Teaching and learning are at the core of any college, says Jill Westerman – which is why governors need to know what happens in the classrooms

How much time does your board spend discussing teaching, learning and assessment (TLA)?

We show value in terms of where we spend our time . . . is the value and importance of TLA shown in the amount of time allocated to it in board meetings? Department for Education guidance and the Association of Colleges’ code of good governance are clear that this is a board duty, with the code stating that “the board must foster exceptional teaching and learning”.

As principal of Northern College until August this year, I had many responsibilities; some were duties and some passions. Teaching and learning was and is a passion, partly because of my background as a teacher, but also because it is the core purpose of a college.

Every aspect of the work should focus on the creation of an environment where successful learning takes place. Therefore, the principal and the board must, in my view, take an active interest in what happens in the classroom or other places of learning.

With the clerk, I worked to present as much as possible about teaching and learning to the board. There is no easy way to do this: we included presentations from students and staff at meetings, as well as “meet the governors” coffee and cake with students.

The quality committee played a key role, allocating at least an hour in each meeting to look at an aspect of teaching and learning; staff from across the college joined the committee to discuss TLA in their areas.

When the college implemented a new system of self-observation using film followed up with peer coaching, the quality committee discussed the plans and subsequent review in depth to ensure that the initiative was having the maximum positive impact on the quality of TLA.

Colin Forrest, a quality committee member, talks about “active governance” that goes beyond simple compliance. Structured governor interactions generate an active understanding of TLA at all levels and in all places, and create conditions for leaders to prioritise TLA.

Students film each other discussing their experiences of teaching

Another great example is happening at The Sheffield College, where the chair and co vice-chair, Seb Schmoller and Beri Hare, are working with other governors to ensure that the board moves from compliant governance to an active model that puts TLA at the heart of its work. A review of committees led to a new teaching, learning, quality and student experience committee.

Alongside this, the college’s new principal and chief executive, and the deputy chief executive, have TLA as a major focus of their job. A governor who has been a college principal chairs the new committee and meets regularly with the senior team solely to discuss teaching and learning. There is also a strong focus in the finance committee on the requirements of TLA and the impact on TLA.

The boards of Northern College and The Sheffield College each receive reports that give a more complete and rounded picture of teaching and learning. For example, at Northern College the board receives a detailed report on the annual “feedback fortnight”, which uses different and more imaginative ways beyond routine evaluations to get qualitative feedback on TLA from students.

Students may interview and film each other discussing their experiences of teaching; as principal I sat with students at mealtimes throughout the year, but focused particularly on TLA.

The Sheffield College has introduced a “Teacher on a Page” report. Aggregated data from this will give governors a more complete and rounded view of progress in teaching and learning.

There is no quick fix to ensure that a board can have a complete view of the quality and impact of teaching, learning and assessment, but giving this area thought, resource and, above all, time is vital for active governance of a learning provider.