Ninni Makrinov portrait

Written by Ninna Makrinov

Organisational Psychologist with over 20 years' experience in Higher Education. Currently the Chair of Governors at Water Mill Primary School.

On 30 September I Tweeted “I have been re-elected chair of governors at Water Mill Primary School. Such a pleasure to be able to serve. I’ve also recruited for all our vacancies and have the most visibly diverse board I have seen in the school this far. Thanks @Penny_Ten for your ideas.”

Here, (in a blog that was first published on the BAMEed website) I articulate why diversity on the board is important to me. And share some ideas that you might want to try when recruiting new members to yours.

A diverse board:

I am chair of governors in a small one form entry primary school in Birmingham. We are extremely proud of the diverse community we serve. It includes children from all over the world, many who arrive to school without speaking English. Because of our location near the University of Birmingham and Queen Elizabeth hospital, some of our children are only with us during their parent’s studies or work placements. When visiting the school, I see this fantastic diversity. And the children see it too! In our latest Ofsted report, the inspector quoted a child saying ‘We are all unique and great friends from different countries. We are like the united nations here’. We also have children who live permanently in the local area; they also come from diverse backgrounds.

Leadership has historically been another matter. When I joined the board we were all white; I brought some diversity, as I immigrated to the UK (for the second time) with my children and they joined the school with still little English. I did not question the lack of diversity then. It seemed the norm, educated white British people providing a service for the community. We cared, we wanted the best for the children. But we (or at least I) did not see how important it was the diversity of our community was visibly represented within the board.

I have been through a personal journey during the past 4 years that totally changed my focus. For years I have believed in multiculturalism, I have worked in international education, I have lived in three countries. Looking back, I was rather naïve in my beliefs. Maybe because in Chile, where I come from, racism is blatant I did not see it in the UK. I started attending an anti-racist pedagogies forum at work a couple of years ago, that changed my outlook. I will not delve into my process, I imagine it would bore a diverse audience to read about how I realised about my white privilege. I should have known!

Having a visibly diverse board is important to me because I realise I cannot serve a community I don’t understand. All voices need to be heard and mine is not more important than others. Our children will be able to see themselves in us, parents might trust us more. Our discussions will, I expect, be enriched by asking questions coming from different perspectives. I hope that recruiting a visibly diverse board is a starting point to diversifying our leadership, improving our policies and engaging in deep reflection. I genuinely value diversity, I have for some time; but I now know that diversity in leadership doesn’t happen by accident.

Recruiting diverse members:

Recruiting board members for school governance is a challenge in itself. I imagine I am not the only one who at some points has felt that I am begging for members. And we need to make sure we have the right skills set on the table. I know some boards achieve this by having specialised committees and big numbers. At Water Mill, we made a decision that the best governance solution for our school was to have a small board (9 members), with frequent meetings and (almost) no committees. We embarked on a skills development journey using the DfE’s competency framework. And we made a conscious commitment to recruiting diverse members. We also decided not to appoint unless we agreed of the value to the board.

 

As vacancies arose, we openly indicated that we were looking for diverse members. That was, I am sorry to say, not enough. The reason for this was obvious to me when I was delivering a confidence training session to university students and one of them openly discussed what she called the elephant in the room, all were women from ethnic minority backgrounds. She shared her experiences of discrimination and how she would not apply for a job in a place that was not already diverse, to avoid this. In her eyes, a recruitment pack that mentioned diversity was just saying ‘not for me’. How could we make our obviously white educated board the place for those who were not like us? I got advice on ideas to try and came up with some myself.

I still feel that our current diverse board is serendipitous. Three governors were elected by parents and I found my nextbdoor neighbour (and good friend) on Inspiring Governance. However, I hope some of the ideas I tried might help:

  1. Commit to diversity: Discuss diversity openly in your board. Create a list of the characteristics you ideally would want to have. Not all diversity if visible, but visible diversity can help demonstrate your commitment openly.
  2. Celebrate the diversity you already have: Think about how your board and/or school is already diverse. Share this and make it visible. Add diversity stories on webpages, for example. Our headteacher updated our webpage recently; I think it looks great.
  3. Ask for what you are looking for: Although I mentioned above that just adding a diversity statement was not enough, I still think this is needed. Make sure it includes your reasoning; I changed ours from ‘we welcome applications from BME backgrounds” to “We would particularly welcome nominations from parents from diverse ethnic backgrounds. We are committed to the diversity of our school; we would like our governing board membership to demonstrate this.” 
  4. Target specifically for the diversity you need: I used Inspiring Governance and Governors for Schools to support my search (if you have not tried them, do!). Inspiring Governance has a shortlisting system. In this occasion we wanted men and minority members; I did not contact any white women in my search. The vacancies were open to all, but I did not reach out to them.

 

I am looking forward to continuing this journey. A diverse board is not only about recruitment, but also about retention. This will require us to effectively listen to each other, value diverse opinions, ensure everyone feels like a valued member. I start this year with 4 new members, almost half of my board. We are integrating opportunities to get to know each other and training sessions during our meetings. My main focus is to build each member’s confidence in their role. I will know that I have succeeded when others are ready to step up and take the responsibility of chairing the board. I love my role, but I believe my board is better served by diversity in leadership.

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