An extraordinary quarter of a million people volunteer their time and skills to oversee state schools in England in the interests of pupils. It is an important thing which they do on behalf of the rest of us, ensuring the country’s schools are as good as they possibly can be. They come together in governing boards that set the vision and ethos for schools and trusts: what children should leave school knowing, having done, and being. They make important decisions about staffing structures, what limited funding is spent on, as well as recruiting, supporting and challenging headteachers and executive leaders.
The publication of this 2022 data on who the hidden givers in our school system are provides me with an opportunity to say thank you to this amazing group of people.
NGA annual school and trust governance survey has been running for 12 consecutive years and narratives build over the year – here I am going to look at two of those.
To make the best decisions these boards need to be diverse in background, skills, experience and perspectives
Every year, we report that the data shows we have not yet been successful in increasing the overall percentage of Black, Asian and minority ethnic respondents. And every year I make pledges for further action and hope that the following year will be the breakthrough year. Of course, NGA does far more than just hope; for some years we have initiated a number of actions from the Everyone on Board recruitment campaign in 2018 to last year’s Increasing participation report to this year’s board diversity audit tool and free e-learning on equality, diversity and inclusion.
Disappointingly, 2022 brings no significant difference in that top line figure. Six per cent of respondents are Black, Asian or minority ethnic, which compares with 15% for the general population (estimates published by the Office for National Statistics in 2019). However, that is only one part of the story: there are green shoots for the future. First, respondents recruited in the last 12 months are significantly more likely to be from an ethnic minority, 15% equivalent to the wider population.
Secondly, many more boards (62% in 2022, compared with 37% in 2021) have tried to recruit a volunteer from an underrepresented group and a significant majority of those (75%) are successful. The message reinforces that of last year: that positive efforts to seek people out and spread the word about this opportunity tend to work. This fits with the data from the two governance recruitment agencies: in 2021/22 33% of volunteers placed through Inspiring Governance were from a Black, Asian or other ethnic minority background and similarly with 30% for volunteers placed by Governors for Schools.
Thirdly Black, Asian and ethnic minority volunteers are very much under-represented in board leadership roles (only 4%) but are more likely than their white colleagues to consider putting themselves forward to chair in future: 42% compared with 31%.
"I am not complacent: there is still much more work to be done to ensure that governing boards are representative of the UK and school communities. But that more boards are recognising this issue and taking successful action is that first step."
At NGA’s Annual Conference last November, the then Secretary of State for Nadhim Zahawi MP expressed an intention for the Department of Education (DfE) to do more to improve the diversity of volunteers on governing boards. This has not happened in the meantime, but we will continue to raise the issue with Kit Malthouse MP, the new Secretary of State for Education, and his team.
The vacancies on boards are rising
Despite the move toward smaller boards tracked by the survey over the years, we have vacancies at an all-time high. We also have long service increasing; this is more possible for volunteers who are retired. Where would the system be if all those who had served for 10 years or more just stopped in one fell swoop? Diverse boards require some more experienced members and some new ones with a fresh perspective, some older members and some younger. However, this year the number of volunteers under the age of forty fell even further to the lowest on record.
Over two thirds of respondents reported that the pandemic has made their governing role more challenging. Gradually over time the governing role is becoming less manageable alongside other commitments. I remain in awe of the hours given by volunteers to their schools and trust, but it is sobering that over one-quarter of respondents (28%) under the age of 60 say that the expectations are not manageable given their professional and personal commitments.
This all adds up to schools and trusts in England being more and more reliant on older and experienced governors and trustees volunteering for longer. For the first time, more than half of volunteers (51%) are 60 years or over and more than half (53%) have been involved in school governance for more than eight years. In 2011, a quarter of governors and trustees surveyed said they governed for more than a decade, and this has now increased to 40%. We are truly grateful to these people without whose commitment the system could not function.
Investing in governance
However, NGA estimates that there are at least 20,000 governors and trustees still needed to fill vacancies if these figures are replicated across the country. The public do not have much awareness of the opportunity to volunteer to govern schools and trusts. As part of our Visible Governance campaign, NGA has recently produced an animation to help explain the opportunity. However, the government needs to be more proactive in promoting this civic leadership opportunity. We have been trying to convince the DfE since the publication of our Increasing Participation report in June last year, to run a national marketing campaign for school governors and trustees. The DfE funding of the governor recruitment service, although welcome, has been diminishing and is a small number of placements compared with the need. This is too important an issue for the DfE to postpone action further. NGA will be contributing through both the Everyone on Board campaign and our Visible Governance activities, but the need for a government push on recruitment has never been more pertinent than it is now.
Governance is a key part of the accountability system for schools and trusts, and for some years it has been recognised as part of school leadership. This has been recognised in words to an extent by the DfE and its ministers over the years, but at a time when rightly significant funding is being pumped into leadership development, funding for governance development has been withdrawn. More care and recognition are needed of the volunteer workforce. That is not why they volunteer, but in recent years NGA has increasing felt that they are being taken for granted at a time when the business of governing is a growing challenge.
Respondents agreeing the role should be paid is still well under half (38%), but it is the biggest yearly jump in the 12 years of the survey, and it is also notable that this is the first time ever the proportion disagreeing with payment has fallen below half (45%). Paying for oversight of schools - this vital public service - would be so much more expensive, would bring questions of motivation and could probably not provide the legitimacy that committed citizens do.
It is reasonable to expect some government support for the citizens who give their time to govern schools and trusts. However, alongside school governance becoming more challenging with the pandemic, the support from government has been diminishing over the past years to the point where it has almost disappeared: there now remains only a small contract for the Inspiring Governance recruitment service.
NGA has produced a series of resources to support boards to recruit and retain volunteers, and also to consider their role in Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, the latest of which is a free e-learning module.
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.