Recruiter reflections – Everyone on Board: what we are learning about why and how to recruit diverse boards

Dominic Judge is the Director of Governance Programmes at Education and Employers. He is currently a parent governor, having governed continuously for the last 15 years across both maintained schools and academy trusts in Nottingham.


Dominic has worked as a Diversity Training Manager for the police and led the National College for School Leadership’s work to help diversify school leadership. Here he looks at what we’re learning about the governance layers of school leadership and how boards can take further action to recruit more diverse governors.

We need to go faster and further on diversifying school and trust governing boards

September traditionally sees the annual release of the National Governance Association’s survey, part of which looks at the demographic data of circa 6,000 responding governor volunteers. This year, as part of their in-depth Increasing Participation in school and trust governance research, they released the figures on governing board’s diversity back in the summer.

There was good news…in that boards are reporting that 11% of their newly recruited governors in the last year come from ethnic minority backgrounds….and bad news…the survey again highlights a picture of overall stubborn under-representation, with only 5% of governors coming from ethnic minority backgrounds. This data sharply underlines the need to travel both further and faster to redress under-representation – we must all build on the momentum of the last year.

Why is diversifying boards important?

Not least:

  • we are in a race – a race to close the growing divergence between those making decisions in schools (5% of governors and 4% headteachers are from an ethnic minority) and those on the receiving end of those decisions (34% of pupils in primary schools are now from an ethnic minority background)
  • the under-representation gap between governors (5%) and the working population (14% ethnic minority) represents a huge skill loss of volunteers; who could otherwise bring their professional and personal insights to improve our schools and level up life chances.
  • a multitude of research from the corporate and charity sectors shows diverse boards are better boards, making better decisions for all service users.
  • governing boards fulfil both a strategic and a statutory monitoring role on race and equality for their schools.

This case for achieving more diverse boards has been made over many years, the research base is established, multiple reports and accompanying recommendations have been written over decades. The government’s recent 2021 Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report recommends that government should set “clear expectations for governing boards on how to collect and publish data on board diversity as well as how to regularly review their membership and structure”.

Now is the time for far more concerted action to achieve greater representation and unlock those overlooked skills and contributions. So, what actions can governor recruiters and boards actually take to diversify their board’s membership?…

Grow your own knowledge, challenge yourself personally and get uncomfortable

The pervading theme of conversations I’ve had over 20 years with people who want to drive change around diversity is their fear of doing things wrong and making mistakes in a ‘sensitive’ area. However, over these 20 years, I’ve also not once seen well-intended actions or mistakes criticised. I would simply say take action and take risks. Fear of getting it wrong is no excuse for avoiding trying to get it right.

There is an abundance of advice and research out there to support people moving from talking about it to taking action on it. A good place to start is the resources section pp57-58 of the NGA’s recent research or the six-part webcast from Diverse Educators and partners, (all links at the bottom of this piece for easy reference).

Look at where and how you recruit diverse board members – expand your networks

The DfE’s recent NfER research into governance shows the most common form of governor recruitment is ‘word of mouth’. This will always happen, but it will also always lead to most appointments being in kind and perpetuate under-representation. So, what are the alternatives?…

  • Try the independent governor recruitment services Inspiring Governance and Governors for Schools all work hard to ensure a range of diverse, skilled, volunteers are available for boards to consider. Inspiring Governance work with Operation Black Vote, The Civil Service Race Forum, and the Young Black Professionals network, all of whom are fantastic partners promoting the role of school governor to their members.
  • Approach national organisations to support your local diversity like the National Black Governors Network and heed their advice that if you need skills approach national Black professional networks like the Society of Black Lawyers/ Black Solicitors Network, the Black Members Community of ICAEW, the Black Police Association, etc. – there are many more.
  • Take local ownership and run locally focused campaigns that actively seek diverse governors – For example, Wakefield LA have done just this as have Bristol in the past and who have also done another recent event to encourage more governors from Bristol’s Black communities (event details here)
  • Use the school’s own community which is also a great source – teachers, pastoral staff, engaged parents will all have links and potentially want to be involved themselves. On my first governing board at Douglas Primary in Nottingham which had a 95% British Pakistani catchment we actively approached a teaching assistant to join our (then unrepresentative) board. It was an absolutely vital appointment to build trust with the parental community through a difficult period of surplus places closure.
  • Engage Alumni and/or develop a pipeline from the schools’ current pupils. One of the most prominent trusts in the country ARK has recently undertaken a review of its board and local governing body diversity and, in response to a divergence between trustees and pupil communities, it has publicly advertised an alumni trustee post. We know how attractive it is for alumni to join the board of their alma mater and make a difference to those coming through that school following in their footsteps – read about Horatio Georgestone’s experience here

