Governors bid to win back trust of staff

20th September 1996 at 01:00
Neil Merrick reports on a Lancashire college's campaign to raise the morale of its employees. A Lancashire college facing low morale and mistrust among teachers has used industry-style management tools to breakdown communication barriers and win over their support.

Three years ago, when Runshaw College carried out its first employee opinion survey, the picture could not have been bleaker. Staff complained of poor communication, heavy workloads and job insecurity. These findings were confirmed by a wider consultation exercise, including one-to-one interviews, carried out in 1994 by a management consultant.

The exercise had been suggested by chair of governors John Oliver, chief executive of Leyland Trucks, the largest employer in the town of Leyland which includes Runshaw College's main campus. During the late 1980s, Leyland Trucks had faced similar problems and overcame them by removing layers of management and giving workers greater responsibility. "Before you can break down barriers, you have to understand what they are. That's where the survey comes in, " said Mr Oliver.

Runshaw College responded to the damning verdict of its staff by widening consultations through the academic board, introducing a staff suggestions scheme and a weekly newspaper, and recognising the contributions of staff through a "team of the month" competition.

A survey carried out in July suggests that Runshaw has achieved success in the same way as Leyland Trucks. Morale is higher, senior managers are no longer mistrusted and internal communications have improved.

"Staff appreciate the efforts we have made to respond to their needs," said principal Bernard O'Connell. "We understand more clearly that people want to be recognised. We are continually seeking ways of saying 'well done' and 'thank you'" Mr O'Connell admits he was surprised by the scale of the criticism from staff in 1994, even though the consultations coincided with the contracts dispute which was settled at Runshaw later that year.

Since then, senior managers have continued trying to remove distinctions between themselves and other staff. Mr O'Connell and his colleagues no longer have their own car parking spaces and managers regularly take part in staff football matches.

But it is the day-to-day running of the college which has benefited most from the new voice given to staff. As a result of one teacher's suggestion, students enrolling this autumn had regular meetings with their personal tutors during the first three days instead of induction sessions being crammed into just a few hours.

Yvonne Taylor, a nursery nursing course leader, said staff were more likely to make themselves heard through the academic board, which is supported by boards of study and sub committees. "People used to be afraid to speak. Now they receive the papers in advance." Janet Leyland, a health and social care teacher who arrived at Runshaw this term, said senior managers appeared more accessible than at other colleges. "I would feel confident enough to approach them directly. At my previous colleges I would've taken a more indirect route" The "team of the month" competition, which offers teachers and support staff the chance to win a free meal in the college restaurant, was described by geology teacher Steve Bagshaw as "a bit of fun".

Staff have also been provided with a new lounge, including a free soft drinks machine, and a "staff haven" for quiet work. Deputy principal Mike Sheehan is responsible for staffing matters and performs a similar role to the personnel director of a private company.

In spite of the new atmosphere at Runshaw, which was acknowledged this year by college inspectors, managers are not resting on their laurels. Although last July's survey of all 270 employees showed a significant improvement, there are areas where the college could do better.

Nearly half of staff said they sometimes receive conflicting orders from heads of department and programme managers while two in five thought that their suggestions did not always receive a fair hearing. Mr O'Connell was pleased a majority of staff appeared to trust managers, but admitted that there was still work to do in convincing a significant minority.

Future plans include improving upward communication by expanding the role of academic board committees and running a "how to make your voice heard" publicity campaign. A staff welfare officer should be appointed in 1997 and a staff gymnasium is due to open.

Leyland Trucks, which employs 724 people, spent Pounds 32,000 in 199091 on the creation of 'self-managing teams' and ended up saving Pounds 10 million. John Oliver said its success was down to employees taking ownership of their own destiny. "Managers must realise that they are one of the biggest obstacles to that," he added.

Mr O'Connell, who has been principal at Runshaw since 1984, said college managers should not become obsessed with industry and risk losing sight of educational values, but there were lessons to be learned. "Let's take the best from elsewhere and adapt it to our own needs," he said.

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