CEO diversity: A verdict of ‘could do better’

There’s a lot of work to be done on CEO diversity but the good news is the sector is determined to improve, write Navdeep Sanghara and Sir Steve Lancashire

There’s a lot of work to be done on CEO diversity but the good news is the sector is determined to improve, write Navdeep Sanghara and Sir Steve Lancashire

29 Sep 2021, 5:00

When we were asked to advise the development of Forum Strategy’s report on diversity and inclusion amongst trust CEOs (launched today), we were thrilled.

We weren’t thrilled by the fact we have to do this work – after all, it’s 2021 and many of us had hoped discrimination, barriers to opportunity and non-inclusive practice in the education system would be a thing of the past by now.

But we were genuinely pleased by the fact that someone was doing something about it. Because as much as the status quo may, and should, bother us – the best way to approach that is by being proactive, optimistic and pragmatic. And while we can make a lot of impact in our own trusts, in a sector with so many excellent leaders, sharing our knowledge and views must be the best way to change things for the better.

The work has shown that diversity and inclusion at top levels of leadership in trusts is an issue. In our poll of more than a hundred academy trust leaders, 53 per cent disagreed or strongly disagreed that “the education sector is an equal playing field for people like me”. And 58 per cent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that “some barriers to progression for people like me are hidden”.

This is particularly concerning when we consider that trust leaders are at the heart of their communities. We must then consider what message this sends to pupils, parents and wider stakeholders.

We have precious little data to draw on to examine the problem further. Our own analysis of the gender of CEOs across four regions (covering almost 400 trusts) showed that in the north east 46 per cent female and 54 per cent male. In the East Midlands, it was 42 and 58. In the West Midlands, 45 and 55. And in the south west, 40 and 60.

Participants weren’t short of ideas to start improving things

When compared with other sectors, this does show a progressing picture for academy trusts. By comparison, the FTSE 100 has just 36 women in total (12.2 per cent) across the top three roles of chair, CEO and CFO. In policing, 35 per cent of chief constables are female; In higher education, it’s 29 per cent of vice chancellors; and across NHS trusts, 44% of CEOs are female.

However, we must also consider that there is still an issue when we specifically look at the highest-paid trust CEOs. Only one of the top 20 is female.

For us, the real power of the work has been hearing insights from colleagues in the sector, to help understand their thoughts, worries and potential solutions. We organised three focus groups with mixed representation including geography, age, gender, sexuality and ethnicity, and much of their discussions focused on teacher recruitment.

As one participant noted pointedly, we can’t we expect leadership at trust level to be more diverse if the teachers we recruit are already not representative of the populations they serve? “In this secondary school I’m sat in,” he added, “we’ve got between 40 to 50 per cent black students, but we’ve got less than 5 per cent black staff in front of those students.”

But the participants weren’t short of ideas to start improving matters: more diverse recruitment panels, contacting ITT providers directly to ask for a wider range of candidates, anonymising applications at the sift stage, and more – all of which we would encourage colleagues to explore further in the recommendations section of our report.

Of course, this work was not done with the aim of providing all the answers, but to prompt discussion. Nor does it put the responsibility for solving all the problems at the door of CEOs. Our report also raises some of the systemic barriers for the attention of system leaders and the DfE, such as the need for better data and more action on the diversity of trust boards.

Our focus group participants also spoke of the power of coaching, mentoring and formal development programmes. They highlighted that actively working with colleagues who identify with protected characteristics can build confidence and readiness to take the plunge for a promotion, and make success more likely.

One of the most uplifting aspects of this project has been the reflective nature of trust leaders on this subject and their determination to improve. They’re marking their own homework, and their verdict is an honest “Could do better”.

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