Self-assessment has been part of college inspection for years. Even under the Further Education Funding Council some colleges were not doing it very well, and a significant minority are still not doing it at all, says the Learning and Skills Development Agency's development officer Nick Barclay.
Now boards can use a "governance healthcheck" to assess their own effectiveness. The questionnaire, covering the board's responsibilities under ten headings, has been developed by the LSDA from a project begun in 2000 with consultants Ben Johnson-Hill Associates, the Association of Colleges and the Association of College Registrars and Administrators using Standards Fund money from the DfES.
Governors individually rate their satisfaction with their own performance, the performance of the board as a whole and the quality of information they receive from senior managers. The results are collated and fed back to a meeting of governors and managers with an LSDA facilitator, where strengths and weaknesses can be assessed and an action plan for future development drawn up.
Many boards then see a need for open-ended and strategic debate that is not always possible in formal meetings dominated by weighty paperwork. "It's best to have awaydays where the agenda is open and they can kick things around," says Mr Barclay. "Some boards have said it's the first time we've been able to sit down and chew the fat, get to grips with issues and have the opportunity to really debate things."
The quality of information that managers give to governors can be a difficult issue says Mr Barclay. "It's not necessarily a conspiracy, but it's not put into the context of previous reports and how it fits into other areas of activity. Consequently, they can't do joined up thinking because they can't see the whole picture."
While most boards are now confident about operational matters, such as finance and personnel policies, they are less happy about how to hold management to account for the curriculum and the quality of teaching and learning.
They need to learn how to ask the right questions about what is happening to students. Some information, such as recruitment, retention and achievement data, student satisfaction questionnaires and teaching and learning observations, can be quantifiable right down to course and programme level.
More qualitative methods could include attending presentation evenings or departmental review meetings.
Ian James, who works as an independent clerk to six boards, sees healthchecks as only one in a battery of tools colleges can use to improve performance. All have to go through the LSC provider performance review, and they can also call on help from consultants and Beacon colleges.
Mr James believes that the value of the healthcheck depends on the board's willingness to use the information it provides. "You're asking the patient to diagnose their own illness. Some boards will have a greater culture of self-criticism than others."
Nick Barclay has observed that where there is already a culture of self- improvement, governors have found the healthcheck stimulating and useful.
But boards that have had a bad Ofsted inspection can be "in denial" for months afterwards and find the process too challenging to follow through.
"It needs a degree of humility and the chair is the key factor in this," says Mr Barclay. "I'm working with principals and senior managers and one prerequisite is that they feel comfortable in their own skin. Looking to get better is essential for self-improvement, every other part of the college has to do it."
Nick Barclay's research report Governance healthcheck for FE college boards is at www.lsda.org.uk