Championing diversity: good governance needs a range of voices

31/08/2016 14:55:12 | with 1 comments

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Author: Emma Knights

In this month's Governing Matters magazine, we publish the first tranche of results from our 2016 survey with TES.  Thanks to all of five thousand of you who took the time to complete the survey.  As the largest annual survey of governors and trustees in England, it provides invaluable data for our work and that of other agencies.

Here I am touching on just one aspect.  As a sector we have rightly been concentrating over the last few years on increasing the range of skills on our governing boards, but less attention has been given to other aspects of diversity.  

It is something I have expressed concern about before. We need to be alert to the danger of recruiting in our own likenesses and developing group think. This can occur when groups are similar in background and insulated from outside opinions; it’s a real enemy of good governance.

I had hoped that this year’s survey would show we had made some progress with the number of black and minority ethnic (BME) and younger governors and trustees. But sadly our record on those two counts remains woeful:  5.3% of respondents were BME and 1.4% were under 30 (exactly the same percentage as last year). These figures* compare to 14% of the population who were BME and 18% of adults in England who were under 30 at the last census. 

But how important is this? Am I being lazy and falling back on my third sector values?  After all there is a lot of literature and activity on the importance of diversity in charity boards. For example, Young Charity Trustees began five years ago to encourage more young people to volunteer. It may not be taken as read by all in the charity sector that diversity is a good thing, but it is an issue on most boards’ radar, which is perhaps more than can be said for school governance. And it’s not just a third sector concern, as long ago as 2003, The Tyson Report on the Recruitment and Development of Non- Executive Directors from the London Business School encouraged companies to “cast a wider net to build more diverse and effective boards”.

How old is your youngest governor or trustee? When did your board last discuss this issue?

Over the summer I read Difference Makers by Dr Nicky Howe and Alicia Curtis, which helped me marshal my thoughts and provided the confidence to make more noise to champion diversity.  This book builds on their project of recruiting younger trustees in Australia and reports on the research in the field across a range of sectors and countries. Lehman Brothers before its collapse is one of the examples of a board lacking in diversity. I will concentrate on age here, but clearly that is only one facet of diversity as the book makes absolutely plain.

And to reassure those who like me can no longer be labelled ‘younger’, we are not saying “out with the old, in with the new” as that would be missing the point about diversity altogether. We are also not saying younger governors are always better, and we would of course expect the same of younger governors that we do of the rest of the board.  But we are missing a trick if we ignore a whole group of people who could be valuable contributors, and this is not just because it is difficult enough to recruit governors. By selecting members with different backgrounds, the board and therefore the school - gains access to new resources and networks.

Over the past three years, Clare Collins, our Head of Consultancy, has had the pleasure of working with some of Teach First’s ambassadors who govern. She has found that although many of these volunteers are busy teachers or have young families or have moved on to other careers, they are still able to make a meaningful contribution and add value to a school governing board. They also accumulate experiences that can put them ahead of their peers. For example, the experience of recruiting senior staff or being part of an appeal panel. And as they learn more about governance, they take on positions of responsibility such as the chairing of a board.  Their energy, commitment and enthusiasm have shone through.  So we encourage all those aspiring middle leaders to volunteer to govern at another school: there’s no CPD like it.

The DfE’s Governance Handbook uses the phrase:  “the right people with the necessary skills, time and commitment, and sufficient diversity of perspectives to ensure internal challenge”. As well as providing all those assets that the rest of us can, younger governors have a valuable perspective to offer - by being closer to the receipt of education and (for those leaving education) the job market.

There is also an advantage to having someone join a board with a completely fresh perspective, who does not know “how things are done here” but also isn’t just trying to reproduce what was done on their last board. Of course we should be spreading good practice from one board to another, but who is say that we are not just spreading familiar practice? Real innovation will come from external and fundamental challenge.

For those of you who like a matrix, here’s one quoted by Howe and Curtis about the relationship between diversity and board performance:

 CHAOS

 High diversity

 Low alignment

 

 Different individuals with their own agendas  results in unproductive conflict

 

 HIGH PERFORMANCE

 High diversity

 High alignment

 

 Open to new ideas and committed to a  common purpose leads to innovation and  improvement

 INERTIA

 Low diversity

 Low alignment

 

 Members have no real interest in what is going  on

 GROUP THINK

 Low diversity

 High alignment

 

 Everyone is on the same page but suspicious of  others, and can stagnate with no new ideas or  develop an illusion of invulnerability and take  excessive risks

There are two main elements to improving the number of young governors and trustees in schools: recruitment and retention.  With the first you could consider you own former pupils if they still relatively close to hand. NGA is this year working more closely with Inspiring the Future to support the governors they place, and the age profile of their volunteers is younger than serving governors: so please do make sure those of you involved in recruiting your governors and trustees have registered and considered the potential volunteers in your area: www.inspiringgovernance.org.uk

And inspired by a young governor, we are also piloting this year a Young Governors' Network. Click here to find out more

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This time next year when we are assessing our pilot we aim that the 2017 survey will show a higher percentage of governors under 30 and under 40! 

Lastly, NGA should of course practice what we preach.  We are currently seeking nominations for three places on our own trustee board: from the West Midlands, the East Midlands, and the North East.  I would encourage any of that relatively small band of younger governors to consider standing for NGA’s board:  http://www.nga.org.uk/About-Us/Elections-to-the-board.aspx

We would be very pleased to see you come forward.

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Emma Knights is NGA's Chief Executive

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*Figure taken from ONS article: Ethnicity and National Identity in England and Wales 2011 http://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/culturalidentity/ethnicity/articles/ethnicityandnationalidentityinenglandandwales/2012-12-11 and

ONS table: 2011 CensusUsual resident population by five-year age group and sexlocal authorities in the United Kingdom http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/census/2011-census/population-and-household-estimates-for-the-united-kingdom/rft-table-3-census-2011.xls

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