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Equality, diversity & inclusion

Women in school governance


Three years ago I wrote a blog on topic of women volunteering in school and trust governance in honour of #WomenEd’s national unconference.

Although women dominate the workforce across all sectors of education, there remains gender inequalities, particularly at senior leadership level. Now I am working with #WomenED and the leadership associations – NAHT and ASCL – on a report examining that a little more, and it has reminded me to update the figures about the women on governing boards. Thanks to Megan Tate for these figures from our School and Trust Governance in 2021 survey to which we had 3,848 responses spread across type, phase and region in the same way as our schools in England are.

A significant majority of those who govern in schools and trusts are women: 63% of our 2021 respondents. And what’s more the proportion of women appears to be growing slightly, but perhaps that is a blip.






















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So women are making a huge contribution to the governance of state schools in England. It is sometimes suggested that one reason that women are less likely to be appointed as senior leaders in schools and trusts may be because recruitment panels for headteachers and chief executives are made up primarily of men; given the predominance of female governors and trustees it seems highly likely that women will be well represented on those recruitment panels.

We have known for some time and covered in our 2020 report on Chairing a board, women are a little less likely to chair a board than men, but that still leaves the majority of chairs being women. In 2021, 58% chairs of governing boards responding were female.

For years women have governed at a slightly lower rates in secondaries than primaries, and this continues in 2021 with 58% of those governing in secondaries being women, compared with 65% on primaries. The predominance of women on nursery and infant school boards had dropped a little, but still well in the majority at 58%.

Women now account for more than half of chairs in every type of school, even in secondary schools, which was not quite the case three years ago. However, the percentage of chairs in special schools who are female has fallen to 51% while the percentage of female volunteers on their boards has risen to 74%: we will see next year if that is a trend.

Figure 1 shows the percentage from the 2021 survey governing and chairing in each phase:

When we look at the respondents across different types of schools and academies, women are governing in greater numbers in every type of school and trust. The number of women who are trustees of a multi academy trust (MAT) has increased over the past few years, as has the number chairing MATs. Although the percentage of female chairs is still lower in MATs (53%) compared with maintained schools (60%), it is pleasing to see progress being made.

In 2020, we asked respondents who are not currently chair whether they would consider becoming a chair in the future, and a lower number of women would.

This differential is higher than in 2018, so that is food for thought and something which needs further exploration. The reluctance to consider the chairing role was in part due to not having enough time, 36% compared with 30% for men. Men responding are more likely to be retired than women (43% v 31%), which may have had an impact, being easier to find the time to chair. Male chairs are also more likely to find their role manageable (79% male v 67% female), whereas there is no difference for other governors and trustees.

It was reassuring to note that female governors and trustees are just as likely to feel that they have the opportunity to develop and progress on their board (in fact 65% versus 64%), and they had very similar reactions when asked about whether they had considered resigning: 72% women said ‘no’ for women, as did 73% of men.

For the first time in 2021 we asked respondents if they felt that their opinion is valued on their board: although female and male respondents are almost equally likely to agree it was (75% and 74%), men are more likely to ‘strongly’ agree (75% v 67%.) Similarly, although female and male respondents are similar in agreeing that they feel as though they belong on their board (89% and 92% respectively), men are more likely to ‘strongly’ agree (72% v 63%)

We know that 14% of all female respondents were elected as parent governors in their current role compared to 7% of men. Almost three quarters (74%) of those currently parent governors were female. Being a parent of a school age children may well leave them a little more pressed for time.

And potentially a connected factor, women were a little more likely to be younger. When we say younger, this is against a background of a very low proportion of governors under the age of 40: hence our Young Governors' Network. Possibly due to their age profile, women were more likely to be from an ethnic minority, 9% compared to 5% men.

Last term NGA published a significant report on increasing participation on school and trust governing boards alongside guidance for boards to increase diversity, especially as regards Black and Asian volunteers, and those under 40 where the greatest underrepresentation occurs.

As often is the case with voluntary roles, women are already coming forward in large numbers to govern and to lead boards. Thank you all, whatever your gender: your contribution is enormously appreciated.

To female educationalists considering career development, please do consider governing at another school or trust from the one you work in. The Educators on Board movement has had much success. Time and time again we are told by senior leaders “it is the best CPD I ever had” and the best preparation for headship or executive leadership.

Note: You are welcome to use these figures, please do credit NGA as the source.

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.