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It’s timely to look at one of the harder tasks for college governing bodies: self-review

20 January 2020

5 Top Tips

by Ron Hill and Tom Morrison

Ron Hill, Professor at University of Stirling and Consultant at Stone King
Tom Morrison, Partner and Head of Further Education at Stone King

There are (at least) four compelling reasons to think about reviewing the performance of the college Governing Board just now.

Firstly, January is the ideal time of the year for reflection, remembering the abilities of Janus the Roman god of endings and beginnings.

Secondly, as a new year is starting there is generally a greater appreciation of the benefits of reflection as a means of achieving continued development. We are surrounded by encouragement to think about how we live our lives such as being more environmentally aware, more food provenance aware, aware of those less fortunate than ourselves, more aware of the impact of our action or inaction on others and so on.

Thirdly, the College Code of Good Governance for English Colleges says the Governing Board must review its performance. In fact, most codes of governance from the Corporate Governance Code to the Charity Governance Code stress the importance of self-review.

Fourthly, and most importantly, it could make a significant difference to the future of the college for the benefit of its learners, staff and stakeholders. Surprisingly, the performance of the Governing Board itself rarely features on corporate risk registers, yet the risk to the college of an underperforming or poorly informed Board could be considerable.

The value of external facilitators in reflection processes

In this context, it is necessary for the Governing Board to take a conscious decision in principle to review its performance. James and Hill (2016) published their study of the self-assessment practices of boards which was gained from discussion with highly experienced governance professionals. The researchers were looking for wisdom on the most effective techniques for Boards to use to review their performance. There was an interesting reluctance generally to commit to particular methodologies for self-review, but the most useful part of the study was the strong emphasis on ‘conditions for self-assessing governing body performance’. One of these conditions highlights the value of a credible external facilitator to support and assist the processes of reflection.

Reflective practice should be purposeful

There’s a considerable body of literature available about reflective practice. One important message from this writing is that reflective practice is to be purposeful; it is not idle dreaming or wishing or simply a collection of negativity, but it is about learning, exploring, problem-solving and testing the validity of assumptions.

Taking emotions into account during the reflective process

A key part of the reflective process is the appreciation of feelings experienced in role. This is a useful reminder that governing a college expects that Governors will be objective in their decision making in the light of information and circumstances. However, there is always an emotional element to decision making which could emanate from trying to minimise institutional risks, trying to support learners, trying to make the least worst decision, trying to think about the reaction of teaching staff, trying to weigh up competing arguments at a meeting and so on. In our approach to the self-review of Governing Boards, it would be remiss to exclude the contribution to performance that emotion has played.

Self-assessing governing body performance

Finally, in thinking about the contribution of the Governing Board, notions of Board impact can provide a more rounded appreciation of the Board than a limited ‘audit of governance’ would reveal. Ron Hill will explore the conditions for self-assessing Governing Body performance and discuss the usefulness of various aspects of board impact at the AoC/ETF Governance Professionals Development Conference on 23 January 2020.

Alongside the Governing Board’s self-review, it is important to encourage the reflective practices of the Governance Professional. There is a forthcoming paper by Kang and Hill (2020) in the Journal of Research in Post-Compulsory Education describing two successful projects for Governance Professionals in England involving the use of a professional journal to shape and guide personal reflective practice. A further project of a similar kind in Scotland has recently confirmed the benefits of this methodology.

So why not use the optimistic mood of a new year to look back on past Governing Board performance and, in so doing, chart a positive and developmental approach to governing for 2020 and beyond. The college Governing Code requires it and, if undertaken in the right conditions, there should be tangible and lasting benefits for college learners, staff, stakeholders and the wider communities we serve.

For more information on reviewing performance and recruiting governors, please visit our governance recruitment page at AoC.