Rethinking governance

Ensuring the governing body of a school is diverse, inclusive and reflective of pupils is increasingly important for schools. Ceri Jones, Headmaster of Caterham School, outlines why his school has created a Shadow Board of ten alumni, aged under 30.

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Diversity and inclusion has always been a priority for schools, as it should be for all organisations. All pupils, irrespective of background, should have the same opportunity to succeed. There is a strong educational argument for promoting diversity (in its widest sense) in schools. We all know that problem solving and decision-making is stronger and more effective when there are different perspectives brought to bear on an issue. The same is true of a classroom experience. In the history lessons that I teach, it is hugely beneficial and stimulating to have the different perspectives of gender, ethnicity, neurodiversity and sexuality challenging established understanding.

It is clear that schools place great value on diversity and inclusion – and understand the vital role it plays with regard to pupil experience and outcome. We have been doing excellent work in the area of diversity and inclusion for a long time and great progress has been made over the past decade. What the events of the past year or so have highlighted however is that for all the organisational and procedural progress that has been made, the impact, pace and range of this work requires greater urgency with tangible and visible changes to the experiences of our pupils.

Parents are also increasingly aware of the importance and strength of diversity in schools for the reasons outlined above – diversity provides greater opportunities for growth and learning and reflects a real world experience. Over the past year, this has become an area of real interest and focus for prospective parents of all backgrounds. I am regularly asked not just about the make-up of our pupil body, but also about our response as a school to some of the important debates of the past eighteen months. Parents want to understand how we are ensuring that all pupils, irrespective of background, have an equal opportunity to thrive and what steps we are taking to understand the lived experience of pupils of diverse backgrounds within the school. Parents want to see how our staff body – and indeed our governance structures – are adapting to ensure that decision-making in the school reflects our genuine commitment to diversity and inclusion. Diversity and inclusion seem to be an increasingly important part of the decision-making process for parents and pupils and are now a consideration alongside academic achievement, wellbeing and the overall offer of a school when parents are choosing next steps.

Ceri Jones and Richard Harman discuss the role of governors in schools.

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Most schools already have excellent and visible systems in place to address these issues, making it relatively easy for prospective (and current) parents to understand the school commitment to equality and diversity. Schools who are leading the way in this area may have a senior colleague with a specific responsibility for Diversity and Inclusion and they may have vibrant and active pupil societies to create the space for pupils to discuss these issues and advocate for change within the school. Schools may also sample pupil experience regularly through questionnaires or focus groups. At my school we also invite pupils leaving the school in the Sixth Form to exit interviews with Governors so that our commitment to diversity and inclusion can be tested against the lived experience of our pupils.

A key challenge remains for many schools – and that is how to get more diverse perspectives onto senior leadership teams and onto governing bodies to create a better balance of views and, as a result, make more effective decisions. At my own school, as a response to the challenge of enhancing the diversity of our Governing Body, we have created a Shadow Board to ensure that the views of our increasingly diverse pupil and alumni body have a role in informing and shaping the way the school thinks about current pupil experience and the future strategic direction of the school. Our conversations about creating this group began back in 2019 but the events of the past eighteen months certainly gave a sharper focus to our thinking. The Shadow Board is made up of ten alumni all aged between 18 and 30. Their remit is to challenge, scrutinise and inform the conversations that the Governing Body are having. In addition to helping shape the direction of the school, the members of the Shadow Board also have training in – and develop experience of – corporate governance, change management and board meetings. This is all in the hope and expectation that they may in future progress through to the Governing Body of this school, but also that our Shadow Board members feel empowered to look for similar opportunities in their careers and the organisations in which they work.

We wanted to bring relevance and a different perspective to our conversations around issues such as sustainability, the digital transformation of the workplace, preparation for Higher Education and wellbeing. Encouraging diverse voices onto the Shadow Board has been hugely affirming and created a sense of shared endeavour.

Of course, for current pupils and parents this has also been a powerful statement of intent from the Governing Body of the school. It signals a very important message to all of our community about the willingness of the school to learn from the experience and expertise of others irrespective of status or standing and plays to a strongly held view that we all have things to learn from each other.

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Ceri Jones is Headmaster of Caterham School.

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