The ‘Governance handbook’ (2019) provides, for the first time, guidance for governing boards that explains why developing a diverse board should be a primary focus for the board.
We talked with Alyson Malach, Director at Equality and Diversity UK about why it is important governing boards recruit a diverse board and the benefits and challenges of doing so.
Alyson has worked in the post-16 education sector since 1985, starting in the area of special educational needs and developing her portfolio of work to include teacher education, work with disadvantaged groups, community cohesion and equality, diversity and inclusion. She is a charity trustee and chair of a primary school governing board.
What do you think governing boards need to understand about the importance of diversity?
I believe that governing boards need to better understand the importance of diversity and to make it live rather than a tick-box activity. The approach needs to be systematic and monitoring of progress should be high on the agenda for mainstreaming diversity. Providers should collect diversity data on the board makeup (nothing complicated but the basics), an annual skills audit of governors to review where our strengths/weaknesses/challenges are and equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) monitoring linked to wider EDI monitoring. So, when a vacancy comes up, it’s not automatically filled but a governance group looks at what experience and skills need strengthening, and what diversity issues need to be addressed and ensure recruitment responds to both those issues.
As chair of governors, I am very conscious that inclusion goes beyond getting people to the table. It’s about what happens in the meetings, how we embed the actions identified. How are new governors, particularly those from diverse backgrounds, inducted, prepared and supported to feel included. Are meetings chaired and prepared in ways that make information, processes and discussions accessible and considerate of language used, and dates and times of meetings to ensure we are responding to diversity, culture and uniqueness?
With all of this said, diversity is about differences of approach and experience. However, I have concerns that individuals being appointed to boards are coming from essentially the same backgrounds as those they replace, and, therefore, we are not increasing diversity. One of the principles of governance is to promote equality, diversity and inclusion, and governors and trustees are expected to routinely consider their composition and take steps to ensure they reflect societal norms and values.
The current emphasis on diversity reflects concerns that many governing boards have in the past been self-perpetuating, with new governors and trustees largely recruited through personal contacts and networks. A starting point for change is for a governing board to accept the need for, and benefits of having, a more diverse membership, and then take effective action to increase their diversity.
Around a third of young people currently in our schools are from an ethnic minority, and evidently, they are mostly under 18. Yet, the people leading schools generally do not reflect this diversity of the school community. Governors and trustees make decisions about the future of schools - they decide how funding is spent, support and challenge executive leaders, guide what children learn and the values they live by. These decisions influence the direction of the school and ultimately shape young people’s opportunities to achieve their full potential.
What are the benefits of recruiting a diverse board?
A diverse board can provide insight on issues faced by children and young people from diverse backgrounds – being diverse and different means that governors can offer a much-needed insight into the lives diverse pupils are living.
The board will understand the opportunities they have, the challenges they face, their aspirations, and things that are going on in the world that are impacting them now and in the future. This will help ensure that the education provided by schools meets the needs of pupils and helps to prepare them for the life beyond school.
A diverse board can help create a culture of inclusion – being part of a diverse and inclusive governing board is vital in setting the culture and being a catalyst for diversity to thrive at all levels throughout the school.
There is also the personal gain for governors and trustees themselves, developing skills to grow themselves – there are lots of skills and experience to be gained by becoming a school governor or trustee. The strategic focus of the role, where individuals are involved in lots of conversations, collective decisions and regular disciplines such as finance, human resources and communications, is valuable to individuals who may face challenges in progressing their careers.
What is the impact/consequence of not recruiting a diverse board?
Not having volunteers that ‘come from different places and think different things’ and share their skills, time and experience will not provide diverse perspectives or a balance of views to conversations. So barriers, biases and stereotypes may go unchallenged and decisions may not help children from all backgrounds to succeed and thrive.
Not having a diverse governing board will prevent the creation of ‘a culture of inclusion at the top’ it will not provide diverse role models for pupils to ‘give them confidence in what they can achieve’ and will fail to demonstrate the school’s commitment to diversity at all levels.
What are the challenges and complexities of creating a diverse governing board?
Personal contacts or word of mouth is currently the most popular form of recruitment of governors in education. Undoubtedly, this is a relatively quick and cheap method, but it brings a real risk of reproducing the existing demographic and stifling diversity.
What action can a board take to increase diversity?
Job descriptions and person specifications should not reflect the skills and experience of existing governors and trustees. Instead, consideration should be given to the actual skills required, in an imaginative way that will open the door to a wider pool of potential candidates. For instance, many women and BME people work in the commercial or voluntary sectors, and people who have many skills and much to bring to the table may not have a traditional academic background.
Boards should consider advertising in diverse newspapers and magazines, and including newsletter information in other community publications when recruiting governors and trustees. They should also access online forums and social media to advertise for governors in their local communities.
Is there anything the school can do to support the board or work in partnership with them to increase board diversity?
The school could develop local partnership working/learning with diverse businesses and organisations in the voluntary and community sector that can help them reach the diverse individuals and groups they need to reach and attract.
Do you have any final thoughts and advice to share?
Having a diverse governing board, in my opinion, brings the following benefits to the school and its pupils:
Enables a different way of thinking – being part of a group of people that have different insights and experiences ensures balanced conversations, gives a voice to groups that may not otherwise be reflected and means that biases, barriers and stereotypes do not go unchallenged.
Provides role models – if young people see people like them in roles across the schools, including on governing boards, this will give them confidence in what they can achieve and raise their aspirations. As part of the leadership team, governors and trustees are also a role model to parents/carers and local communities.
Gives the local community confidence in its schools – having a diverse governing board provides a connectedness between a school and its community. It shows that the governing board is making an effort to understand the lives and context of people from across the community, making pupils, parents and families that the school is there to serve feel included and valued.
Use the questions below to assess the diversity of your governing board.
Is your governing board able to say yes to the following statements?
- Does the governing board have a reputation as an inclusive board that welcomes governor and trustees’ appointments from all backgrounds?
- Have people from diverse backgrounds been successfully recruited to the board over the last three years?
- Is there an appropriate balance of race, disability, gender and age groups among current governors and trustees?
- Does the diversity of the membership of the governing board need improving?
- Does the board take positive action to broaden the recruitment of diverse new members?
- Does the governing board monitor actions to improve diversity and the impact on the composition of the governing board, and, if judged to be ineffective, revisit the action plan?
If the answer to the statements above is no, then use the advice given by Alyson to consider the recruitment processes of your governing board.