Sheila Selwood finds it easy to explain the inspiration for the Learning Board, LSIS’s support for governing bodies.  “We don’t always see ourselves as others see us,” says the director of governance at West Herts College.

The support programme developed when West Herts governors approached LSIS after realising that  they wanted more than the internal view provided by self–assessment and, as Ms Selwood says, there was “nothing out there”.

West Herts and the service partnered to develop the programme, which examines how FE governors work as a team, and provides feedback and suggestions to allow them to improve their effectiveness. It was trialled at the college before it was rolled out nationally.

The governors of St Helen’s College, Merseyside, used the Learning Board last year, after the clerk to the corporation, Chris Jones, picked up a leaflet at the LSIS annual governance conference.

Ms Jones says: “Another clerk at the conference had had it in her college and was recommending it at one of the workshops, so I brought it back to our board as an idea and our governors decided to go with it.

“Initially, the Learning Board facilitators came in and discussed it with the principal, the chair and myself, and gave us quite an extensive questionnaire.”

The facilitators then conducted interviews lasting an hour and a half with governors, face–to–face or over the phone.

“I thought ‘this isn’t going to go down very well with the governors,’ and I don’t think they thought it would take an hour and half. But once they started talking about the college it was hard to stop them,” says Ms Jones.

Interviews include questions on the core purpose and values of the college, the risks to it, the relationships between board members, the chair, senior management teams and stakeholders and how each governor saw themselves as fitting into to that picture.

The consultants also attend and observe a range of board meetings: to “get under the skin” of how the board operates, as Shelia Selwood explains.

The whole idea of other people coming in and observing the meetings works”

“The whole idea of other people coming in and observing the meetings works. They see how the board communicates, how the board and management interact and how they behave as a corporate team – an external person can often see things that you don’t see yourself because you’re enmeshed in the process,” she says.

Rather than compliance, the process focuses on five key areas: core business, trust and support, contribution and execution, stakeholder engagement and leadership. It is based largely on a model developed by Patrick Lencioni in his 2002 book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, which puts effective teamwork at the centre of the success of any business or organisation.

Consultants take their findings and compile a report which is fed back to the college but, says Ms Jones, the feedback still takes into account the thoughts of the board.

“The report came back to the chair and was very much of the view that it was our report. We were told to amend anything if we wanted. So, for example, there were recommendations based on comments by just one governor, and the chair was keen for those to be separated out from things flagged up by a larger number of governors.”

Ms Selwood has continued to be involved with the programme, and has contributed as an external assessor at another college.

She says: “It has enabled people to look at their framework of governance; it has enabled them to look at the quality of information they receive, to look at the relationship between the board and the college managers.”

Although not a problem at her own college, the Learning Board has also helped colleges that have “thornier issues”, such as the dominance of a particular governor, the chair or the principal, or an imbalance in the relationship between manager and governors.

“If there are difficult issues, hearing them from somebody else can sometimes be easier than hearing from a colleague,” she says.

However, it is also able to flag up much simpler changes that could make a huge difference to the operation of even a fairly effective board.

Ms Selwood says: “The external assessors noticed the board didn’t have an opportunity to socialise and to talk to each other outside meetings, so we introduced a break half way through
a meeting. That was just one simple
thing we were able to change, which we hadn’t spotted at all.”

Governors at St Helen’s College had a similar experience when their feedback suggested they move their development session to a seperate evening, rather than the usual slot before the board meeting.

Ms Jones says: “It focuses the governors’ minds on ‘that’s training, this is board business’, which was an interesting observation. It’s not rocket science, is it? But it’s made a difference.”

The concept of the Learning Board is based on a theory of group problem–solving developed by theorist Peter Senge, which describes a learning organisation as one where members are continually reflecting and learning as they work, so the feedback is only the beginning.

Ms Jones says: “We dedicated a whole meeting to the LSIS report. We went through it systematically and picked out actions, and I’m now going to develop a quality improvement plan that we can follow up in the long term.”

For Ms Selwood, the facilitated self–assessment must be built on with continuing self–assessment.

“You’re in a changing sector so you should be robust about your own strategic leadership role — which many colleges are,” she says.

“If you don’t, you’ll never identify improvement and you can become incredibly complacent. What a rotten role model that would be to the rest of the college . . . when we are demanding self–assessment and improvement and high aspirations, that has to start with the board.

“There’s a whole impetus of self–assessment that we cannot afford to lose when LSIS goes, which I think boards are aware that they need to do.”

Having watched the Learning Board from its conception, Ms Selwood believes the project has been a success.

“I think it’s been very well received – we were certainly glad we did it, and I know others who’ve they’ve been glad they did it too,” she says.

“It’s not dictatorial, it’s an enabler. It enables you to look at things from a different perspective.”

Caption for featured image: Sheila Selwood, director of governance at West Herts College and Chris Jones, clerk to the corporation of St Helen’s College

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