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Equality, diversity & inclusion

Championing diversity: good governance needs a range of voices


This was the title of a blog I wrote eighteen months ago when we supported the pilot of the Young Governors Network, but it bears repeating. Tomorrow is the first anniversary conference of BAMEed, the network of Black Asian and Minority Ethnic educators, where they will be encouraging volunteering for governance.

And this sort of push is absolutely needed: overall as a sector we really are not making progress with increasing ethnic diversity of those governing. Only 4% of over 5,300 respondents to the Annual School Governance Survey 2017 gave their ethnicity as BAME. This figure compares to 13% of the adult population who identified as BAME at the last census in 2011. Those in leadership roles on governing boards were even more likely to be white: 97% of chairs, 95% of vice-chairs, and 96% of committee chairs, compared with 92% of other governors, trustees or academy committee members.

We know that our lack of younger volunteers increases this ethnicity gap:

School governance is not the only sector which struggles with diversity on boards. Research by Inclusive Boards in 2016 also found that just over 6% of trustees listed on Charity Commission were from BAME backgrounds, and this was confirmed the recent Commission’s report ‘Taken on Trust’.

For the first time, in 2017, NGA’s board of trustees became all white and although we made a specific appeal for BAME candidates when seeking nominations for election, we were not successful. So at our upcoming annual strategy day, this will again be on our agenda, trying to practice what we preach.

We raise this issue again, not because of political correctness or virtue signalling, but because diversity of boards matters. There is evidence from all sectors which shows that boards are strengthened when they include people from a range of backgrounds. Boards need sufficient diversity of perspectives to ensure internal challenge and debate; they must avoid ‘group think’. The DfE’s Governance Handbook has over the last couple of years increasingly emphasised this aspect of good governance, with a number of references in its 2017 edition, including encouraging recruitment which will “provide sufficient diversity of perspectives to enable robust decision making.”

Department for Education Governance Handbook 2017:

“Boards should welcome and thrive on having a sufficiently diverse range of viewpoints – since open debate leads to good decisions in the interests of the whole school community.”

We are missing a trick if we ignore a group of people who could be valuable contributors.  And I don’t say this just because it is difficult enough to recruit governors. By including members with different ethnicities, the board and therefore the school gains access to new resources, networks, but most importantly new perspectives and ideas.

Department for Education Governance Handbook 2017:

“Having some people on the board ….. who come from outside the faith or ethnic group of the majority of pupils, can help ensure that the board has sufficient internal challenge to the decisions it makes and how it carries out its strategic functions.”

There is also the overlooked issue of the legitimacy of the board. Those individuals who govern schools or academy trusts do not represent a particular group, but together as a corporate body they need to cover all angles. And if the board as a whole looks entirely different from the community which it serves, this raises the issue not just of how good its decision making will be, but also how it will be perceived and what gives it the right to be making those decisions.

What is most concerning is that over the period that the BAME population in England has been growing, the percentage of BAME school governors has not: a survey in 1999 already reported that BAME respondents as 5%. That is very nearly 20 twenty years ago. This is despite attention being drawn to this issue periodically.

So we are now planning a concerted campaign to spread the word and increase ethnic diversity on governing boards. To make this an effective campaign, we know that it needs to involve people from the communities that we want to reach. That’s why we’re calling for BAME governors to share their experiences of governing to encourage others to get involved, and for governing boards who are already diverse or who have tackled this issue to share their insights and advice.

I’m really pleased that BAMEed are promoting school governance at their first anniversary conference. BAMEed is passionate that BAME educators will inspire future generations – being able to see people from different ethnic backgrounds leading their school is surely one way to raise this aspiration.

Governance is also excellent CPD for future leaders and NGA advocates that all middle leaders should govern, preferably in another school. Governors and trustees are involved in complex organisational change; determine the vision and strategy of their school; and provide a delicate balance between support and challenge: it is invaluable for middle leaders to be party to this early in their careers and so come to senior leadership with a real understanding of the role of the governing board they will work with.

There are a number of ways a governing board can seek out potential volunteers, including considering former pupils if they are still relatively close to hand and of course contact with other community organisations. If local efforts do not work, then Inspiring Governance, the online school governance recruitment and support, is the place to look.

Please work with us to get the message out across England: if you think governing may be for you, get started today at

Emma Knights OBE
Emma Knights OBE

Co-Chief Executive

As NGA’s Co-Chief Executive, Emma promotes the interests of the school governance community nationally with legislators, policy makers, education sector organisations and the media. Emma is an accomplished writer and speaker on a range of school governance policy and practice topics.