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Why young volunteers are a great addition to governing boards


With many governing boards telling us that they find it difficult to recruit volunteers, young people (which we define as those aged under 40) offer a largely untapped source of skilled, committed and enthusiastic volunteers. Our School Governance in 2019 research found that just 1 in 10 governors/trustees are under 40; only 1% (or 0.1 in 10) of those governing are aged under 30.

If boards are to truly reflect the communities they serve, they need to seriously need to consider recruiting from this demographic to ensure that their board has a range of voices working together to improve children’s education.

We’re helping to break down some prevailing myths (such as that you need decades of experience, to be a parent or be asked to join the board) through initiatives such as the Young Governors’ Network and Inspiring Governance. For example, over 55% of volunteers who signed up with Inspiring Governance in 2019 are aged 35 or under.

New perspectives and experience

The most effective boards have a mixture and balance of people with different skills and experience, and access to a range of perspectives and a broad base of knowledge. This makes for lively discussion, genuine challenge of ideas and healthy curiosity. Young people are more willing to challenge the system and to not accept information at face value. They can offer new angles and attitudes to governing, bringing with them valuable insights and ideas.

“Our identities and experiences — our gender, race, nationality, class, and any number of other factors — shape the way we see the world. And when the mix of people in a group changes, so do the decisions that group makes.” Sarah O’Connor, Financial Times, August 2018

The Department for Education’s Governance Handbook states that effective governance requires “sufficient diversity of perspectives to enable robust decision making”. Is it possible to be sufficiently diverse if no member of the board is below the age of 40?

A recent education experience

Younger individuals will have a much more recent experience of the education system: they’ve probably been on the receiving end of some of the policies and approaches your school is taking and will be able to contribute what worked well for them and what they wish their school had taken into account.

They will have new ideas and energy to bring to some of the challenges and opportunities schools are facing both inside and beyond their walls. In addition, younger governors are more likely to be closer to the age of parents within the school community, and may offer some insight into engagement which the board may not have thought of.

Many see it as their duty to enable young people to have the same opportunities that they themselves were afforded and are driven by the ability to shape the education young people in her community receive.

A closer connection to pupils

Young governors/trustees will be much closer in age and life stage to the young people that decisions impact. Their first-hand understanding and lived experience of being a young person today will provide your board with unparalleled insight in to the hopes and fears, challenges and opportunities faced by the pupils in the care of school governors and trustees.

This will help ensure that the education provided by schools meets the needs of pupils and helps to prepare them for the life beyond school – especially with regard to careers, behaviour and the curriculum. They may also find it easier to connect with the perspective of pupils when taking feedback from stakeholders.

Seeing ‘people like them’ in roles across the school, including on governing boards, will give young people confidence in what they can achieve and a sense that they are truly being included in decision making, raising their aspirations.

A professional development opportunity

When asked about their motivations for governing in the School Governance in 2019 survey, the answers given by those aged under 40 and those aged 40 or above were pretty consistent.

The top motivations across both age categories are ‘making a difference for children’ (72% of under 40s and 73% of over 40s), ‘serving my community’ (65% of under 40s and 67% of over 40s), and an ‘interest in education’ (59% of under 40s and 60% of over 40s).

However, the clearest variation comes in relation to skills and experience – whilst 64% of over 40s say they want to ‘utilise existing skills and experience’ (compared to 51% of under 40s), 54% of under 40s say they want to develop skills for their professional life (compared to 16% of over 40s). This shows that whilst the main motivators remain the same regardless of age group, the professional development aspect is a big draw for the young demographic in addition to the social responsibility aspects.

Young professionals are passionate about their development, and want to gain leadership skills as well as soft skills like communication, negotiation and team work which can be utilised in governance. As a board-level responsibility, school governance enables volunteers to both practice and develop essential leadership skills in a meaningful and diverse role.

Governing boards unite people from across the community who care about the futures of children. With a good governing board comprising different skills, experiences and backgrounds, volunteers can meet, collaborate and learn from others to offer young people every opportunity to reach their potential.

Support and time

Research shows that young people value having the chance to volunteer and support their community as part of their professional role. Because employers are increasingly innovative in how they develop their workforce, there is a real opportunity for employer support, giving governing boards volunteers with the time to carry out the role. The role presents a win-win situation – free professional development for staff and enabling their staff to fulfil their personal and career goals. Indeed, 10% of under 40s responding to the school governance survey said that they signed up at the encouragement of their employer, compared to 5% over 40s.

With much of governance taking place outside of the working day, employer support will still be a great help in enabling school governors to visit the school during the day. Research also uncovers that young people are willing to sacrifice their own free time to get ahead in their careers and to serve their community.

The main counter we hear to getting young people on board is that their lives are more transient as they move location and jobs, and grow a family. Surely it is beneficial to have good and effective governors/trustees even for a short period of time?

It should be emphasised that NGA are not suggesting that younger governors will be inherently better in their role, and indeed these appointments should be made as part of a balanced skills set. However, it is integral to the legitimacy of the board that it remains open, inclusive and reflective of the wider school community.

Look out for future blogs on how you can recruit young people and how you can make your board more inclusive. The Young Governors’ Network aims to support and encourage those aged under 40 to govern in schools by facilitating them to share their experiences, addressing the challenges faced by young people governing schools and creating sustainable connections amongst current and prospective governors. 

Have you proactively recruited young people to your board? Has your board benefitted from this? What challenges have you faced in recruiting young people? Tell us in the comments below.

Michael Barton
Michael Barton

Trust Governance Specialist and South West Regional Officer

Michael specialises in trust governance, co-ordinating NGA's work with multi-academy trusts and producing tailored resources. He also leads NGA's work in the West Midlands, working closely with the region's trusts and local authorities.