Ensure a warm welcome and make boards a safe space to actively seek all views

If you’ve looked at widening your recruitment channels, you’ll also know that an important part of diversifying governing boards is retention and making the experience of diverse governors a positive one (webcast 3 of the Diverse Educators series on governance deals with this and is probably one of the best pieces of personal development anyone could get). The role of the chair is vital in this. Ensure that:

  • Younger and diverse governors are welcomed and properly supported. Governing boards undertake a formal oversight role, but they don’t have to be over-formal places. Think how your board allows everyone a voice to offer their support and challenge in an inclusive way. Ensure your induction is well-structured and welcoming and consider buddying new governors with a more experience governor. We hear that more and more school and trusts boards are actively putting these steps in place to get the best support and challenge from all their governors.
  • Recognise expertise but avoid spotlighting. Volunteers from ethnic minority backgrounds can help the governing board look at equalities issues but don’t always assume they’ll want to be spotlighted or have an expectation they will bring universal expertise on these matters. Some do and for some it’s an area they are personally passionate about. Setting the right culture in the board will help unlock governors’ personal perspectives and experiences in addition to unlocking their professional insight. Aaron is a great example of a governor who, through a supportive board environment, has obviously felt comfortable to bring both – watch Aaron’s case study here
  • Consider flexibility on meeting times and term lengths. A four-year term can be daunting for younger people early on in their careers and, whilst governance is a role that clearly needs continuity and commitment, there might be a case for having explicit conversations over how long you want people for and the role you want them to play – this often happens for boards in the corporate sector.
  • Embrace the governing boards’ strategic role on race. Recruiting diverse new governors and ensuring their retention will be more likely if they can see that the governing board is focussed on improving diversity and inclusion in the school itself. If the board is reviewing academic performance and exclusions by ethnic category group, looking at policies/ behaviour sanctions to ensure they aren’t discriminatory, monitoring racist incidents, challenging the curriculum to ensure it is accessible and reflective of all pupil groups, diverse governors will feel the board is committed to making both the school as well as itself more inclusive. You can find more on the boards strategic role on race here

It’s time to take action and be part of the solution

The NGA’s 2021 survey showing the increasing diversity of new appointments to governing boards is encouraging, as are our own IG stats on the increasingly diverse ages and ethnic backgrounds of our own governor appointments (30% from ethnic minorities excluding white other in 2021). We now need to accelerate the growth of these green shoots across all school and academy boards.

Diversifying governing boards remains a government priority, not just in strong ministerial commitment to the issue but also in the clear contractual targets the DfE set Inspiring Governance around the diversity of our appointments. We are not yet in the realm of the sports sector – where funding from Sport England or UK Sport is linked with a specific requirement for tackling board under-representation. At this stage in the education sector, it is simply the right thing to be going further and faster.

Alongside the faster diversification of our school and trust boards goes supporting better progression within them. This means ensuring that we are as diverse in the senior roles of Chair of Governors and academy trustees (making decision across multiple schools) as we are for governors in single maintained schools.

Ultimately, securing diverse, representative boards in our schools is about not missing out on the most skilled governors but it is also fundamentally about an issue of enabling civic democracy. What we must never have again, is a situation like that in the documentary ‘Subnormal’ – where a generation of Caribbean arrivals in London in the 60s and 70s were inaccurately placed into special schools through racially biased assessment. That was a generation that were unheard by a lack of representation in the governance and oversight layers of our education system. Let’s all play our part in ensuring future generations have balanced, informed boards making decisions for all of them.

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