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Equality, diversity & inclusion

Championing diversity in school governance


This is a good news story. The diversity of boards has been a concern for me ever since I joined NGA, but in our early days we had so little capacity, I needed to find partners to make any sort of campaign work. And it was extremely hard to get anyone excited by the issue at all; indeed I had a real go in 2014 to stir up some interest in a campaign to improve the diversity of boards, but to no avail.

But after I was lobbied by a young member in 2016 who felt in need of peer support, we joined her in piloting the Young Governors Network which is still growing today, supported by Inspiring Governance. And in 2018 we launched the Everyone on Board campaign at our summer conference with the support of the then Secretary of State for Education.  It was welcomed with open arms and minds by our members.

By then the context was completely different. The argument we had been making about the importance of diversity of experience and background on a board in addition to diverse skills is now mainstream. I am not claiming credit for original thought here – I drew on evidence and research from other sectors and other countries. And the latest edition of the Governance Handbook from the Department for Education (DfE) is really rather expansive about diversity, even featuring in the foreword by Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Schools: "As an ex-trustee, I recognise that the foundation of effective governance is based on the commitment, skills, knowledge and behaviours of a  group of volunteers. However, I also believe that for a board to be effective it will need to consist of a diverse group of volunteers, from a variety of backgrounds, who each bring with them different perspectives and experience but who are there for the same purpose, to ensure they can provide the best education to their students." Lord Theodore Agnew, March 2019 Governance Handbook, DfE

And there are multiple other references in the Handbook including:           

  • “Provide sufficient diversity of perspectives to enable robust decision making”
  • “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. While noting the role of Foundation Governors in schools designated with a religious character, boards should be alert to the risk of becoming dominated by one particular mind-set or strand of opinion, whether related to faith or otherwise. Boards must ensure they understand the full diversity of the cultural and religious context of the school and the community it serves. Having some people on the board who have no close ties with the school, or 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.” 
  • “Some positions on the board may be filled through election rather than appointment. In the case of elected parents, this helps to ensure that boards stay accessible and connected to the community they serve and that there is always a diverse range of perspectives around the table to support robust decision making”

The other big change has been the emergence of grass roots campaigning networks of educators, including BAMEed; LGBTEd and DiverseED. It has been a delight to work with passionate innovative people, who have access to others that NGA doesn’t. On Saturday (11 January), Judith Hicks, our Head of Inspiring Governance, is attending the DiverseEd conference and Kirstie Ebbs, our PR manager, will be at the BAMEed conference the following week, encouraging attendees to volunteer to govern. There is definitely traction and support for #EveryoneOnBoard and its sister campaign #EducatorsOnBoard.

So we know why we are running these campaigns and the argument in principle has been won, but is the support making a difference in practice?  When we started only 4% of over 5,300 respondents to the Annual School Governance Survey 2017 gave their ethnicity as BAME, and our low proportion of  younger volunteers increases this ethnicity gap:

At first glance this is depressing reading, given the overall percentage of almost 6,000 respondents in the 2019 survey giving their ethnicity as BAME has only risen to 5.4%, but once we look at those who have been recruited in the last two years, the percentage almost doubles to 9.7%. And even better, 20% of both the registered volunteers and appointed governors on Inspiring Governance, the DfE funded school governance recruitment service, are BAME.

Thank you to all those hundreds - most probably thousands - of people who have supported NGA in getting the message out and improving the diversity of governing boards over the last 2 years. Yes, we are making some progress, but we are in this for the long-term. So in 2020, with your help we will be continuing the campaigns to address the underrepresentation of people from ethnic minorities and people under the age of 40 on governing boards.

But there are two other very important aspects of this work to promoting diversity we are beginning this year. As the Governance Handbook says, governing boards need an “understanding of, and adherence to, responsibilities under the Equalities Act, promoting equality and diversity throughout the organisation including in relation to its own operation”. NGA has always had guidance on these legal responsibilities, but in 2020 we will be improving our e-learning on this topic. And specifically we will be looking at the governing board’s role on employment, and their crucial role in recruiting headteachers and chief executives. This will of course be done with partners in the leadership sector, and in particular the Association of School and College Leaders whose President, Rachael Warwick,  has chosen equality, diversity and inclusion in leadership for the theme of her presidential year.

We look forward to working together and wish DiverseEd and BAMEed all the best for their events.

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.