Release date: 29/06/2021

There are significant opportunities for governing boards and the wider sector to change practices to increase the participation and inclusion of people from underrepresented groups in school and trust governance, a new research report from the National Governance Association (NGA) has found.

Data from NGA’s annual governance survey 2021 confirms that all ethnic minorities remain significantly and consistently underrepresented on governing boards. 93% of respondents to the survey are white, 1% are from mixed or multiple ethnic groups, 3% are Asian, 1% are Black. These figures are almost identical to when NGA started to collect this data in 2015 and to 1999 where a study found that 5% of governors came from ethnic minorities. Young people are underrepresented on boards too. 9% of volunteers are aged under 40, including 1% aged under 30.

The report draws on focus group research with governors and trustees from trustees from Black, Asian and minority ethnicities and young volunteers, and a review of research and insight from other sectors. It contains a richness of voices: NGA thanks the focus group participants for their time and sharing of experience which has been so useful in making the case for change.

Closed recruitment practices by boards and a lack of visibility of the role of governors and trustees were found to be the most significant barriers to people from underrepresented groups joining boards. NGA is calling for boards to open their recruitment processes so that everyone with the potential to fulfil the role has the opportunity to apply and to reduce the number of potential volunteers excluded from finding out about the role. Alongside this NGA wants to see a large-scale national recruitment campaign, funded and delivered by the Department for Education (DfE), to give a tremendous boost to awareness of the role and on volunteers coming forward.

The report also explores inclusion on boards, with new data from the annual governance survey 2021. While the picture of inclusion on boards is largely positive, both volunteers from all ethnic minority backgrounds and young volunteers are less likely to feel that their opinion is valued by their board, feel invited to participate in discussions equally to others, feel able to express a contrary opinion without the fear of negative consequences and feel like they belong on their board.

The efforts of leaders (chairs, vice chairs and executive leaders) in inviting governors and trustees from underrepresented groups to join in the board’s conversations and acknowledging their contribution was recognised as an influential factor in ensuring volunteers feel included and gain in confidence. In addition, a high-quality induction which includes the use of a ‘buddy’ was identified as a way to improve volunteers’ engagement: this was not universally happening.  

Several recommendations are made for boards and the DfE that will help to overcome the challenges and make the most of opportunities connected to board diversity and inclusion. The report also sets out actions that everyone involved and connected school and trust governance can take to move the dial.

Read the report

Read the updated ‘right people around the table’ practical guidance

Emma Knights, chief executive of the National Governance Association said: “Without the participation of significantly more people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds and young people, governing boards are missing out on talent, passion and the range of perspectives which is needed for good governance. We have known and spoken for many years about the scale of underrepresentation, and compared with the demographics in our country we are going backwards: the lack of progress is deeply frustrating. The good news is that we know from governing boards who have resolved to improve their diversity that being proactive tends to pay dividends. This new report provides all the evidence and direction boards need – there can be no more excuses. This time we need concerted action at school and trust level, and universally across the sector. Boards have a responsibility – and are expected – to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to find out about and apply for school governor and trustee roles. And we need the Government to play its part: the National Governance Association is calling on the Department for Education to fund a nationwide advertising campaign.”

A spokesperson for the Department for Education said: “The department welcomes the NGA’s timely and important report. We recognise the importance of a diverse board, and we are committed to working with the sector to improve diversity on boards. The Governance Handbook stresses the importance of diversity and highlights that a board composed of governors and academy trustees who bring a diverse range of skills, characteristics and perspectives and who are from different backgrounds, will have a positive impact on setting the strategic direction for the organisation. The department also funds free support from Academy Ambassadors and Inspiring Governance to help boards recruit skilled people, and has set stretching targets for them to encourage more people from ethnic minority backgrounds to apply to join governing boards. However, there is no doubt more we can do. We will continue to work closely with the NGA and other stakeholders on work across the sector to improve board diversity, including understanding the barriers to joining and staying on boards, and what can be done to remove these barriers.”

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