Recruit missing talent: resources for tackling diversity on your board

Diversity in governance matters because all children need and deserve representation – especially in their schools. If your board is struggling to diversify, we've put together some resources to help you remove barriers and develop a more inclusive culture.

Last reviewed on 25 August 2023See updates
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  1. Understand why diversity matters
  2. Work with a diversity partner
  3. When you're ready to recruit, do so consciously
  4. Can you help us to help boards diversify?

The Department for Education (DfE) withdrew the Governance Handbook on 7 March 2024, and replaced it with 2 separate new governance guides for maintained schools and academies.

Take a look at our summary for what you need to know about the changes.

We’re in the process of updating our articles to reflect the new guides. Select ‘save for later’ at the top of the page to be notified when this article has been updated.

Understand why diversity matters

"I decided to become a governor because I left school at 15, and my school had no aspirations for me. I’ve just retired as a senior pathology research fellow. The current pupils at the school I govern will not have the same deal as me." Chair of governors in a maintained school

The lack of diversity in governance isn't a new problem. Governors have been wringing their hands over it for decades. And yet despite all the time, research and initiatives dedicated to this, too many boards still struggle to reflect the true diversity in their communities or the wider population.

Before we take another stab at solving the problem, let's go back to basics.

What is diversity?

When we talk about diversity, we're talking about all protected characteristics:

  • Sex 
  • Race
  • Religion or belief
  • Sexual orientation
  • Gender reassignment
  • Pregnancy and maternity
  • Age
  • Disability
  • Marriage and civil partnership

When it comes to governance, we should also consider diversity in:

  • Socioeconomic status
  • Educational background
  • Neurodiversity

The reason for this is clear: those who face and overcome obstacles in education are best-placed to understand how those barriers affect children and what support they need to overcome them. 

What is 'diverse enough'?

While diversity encompasses many things, it's a fact that some parts of the UK are less racially and/or socioeconomically diverse than others. If you're in one of these areas, you might struggle to recruit a truly diverse board.

In that case, you might throw your hands up at what appears to be an impossible challenge. Don't. Keep going, and use the advice in this article to help you.

Or you might think it reasonable to have an all-white or all-middle-class board in an all-white or all-middle-class community, as long as diversity on that board reflects the other protected characteristics and backgrounds within the pupil body at least. 

And that's a good start – but again, keep going.

It's important to reflect your community as your starting point, but to have true diversity of thought on our boards we need to think of diversity as a reflection of the nation rather than just the local community. 

Why does it matter?

There have been multiple reports over the years that highlight not just the lack of diversity on governing boards, but the objective benefits of increasing this diversity. The Department for Education (DfE)'s Governance Handbook points out that the inclusion of diverse perspectives and characteristics on governing boards:

  • Leads to more robust decision-making (page 15)
  • Has a positive impact on strategic direction (page 36)
  • Promotes inclusive school environments and provides diverse role models for pupils and staff (page 41)

Additionally, the DfE now recommends that schools collect and publish their own board diversity data (see guidance for maintained schools and academies).

The 2022 policy paper, Inclusive Britain, explains: 

Diverse boards, giving a voice to the wider school community, help ensure that decisions taken are in the interest of all pupils.

You can add your information to GovernorHub

Governors are now able to enter diversity data on GovernorHub in their personal profile. We've chosen the data categories based on the census.

Boards are now able to download anonymised reports on the diversity data provided. This report can be published on the school website to meet the suggestion from the DfE. You can read more about how we have taken steps to maximise anonymity in our FAQs.

Why is it still a problem?

There's no single cause for the lack of diversity in governance.

In fact, our recent research, carried out by GovernorHub, The Key and Ipsos, identified several barriers to diversity.

There are 3 key barriers to entry into governorship:

  1. Most people don’t understand the role of school governance
  2. Those people who do understand school governance are more likely to be older, white, middle class, more educated and higher earning
  3. Most of the governors we surveyed arrived in the role through a “closed-shop” route – often, having worked in the school sector, as parents of school-age children, or having links to the sector, such as through personal relationships

And of the current governors we surveyed – themselves typically older (35+), white and more educated – the majority said:

  1. The public doesn’t understand their role, and believe it to be largely hidden
  2. They've typically only seen stories about governance in the press a couple of times
  3. They feel that the difference they make isn’t noticed or valued by the public

You can read the full findings from our public poll and survey of current governors in our report, along with our recommendations.

Further resources

Multiple organisations have carried out research on the diversity problem on governing boards and offered solutions. If you'd like to explore the topic further:

National Governance Association (NGA)

Diverse Educators

Work with a diversity partner

We all know that the answer to the diversity problem isn't in diversity recruitment alone. The answer is in individual and systemic change.

