School Governors and Academy Trustees are some of the most important decision makers in education, yet many boards simply don’t reflect the diversity of their student body or the wider community.
Here at GovernorHub we know from a sample of our 45,000 plus members that the average age of a school governor or trustee is 50. This confirms findings by NGA/TES, which found that of 5000 school governors and trustees surveyed in 2017 only 10% of respondents were under 40, and just 1.1% were under 30.
We don’t collect information on our members’ ethnicity but we know from research that it’s likely to be a similarly ‘lop-sided’ story. According to the NGA’s annual school governance survey in 2017, just 4% of more than 5,000 respondents had a black or ethnic background.
Sharon Warmington set up the National Black Governors Network in 2017 after becoming increasingly aware that no matter how diverse a school’s student body, the further up the leadership ladder you go, the less likely you are find any diversity:
“I have been into schools where 95% of the population is non-white, where 30 different languages are being spoken, and yet the governing board is overwhelmingly white, old and male. You need someone on that board who knows what it means to translate languages, who understands how things can get lost in translation, who knows what the barriers are – why a child might be absent or late. These skills should be round the table.”
Sharon works with black African and Caribbean professionals to pair them up with schools who are looking to increase the diversity of their board; having open conversations and often seeking people out. She says the issue with putting a general ‘call out’ for more diversity on boards is that people feel they’re just part of a box-ticking exercise. But it’s not just diversity of ethnicity that’s an issue according to Sharon – age can be just as big a problem:
“The world has changed and will keep doing so. You can become a governor aged 18 but nobody thinks about approaching much younger professionals – undergraduates interested in management. They speak the language of young people in schools. If I’m sitting on an exclusion panel, sometimes I don’t understand what these kids are talking about. Governing Bodies really should consider this as part of their succession plan.”
Set against these terms, a 36 year old Chair of Governors might not seem very young but Lena Cole from St Joseph’s Catholic Primary School in Luton is aware she’s bucking a trend. She hadn’t intended to become a governor but, as a former pupil at her son’s school, she was approached by staff. Lena doesn’t have a background in education or any previous board experience but says her job as an Audio Engineer for the BBC lends itself well:
“I think having a practical job has really helped – it allows me to look at things in a very practical way. It was a steep learning curve at first as you have to learn the jargon but the school has been great and we’re always encouraged to ask questions if we’re unsure of something.”
Although St Joseph’s is a Catholic Primary, pupils come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and the proportion of pupils who speak English as an additional language is above average. Deputy Head Maureen Murphy says the governing body reflects this:
“We have a diverse governing body which includes a Polish and Muslim governor. Recently our Muslim governor invited us to join her in a Ramadan Iftar (the meal with which Muslims end their daily Ramadan fast at sunset). It was ladies only but four of our board members were able to attend.”
In its Governance Handbook 2017, the Department of Education says it’s down to individual boards to decide which skills and attributes are needed on a governing body – and particular challenges will vary between schools:
“Relevant skills may include important personal attributes, qualities and capabilities, such as the ability and willingness to learn and develop new skills. Skills may also be taken to include the knowledge and perspectives that will contribute to good decision making.”
Schools may decide to appoint younger governors with less experience on the grounds that a broader set of perspectives will contribute to better decision making. Lena says she’s found the experience of becoming a governor very rewarding and would encourage other younger people to consider it:
“It’s a form of volunteering which must help the most people at any one time. If you include children and staff at our school, it is at least 1,000.”
Here at GovernorHub we’d like to start a conversation about board diversity – we’d encourage all governors to look around at the table at their next meeting and consider whether their board reflects the diversity of their student body or wider community.
Note. In the interests of full disclosure, the diversity at GovernorHub is mixed. We are all white British but with a 50% gender split and an age range from 24 up to 50.