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School Governing Bodies: Diversity

Volume 821: debated on Thursday 28 April 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to encourage greater diversity on school governing bodies.

Volunteer school governors and trustees are critical in helping schools and trusts to perform well. Diverse perspectives and backgrounds on governing boards strengthen strategic decision-making in the best interests of all pupils. We provide practical support to help boards improve diversity through published guidance and, last year, invested £1.2 million in recruitment. There is more to do and we continue to encourage governing boards to be more representative of the communities they serve.

I thank the noble Baroness for that response. Does she agree with me that all state-funded schools should have parent and community governors who reflect their locality? Employers and unions might work together to encourage people to put themselves forward. Indeed, they might support governorship by negotiating paid leave as necessary to carry out governing body duties and responsibilities.

The Government are keen to encourage local governing bodies to recruit more diverse members. Voluntary campaigns by all organisations in the educational sector will also encourage people to engage and consider the questions the noble Baroness raises.

My Lords, the Youth Unemployment Select Committee of this House reported last November with a mass of recommendations, all of which have so far been rejected by the Government. One of the recommendations was that every secondary school should have a local employer on its board, at the very least to implement what the Prime Minister said; he wants to put industry at the heart of education. A governing person who is a local employer will be able to ensure that, when pupils leave school at 18, they have employability skills. At the moment, most do not have employability skills and that must end.

My Lords, I was not aware of that particular recommendation, but I am aware of my noble friend’s work in this area on a number of fronts. In the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill that we just passed we took more important steps to ensure better links between employers, skills and careers advice in schools to ensure that young people leave school with the skills they need and knowledge of the opportunities out there for them.

My Lords, I wonder how we can have a local employer on a governing body or hear the voices of parents from diverse communities if a governing body does not exist. These days, many multi-academy trusts choose not to have a governing body or for it to represent a number of schools. When a multi-academy trust has schools in, say, Stoke, Birmingham and Portsmouth, how does that reflect the diverse communities that make up the UK?

The noble Lord is right that local governance is a vital way to connect trusts to their local schools and communities. The vast majority of trusts already have local governance arrangements in their trust structure, and it is our intention that all trusts should reap the benefits of having effective local governance arrangements. We will discuss with the sector the best way to achieve that.

My Lords, a survey in 2019 by the National Governance Association found that the average age of governors was 55. Does the Minister agree that when searching for more diversity, diversity of age should be encouraged because at 55 many people will be out of touch with the education system?

My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness. Age is something we are looking at in terms of diversity as well as gender, ethnic background and other characteristics.

My Lords, my noble friend made a specific suggestion around paid leave to enable parents to fulfil the responsibilities of school governors. For those on low wages, that is crucial. Will the Minister please comment on that proposal?

My Lords, I know that there are arrangements in place to allow people to take leave to fulfil voluntary obligations. I know that it is unpaid at the moment. I will take that suggestion back to the department.

My Lords, the Government have weakened the role of local authorities in schools. How are governing bodies that are faced with failed schools going to get the level of support that they need to bring about change in those schools?

My Lords, there are effective arrangements in place to ensure that governing bodies in maintained schools and boards in academy trusts get the effective support they need to fulfil their role in our education system.

My Lords, will the Minister elaborate a little on the answer she gave about multi-academy trusts? She seems to have said that local involvement in school management is important, but as far as academy trusts are concerned she acknowledged that it is important but just hoped that trusts would do that. Do we not need a bit more than that from the Government?

My Lords, I said it was not just a hope and that it is the Government’s intention to achieve that. It is already in place in the majority of trusts. We will work with the sector to find the best way to deliver on that intention.

My Lords, I reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, that when you reach a certain age you are still in touch with young people and the education service. Will the Minister go back to her colleagues and take a look at whether guidance could be given to the founders of multi-academy trusts about how many of their relatives and close friends should appropriately be trustees?

My Lords, I believe that the Government provide clear guidance for trusts on their governance arrangements. The Government will always make sure that that is the case.

My Lords, listening to the questions we have had, does my noble friend agree that the important thing is to look at the effectiveness of the governance of these schools? Would she like to pay tribute to our noble friend Lord Harris for the fantastic work he has done in transforming failing schools into some of the leading schools in the country?

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely correct. It is about effectiveness and outcomes, and that is the focus of the schools White Paper that the Government recently published. To go back to the original Question, diversity is essential to ensure that effectiveness, and the Government support it.

My Lords, further to my noble friend’s question, if a school does not have a governing board, how can we get any benefit from it? Will we change this in the next Queen’s Speech?

My Lords, there are governing bodies for maintained schools and boards for academy trusts. As I have already said to noble Lords, the majority of trusts have local governance in place and we want to work towards a situation where all trusts have local governance systems in place. That is something that we are talking to the sector about. That does not necessarily mean legislation. There are different ways that we can effectively achieve change.

My Lords, the Minister rightly said that governors should be representative of the community that the school serves. Setting a good example by, say, enabling a culture of equality and diversity so that it thrives within the school or the trust should be a key role of a board of governors. However, the facts show that that is not the case. Last year the National Governance Association published figures showing that just 5% of school governors were from ethnic minority backgrounds, and that figure has not changed since 1999. I will save the Minister from gently reminding me that my party was in government for about half that period, but her party is in government now and it is incumbent on her to say what action the Government will take beyond guidance, which clearly is not working, so that those boards are made more aware of the need to deal with the lack of diversity among their own number.

The noble Lord is correct that there is more work to do. In response to the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, we committed to continuing to encourage governing bodies to be more reflective of the school communities that they serve, and we recommended that they collect and publish board diversity data at a local level voluntarily. As far as the Government’s actions are concerned, we are investing in recruitment campaigns with specific diversity targets to help increase the pool of people who can serve on these boards and support local schools.

My Lords, many years ago when I was a school governor—I declare an interest—I was encouraged by a school in Hackney, a very diverse school in a very diverse borough, which created two extra co-opted places specifically to reflect the diversity of the school and to encourage parents from those communities to join the governing body. That was very effective and I benefited from it, and I would like to think that all the kids there who I was in touch with also had a point of contact. Why can this not be rolled out to those academies that are serving the community but probably do not hit any of the diversity targets, so that they can better represent their communities?

I think the Government would encourage local initiatives such as the one that the noble Baroness refers to in increasing the diversity on boards and trusts of local schools. The other issue that we need to bear in mind is that for different communities diversity looks different, and the solutions may be different in different areas. We need to get the best practice out there, learn from it and provide the tools and encouragement to local areas so that they can do better in this area, supported by the Government.