Until your board is ready to confront the personal and institutional biases that serve as barriers to diversity (they do exist, because they exist in everyone), you won't be able to create meaningful change. In order for diversity to flourish, you must:

  • Challenge yourselves to identify and remove barriers to diversity
  • Recruit outside of your usual networks (and comfort zones)

To really bring about change, you will need to partner up with people who specialise in helping boards like yours with these challenges.

Find a partner to remove barriers

“We welcome change in others, but we don’t want to change ourselves. But this is human nature. It’s not an indication of being bad or good  – it’s not an indictment. It simply IS. We don’t really want it to happen, but that’s the reason we can’t stop talking about it.” Oludolapo Ogunbawo, Consultant, Ascot Education Services and The Teaching Network Foundation

Work with school improvement partners and organisations that specialise in equality, diversity and inclusion (ED&I).

While the process might feel personal – given the image of school governors as typically white, middle aged and middle class – it's not. We all need to check in with ourselves regularly and with genuine curiosity about how we make judgements and how that comes out in our actions. 

We all need help with:

  • Identifying and challenging our own unconscious biases – it's a human thing to generalise and categorise, but this can lead to faulty assumptions over time. We have to examine ourselves for these unconscious biases and constantly challenge how they come out in our thoughts and actions
  • Identifying and challenging our institutional biases – like individuals, institutions can develop biases over time. For example, a preference for Russell Group candidates might simply be considered a highly selective recruitment process on the surface, but the latent effect is to eliminate candidates who faced systemic prejudices in education

Until these unconscious issues are addressed, there will always be barriers for individuals with protected characteristics. They're 'protected' characteristics specifically because these individuals are most likely to suffer the consequences of bias.

And it's not a one-way street. People with protected characteristics are unlikely to want to work somewhere that harbours biases against them, however unconscious these biases are. This will make it difficult to recruit and retain a diverse board.

The following is a short list of ED&I partners that specialise in educational and governance settings. Note that any references to commercial providers doesn't constitute an endorsement from The Key.

Fig Tree International

Oludolapo Ogunbawo for Ascot Education Services

Gulshan Kayembe

Inclusive Boards

When you're ready to recruit, do so consciously

Once you've confronted any personal and systemic biases that have prevented diversity up to now, you're truly ready to create an inclusive board.

Discover what diversity looks like in your community

Remember that reflecting your local community is only the first step, but it's a vital one. 

You can use this free tool from us at GovernorHub to audit the diversity of your school community and then compare it to the make-up of your own board.

When you have a good idea of what diversity representing your community might look like on your board, you're ready to reach out to a recruitment agency to help you achieve that.

Work with agencies that specialise in helping boards diversify

The reason you need to use an agency is that we know from our research (linked to above) that most governors come into their roles through their networks. If you're struggling to achieve a diverse board, then it's likely your relied-on network for recruitment doesn't stretch far enough (yet).

To start, look for an agency or organisation that will work closely with you to improve diversity on your board through services like:

  • Diversity training
  • Leadership coaching
  • Candidate management 
  • Ongoing support

The following organisations understand governance and understand that boards struggling with diversity need a multifaceted approach. They know that, alongside a diverse pool of candidates, boards also need:

  • Specific skills to fill gaps
  • Values that align with those of their schools

National Black Governors Network (NBGN)

Governors for Schools (GfS)

Transforming Students

Inspiring Governance

Academies: make sure the future of your trust board is diverse with effective succession planning 

One of the features of a high-quality trust is supporting effective succession planning, as set out in the DfE's trust quality descriptions (page 11). This can be achieved by building a pipeline of future trustees and committee members, with a focus on promoting diversity of thought and experience.

As per the sections above, this means making sure your board represents the communities that it serves by thinking about all forms of diversity - protected characteristics as well as areas like socioeconomic status, educational background and neurodiversity.

Try to:

  • Develop your local governing bodies (LGBs) and invest in their training and effectiveness so you can use them as a pool of future trustees
  • Make the trust board itself more visible in school communities so that people from these communities who consider joining your LGBs also see the trust board as an option

Can you help us to help boards diversify?

We're keen to hear about more organisations that are doing the important work of helping school governing boards diversify. If you're aware of any organisations that are working in this space, we'd love to hear about them and potentially add them to the lists above. You can reach us at [email protected].

Article Updates

25 August 2023

We added information about:

  • How GovernorHub collects diversity data and produces anonymised reports for boards
  • Succession planning in academy trusts

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