There’s an old HR adage that says ‘We recruit in our own image’. Recent reductions in the numbers of elected school governors and trustees has meant that school leaders are increasingly appointing individuals to governing boards themselves. If it follows that many individuals will, to an extent, be naturally inclined to recruit others similar to themselves, then we run the risk of boards across the sector becoming much less diverse.
We’ve also seen a push towards recruiting on the basis of skills and a gradual ‘professionalisation’ of governance roles, which may cause boards to become ever more homogeneous in terms of background and experience.
This lack of diversity is arguably an even higher risk in church schools, where foundation governors will usually be in the majority, yet often be drawn from a small pool of potential applicants.
I use the word ‘diversity’ here in the widest possible sense. A survey of school governors in England carried out by the National Governance Association and Tes in 2016 found 93% to be white and 89% to be over 40. An earlier study in 2014 by the NGA and University of Bath concluded that “Governing bodies typically do not reflect the ethnic diversity of their area,” – but for me, issues of gender, age and ethnic diversity are only a proxy for more important issues relating to diversity of perspective.
The UK Corporate Governance Code warns against the dangers of ‘groupthink’ – a striving for consensus and lack of challenge to decision-making – in non-diverse boards. One of a governing board’s key roles, however, is specifically to bring challenge. Governors and trustees must be able to challenge one another and their executive leaders to ensure that decisions are robust and governance practices remain effective.
Beyond that, if the board is to properly understand and engage with its community, then drawing some of its membership from different elements of that community can be enormously helpful. Research on board diversity in companies indicates that greater diversity results in better decisionmaking, widens the recruitment pool and enhances the organisation’s reputation.
Plan of action
So what can, or should schools be doing? We can start by asking ourselves the following questions:
• ‘Is this an issue for us?’
• ‘How diverse is our governing body in terms of age, gender, ethnic origin, level of education and professional background?’
• ‘Is our board membership reflective of our community?’
• ‘Is there a diversity of opinion within our decision-making processes? Is there any evidence of ‘internal challenge’?’
• What is our recruitment strategy? Are we successfully recruiting outside the pool of people our governors know personally, or do we need support with this? (The sites sgoss.org.uk and inspiringgovernance.org may be helpful here).
The evidence suggests that diverse boards lead to more successful organisations – which in our context, means better outcomes for our children and young people.
Ruth Agnew is a National Leader of Governance, chair of a maintained primary school and director of RMA Governance, which provides governor training and consultancy services across North West England