How representative are your governors – and why does it matter?

Neil Collins explains why governance is improved by a diverse range of perspectives and how to start measuring how your board reflects your community

Neil Collins explains why governance is improved by a diverse range of perspectives and how to start measuring how your board reflects your community

11 Oct 2023, 5:00

Only a few years ago, schools were advised to “use their own networks” to recruit governors and trustees for their governing boards. Quite rightly, this is now discouraged. The Department for Education issued guidance to maintained schools and trusts in April encouraging them to collect and publish information about the diversity of their boards.

The aim is to improve governance by avoiding echo chambers that come with the over-representation of certain groups . Indeed, research carried out by GovernorHub last year showed that just 4 per cent of school governors and trustees are aged 34 or younger, and some 90 per cent are white.

Encouragingly, our latest poll (carried out by Teacher Tapp) shows that the majority of school leaders  don’t mind if new governors and trustees have no education experience whatsoever as long as they are from a diverse range of backgrounds and passionate and committed to the role. Only 21 per cent of headteachers say education experience is important when appointing a new governor or trustee.

The survey of 2,190 school leaders across England found that the governors and trustees most in demand by schools and trusts are those who will “broaden diversity of thought”. More than half of school leaders (56 per cent) told us they want governors and trustees to be from a wide range of backgrounds and to reflect the school or trust’s community.

Among the traits that matter most to heads is for governors and trustees to have time to attend meetings and training courses. Although those with experience in a field such as HR or finance are particularly sought after, only 4 per cent of heads look for new board members who work with data in their day jobs.

Nevertheless, just over one-fifth of senior leaders admit their governing boards do not currently reflect the characteristics of their community very well. In fact, those in ‘Outstanding’ and affluent schools are more likely to think they do than those in schools in deprived parts of the country or those that Ofsted has described as “Inadequate” or “Requiring improvement”.

The aim is to avoid echo chambers

School leaders in London are the least likely to say their school’s governing board is representative. Here, 37 per cent believe the board “does not reflect their community very well” or “not at all well”. In other regions of England, this ranges between 29 and 33 per cent.

Decisions about every aspect of school life are improved when those around the table hold a wide range of backgrounds and views. This is particularly the case when discussing sensitive topics, such as uniform and hair policies, the cost of trips or the experiences of LGBTQ+ students, to name only a few examples.

But up until now, it’s been almost impossible for schools to know how representative their governing boards actually are.

That’s why we have just launched a tool that does just this. A new feature on GovernorHub  enables schools and trusts to collect and track anonymous data on the diversity of their governing boards. At least 8,000 trustees and governors are already using it, and the quality of data will only improve as that figure rises in the coming months, building a meaningful picture of trust governance demographics at a local, regional and national level.

Of course, just measuring diversity won’t necessarily make it any easier for schools to enlist volunteers who are representative of their communities. While there are plenty of organisations doing a great job of helping schools recruit a diverse range of governors and trustees, this is still a challenge.

It can be particularly difficult to attract those who’ve just started out in their careers. And yet, the skills you learn are often very useful in the workplace. Governors and trustees are expected to analyse information, challenge current thinking and work – often quickly – on coming up with a good solution to a thorny problem.

It’s no surprise though that once people discover how rewarding being a school governor or trustee is, they very often stay for a long time.

And that makes it all the more important that we fill the shortages on boards with a diverse range of governors and trustees

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