Mark Trinick, CEO of VLE Support Ltd, has now been a Governor in Further Education for 18 months, having just completed his first full academic year. Here he reflects on his experiences so far.
“Having once been a student and a teacher in FE, and being a supplier to education, I felt fairly comfortable with the college environment. But becoming a Governor has definitely added a fourth perspective to my understanding of this fast-paced, pressured and rewarding sector,” Mark began.
In January 2020, Mark was asked to join the governing body of LASEEG (London & South East Education Group, the overarching organisation incorporating London South East Colleges (LSEC) and London South East Academies Trust (an eight school multi-academy trust ). Mark’s enthusiasm and inability to say ‘no’ meant he was soon taking on additional responsibilities as a Governor on the LSEC Board, as Chair of the Curriculum and Standards committee, as Link Governor for STEM and as GDPR/Data contact.
“When I was first asked to join LASEEG, I wondered what I could possibly bring to the role, except perhaps my previous experiences with FE. However, it soon became clear that any relevant skill or contact I have would be exploited. But it’s reassuring to know that I have value for the Group!”
Mark’s value was brought home fairly quickly when lockdown hit. “Almost overnight, we were asking many of our staff to take a giant leap in their digital competence in order to respond to the various challenges of delivering quality teaching remotely, and to exploit a range of technologies to plan, deliver and manage that successfully. We needed them all to become instant experts, regardless of previous experience.”
East Sussex College Group and LSEC applied for funding to develop online resources and staff training to upskill staff as quickly as possible, including looking at different planning approaches like blended and flipped learning, using the variety of tools available. Lead by Louise Wosley at LSEC, the group was putting together a team to manage this initiative and Louise turned to Mark for his experience of digital technologies. “Through my contacts, I was able to get the ETF [the Education & Training Foundation] involved early on, which I am sure contributed to winning the funding and to the smooth running of the project. I felt really useful to be able to make that connection, knowing how crucial the project would be for the experience of both staff and students.”
Another lasting effect of the pandemic has been to focus on the importance of workplace skills. “I’m really excited by the ‘HE in FE’ concept,” said Mark, “More colleges, including ours, are looking to offer higher learning opportunities in a more local, less expensive and – hopefully – more accessible way. I hope we will see a more diverse range of people experiencing higher level studies as a result. As a local resident and local employer, I can bring insight into the needs of local businesses because we need to make sure our offer fits their future employment needs. I think HE in FE is one way in which we do that.”
Mark’s view is very much in line with that of LSEC, that education is more than simply about qualifications and can have a much wider social impact. This was recognised in two Awards the Group won during 2021: the TES FE Awards 2021 for ‘contribution to the local community’, including their #FEFoodBankFriday initiative (link to https://www.lsec.ac.uk/news/2581-foodbank) and; a Public Sector Leadership award at the Social Value Awards 2021, for being the first education group to embrace the concept of social value.
The TES Awards 2021 actually added three ‘gongs’ to the LSEC virtual trophy cabinet; as well as the contribution to the community award, the organisation was also recognised as both FE College of the year and Overall FE provider of the year. This coming the year after their Principal, Sam Parrett, was awarded FE Leader of Year in 2020. “I can claim no credit at all for any of these awards but I am very proud to support the people who worked so hard for them, especially in such challenging times” Mark added.
“From my education and employment background as an engineer, STEM subjects have always been important to me. I was therefore very happy to take on the role of Link Governor for STEM across the group. This has increasingly led to a focus on the Green and Decarbonisation economy, from looking at new qualifications to our ground-breaking new building, which will be one of the ‘greenest’ public buildings to date.”
“As a board of Governors, we are required to have – or to quickly gain – such a wide diversity of knowledge to support decision-making. Thinking about the new building, for example, I have never been involved with Estates planning or management before but the complexities of building viability, the planning process and so on required a fairly steep learning curve. Fortunately, Governors work as a team and we each bring different experiences and knowledge to the table, too.”
Mark says the learning has definitely been a two-way street. “As a supplier to FE, I thought I knew how it worked but closer involvement has definitely given me better insight. I think there is a tendency for suppliers to sell – or try to sell – what we think is the ‘best’ product without taking the time to really understand the challenges FE faces. From the outside, I think suppliers have misunderstood problems when we really should be taking the time to get under the skin of our customers. If we make products that fit their need, it’s a win/win for us both. Although at times there has been a tension between devoting time to my business and to my role as a Governor, I think this additional insight has been worth that.”
Mark is also honest enough to admit that he’s developed his personal skills too. “I’m a typical engineer,” he joked “so I usually only read the instructions after I’ve put the thing together, if at all! But you can’t do that with important documents for a board meeting. I’ve learnt to have a bit more patience, to read thoroughly and to take in the key points in advance. Of course, this process becomes easier with time, when you understand better what you are reading, and your frame of reference expands enormously.”
Although Mark does describe it as a fantastic experience which he continues to enjoy, he admits the time commitment can be daunting. “I think, in the past, there was a tendency for Governors to be professional people who had retired or semi-retired and therefore perhaps had less demands on their time. I think it’s also probably true that, before lockdown, leaving work for a 5.30pm meeting and getting home around 8pm perhaps had less impact on the life of my young family. But the combination of working from home and taking on additional responsibilities has sometimes caused some frictions; 5.30pm is teatime for my kids but I’m opting out to go to a virtual meeting instead! I am very lucky that my wife is so supportive. As a teacher herself, she understands the importance of the governor role but, as my wife, I know it sometimes tries her patience!”
As an experience so far, Mark readily agrees that becoming a Governor has been a very positive one. “Clearly it is a responsible role: as a board, we are held to account by OfSTED and the FE Commissioner for the safe and strategic management of the Group. But the reward for that is to be involved in some really exciting initiatives that could have a significant lasting impact on our students and our wider community. Who wouldn’t feel inspired to give whatever we could to that?”
To read more about Mark’s thoughts on first setting out as a Governor in our interview in January 2020 here: https://www.lsec.ac.uk/news/2518-mark-trinick-lsec-alumni