What happened to August?

September 8, 1995

There was a time when you knew it was August. Its start was signalled by the publication of a major document by the old Department of Education and Science on which comments were required by the end of the month. Now that the DES has been transmogrified through Department for Education to Department for Education and Employment we cannot, it seems, rely on the old signals.

Maybe this year there are other captivating concerns - like the job structure in the new department. Or, perhaps, now that college leaders have shorter holidays, consultation even in August could not be relied on to bring a minimum of responses. Then, again, it might have something to do with faxes, modems and email. A leadership that is constantly in communication cannot be incommunicado, even in August. So will August be a dull month in future?

Not if this year was anything to go by. One Lord (Nolan) and a knight (Sir Richard Greenbury) have seen to that. The Nolan Committee on Standards in Public Life has published its issues and questions document on local public spending bodies covering further and higher education (a note helpfully tells us this includes universities), grant-maintained schools, TECs and LECs and housing associations. Views are sought by the end of October "if possible" so while the document hit the streets at the start of August, even those who are incomunicado can catch up when they get home.

The timetable might even make it possible for every governing body in the land to study the issues and reach a view. That the representative bodies - the Association for Colleges, Colleges Employers Forum, Association of Principals of Colleges, Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals and the teachers' unions - should also submit views goes without saying. Perhaps there is room for a joint submission from these organisations. I hope so. It will not only mean more impact but provide a much needed focal point for a fragmented service.

Lord Nolan's introduction sets the tone. Ever philosophical, it says that in view of great recent change "we need to be sure that in seeking improvements in service we have not put at risk those values and standards which are the cornerstone of public life". Three issues will dominate: the appointment and accountability of board members, the role of boards in relation to officers and staff and the safeguards needed in respect of conflicts of interest.

The questions set and issues raised all go to one point. It is as if we have all been in a dream in the early years of incorporation - a dream that we were to be entrepreneurial, risk takers like company directors. Now, since some nasty stuff has hit a few fans, we have to wake up - wake up a responsibility to be entrepreneurial but also to act properly. Nolan creates a new age; the age of proper entrepreneurialism.

Cynics might say that that is a contradiction in terms and if you want to see scandal in high places, look at the private sector. But do not look too long for if Sir Richard Greenbury has his way the private sector, too, will embrace probity. He recommends that remuneration committees should report to annual general meetings, compensation for loss of office should be reduced and generally there should be increased accountability to shareholders for director's remuneration through a new code of best practice.

So, August was not dull. In the semi-public and private sectors the Lord Nolan and Sir Richard have essentially set the same brain teasers. Will the answers be the same, I wonder.

Keith Scribbins is chair of governors of South Bristol College and of the Colleges' Employers' Forum.

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