Diversity and school boards of management

By Alison O’Neil, Volunteer Officer

In June 2023, Educate Together took the steps towards understanding how diverse our school boards are. Some readers may remember answering a survey that we sent out to board of management members last summer.  This article looks at some of the responses we received to that survey and addresses some of the issues raised.

As a democratic and equality-based organisation, Educate Together formally and informally values inclusivity.  This inclusivity seeks to include everyone at all levels of our network.  It does not just mean that our students equally celebrate Diwali, Hanukkah and Christmas and other important milestones, although activities such as these are very important in embedding inclusivity in our schools.  Results from that survey suggest that the level of inclusivity in our classrooms is not reflected in our boardrooms. We explore below some of the reasons behind that.

As a network we must work to improve and increase diversity in our school boards of management if we are to be a truly inclusive organisation.  While recognising and celebrating the diversity of our student body in our schools may help to ensure that ‘no child is an outsider’, this keeps celebrating diversity in the realm of something that we do, rather than something that we are.  One respondent’s words relate this:

“…we are a very diverse school but not diverse at BoM…”

The survey last summer gave us a glimpse into what is going on at board of management level in terms of selecting community nominees.  In the changeover at the end of last year some boards have been very grateful to have community nominees re-nominated, but where community nominees resigned, we know that it has been a significant challenge for boards to find volunteers as these statements indicate.

“People[‘s] lives are busy – it’s the extra hours and responsibility that scares people”

“I think people’s lives are busy and they don’t feel they would have the time to offer.”

What did the survey reveal about who and how we recruit onto Boards?

Of the board members that responded to our survey, only two reported that their board had made efforts to contact local community groups specifically working with ethnic and other minorities when seeking community nominees.  Four board members recalled that they explicitly approached people from ethnic minority backgrounds within the school community when looking for community nominees in the 2019 board changeover.  And six boards contacted local community activists to get help in finding community nominees.  These efforts markedly compare to attempts to match board places with skillsets – thirty respondents stated that they approached specific people with specific skills.

It seems that because it is so much of a challenge to find willing volunteers with the appropriate skillset (treasurer role, anyone?) who also have the time and the availability and live locally and support the ethos, diversity of ethnic and/or cultural background of board members may just be a little too far down the list of desirable criteria.

Could taking steps to improve diversity in board membership help to solve this difficulty with recruitment of skilled community nominees to boards?  Perhaps actively encouraging volunteers from diverse backgrounds may tap into the specific skills that are needed by boards, but because we are not asking we are not finding out.

As mentioned, our survey is by no means comprehensive, but it does indicate that there is room for improvements to be made, both from the perspective of the network and at individual board level.

“…we are constantly looking to add more diversity…”

“…with a naturally diverse parent body, the parent nominees have always represented some diversity.  We have looked for diversity of background, experience and profession….”

Thankfully, many of our boards are already taking the first steps to improve diversity. If you have suggestions you’d like to share or questions to pose please get in touch. While boards don’t change again for another few year’s vacancies do arise in the interim and if your board stays constant you can increase your own cultural and social awareness by undertaking our e-module. Click here to access it.