Governance: Everton Burke, Burton and South Derbyshire College

Everton Burke is Chair of Governors at Burton and South Derbyshire College, a general FE college with the equivalent of  approximately 5,000 full-time students. He worked in FE for more than 25 years, beginning as a lecturer and working his way up to Vice Principal of City College Birmingham.

What are your hobbies?

I like to keep fit. I go to the gym at the weekends and do a lot of walking. I used to go to Birmingham City matches but I’m having a break as the emotional strain of being a fan was too much! I also like sci-fi films for some pure escapism.

Tell me a bit about your college.

We are a general FE college with the full-time equivalent of around 5,000 students. We deliver everything from entry level programmes through to degree level qualifications, and work with local employers in a wide range of sectors. One of our biggest partners is Toyota, which has its UK manufacturing base in the area.

How did you become a governor?

I worked in FE for 27 years, starting as a lecturer and working my way up to vice principal of City College Birmingham. FE has been good to me, so when I was asked to join the board I thought it would be nice to stay involved and give something back. That was in 2011. It came as a bit of a surprise when I was nominated to take over as chair a couple of years later. I’m at the stage of life where I’m winding down from running Camp Hill Academy, an alternative education provision teaching English to year 10 and 11 students recently arrived in the country, so I have a bit more time and thought I’d give the chair role a go.

What does your role as chair involve?

I work closely with the college principal and the clerk to the governing body and we have a lot of meetings to keep me abreast of what’s happening in the college. I consider it a part-time job. When I was an ordinary board member, I read my papers, turned up at meetings and made my contribution. As chair, you have to be prepared to give a lot more time between meetings.

We operate a Carver model of governance, where we all meet regularly to discuss all business, rather than the traditional model with a number of sub-committees meeting separately. When chairing meetings, I try to bring in as many governors as possible with questions and comments. Sometimes a discussion can move at quite a pace and I see my role as pressing the pause button and checking around the room so we’re moving forward together as one body.

You have to remember it is a public office and you are the face of the board. I have social media accounts and I have an opinion on lots of things, but I’m very careful what I post. Once it’s there, you can’t take it back.

How has your professional experience fed into your role?

I originally worked as a chef before going into teaching food preparation and cooking. My time in industry has given me an overview of vocational areas and an understanding that they can be resource-hungry so I want to make sure our students benefit from the most modern kit and resources we can provide.

My senior leadership experience allows me to see things from the management perspective too. Although the governing body is concerned with strategy rather than the operational side, I can still be operationally aware.

How can governing bodies best work with senior management?

You have to be transparent and open with each other. I’m fortunate that my principal and her senior leadership are the most open team I’ve ever worked with. When you read Ofsted reports on failing colleges, there’s often been a breakdown in communication and things have been hidden from governors. Mistakes are made and things don’t quite work out sometimes but, too often, there’s a culture of not admitting this. When I was a senior leader, I found that bringing a problem to the governing body was a positive thing as governors can have solutions I hadn’t thought of and useful contacts. The onus is on senior leaders as they know what’s happening operationally and they need to be open, honest and transparent in sharing that information, especially with the chair. And governors need to challenge them and not be afraid to ask questions.

How has your board contributed to the success of the college?

It’s a hard question as it’s difficult to separate the board from the executive – it’s a team effort. One thing that does stand out is when the executive suggested an international project to provide another income stream for the college. The board was a bit wary of going down that road as it was risky but eventually we decided we needed to support it. It involved setting up a women-only vocational college in Saudi Arabia, The International Technical Female College in Jeddah, which we now run with Highbury College in Portsmouth. It was the right decision and it’s been more successful than we ever could have imagined.

What’s the most rewarding thing about your role?

Helping people to achieve by giving them the very best training that we can deliver. It’s fantastic to interact with the students on learning walks. Although it’s a formal process, I take a relaxed approach to it and really enjoy it. If you don’t do something like that you’re just a photo on the website.

Why should other professionals join an FE board?

If you have a passion for education, you can make a real difference. We need people from all sorts of backgrounds – financial, estates, HR, digital – and I rely on those people to be taking a lead and posing questions in those areas. As a governor, you can play a part in creating a route that will produce skilled professionals for industry in the future.

What are the key skills governors need?

Good listening skills and being prepared to consider the views of others. You’ve got to be a team player.

What’s your approach to attracting people to the role?

It’s important to bring in people from diverse backgrounds. At the moment, gender balance is something we need to improve on our board but we’re not dogmatic about it as getting the skills and attributes we need is the key thing. Colleges need to work with organisations such as Inspiring FE Governance to help them source governors with experience in a particular sector or from a particular background.

What’s your advice for a few governor about to attend their first board meeting?

Enjoy it. Just sit back and take in as much as possible. Don’t feel you have to ask a question but if you do want to, don’t be afraid. At my first meeting, I certainly didn’t understand everything that was going on, although I’d been in FE for over 20 years. There’s no such thing as a stupid question for a new governor so ask away.

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