merger business and when they are in the takeover business.

The question of personal liability has not gone away. If further education is to be governed by the modern equivalent of butchers, bakers and candlestick-makers - the accountants, lawyers and personnel managers who dominate governing bodies - they must know there are safety nets. We might expect: a code for managers; a mediation and arbitration agency; protection from personal liability; greater clarity about mergers and takeovers; an understandable funding system; and a national body that asserts equality of recognition of the roles of governors and managers and tries to persuade a new government that to do the job we need the tools.

And if all this seems like a mix of new year resolutions and an early letter to Santa for 1997, if you have not said where you are going you have no right to complain about where you are.

Keith Scribbins is chair of governors, City of Bristol College.

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