Building better diverse trust boards |

Building better diverse trust boards

At last week's National Governance Association conference, Damian Hinds urged high-calibre businesses professionals to support education by volunteering to be governors and non-executive directors. We asked Kirsty Watt, Head of the Academy Ambassadors Programme, for her thoughts on the importance of diversity.

When asked what makes a great board the quality of scrutiny and challenge often tops the list. That requires a board that doesn’t just have the right skills mix but also contains a less tangible ‘mix of minds’. Good academy trust boards act together, corporately, in the interests of the children but they also retain strong, independent thinkers who are able to provide robust challenge. Diversity is critical.

National Governors Association (NGA) launched a new campaign this month to encourage diverse boards in education, Everyone on Board. The statistics behind the campaign were startling. A 2017 NGA survey found that governors and trustees from ethnic minorities account for just 4% of what is the country’s largest volunteer force. In 1999 a similar study by the Department for Education reported a comparable figure of 5%. And gender diversity continues to be a challenge for some boards.

The Academy Ambassadors programme (AA) has a strong record of attracting diverse talent to the boards of multi-academy trusts. As of March 2018, 35% of non-executive director appointments through AA have been women. In contrast, female board representation in the FTSE100 listing in 2017 was measured at just 27.8%. Our focus is on finding the best talent wherever it may be located and matching candidates with the local community they serve. 

The business case for diversity and equality in board recruitment is clear. A combination of demographics, skills, experience, race, age, gender, educational and professional background and other relevant personal attributes on the board is important in providing a range of perspectives, insights and challenge needed to support good decision making.

What can a trust board do when they seek to improve diversity?

  • First, it is critical to work with an independent, external partner who can bring through candidates with no connection to the existing boards. That could be AA or another partner but the externality is the key. External partners provide an independent, open recruitment, free from unconscious bias.
  • The role specification is where good recruitment can be won or lost. A good role specification that is engaging, clearly states the challenge and the competencies required to deliver the role allows good candidates from all backgrounds to step forward. Giving weight to underlying competencies and personal capabilities and not just proven non-executive career experience can be helpful to bring in a wider range of talent.
  • The selection panel and the process that they use will retain or lose good candidates. People with different backgrounds and mind-sets on the selection panel will provide a rounded view of the candidates and may identify weaknesses and strengths more readily.

AA has a Guide to Recruiting with more information on how to run a good recruitment process. 

Academy Ambassadors is continually on the search for high-calibre people to join multi-academy trust boards. Some strong talent has come to us through internal corporate talent programmes and we would be pleased to hear from corporate partners and individuals looking to challenge themselves and give back to education.

To find out more about NSN's Academy Ambassadors programme, visit

Non-executive directors appointed by the Academy Ambassadors programme share their experience of the role. 

Blog topic:
General education