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From acorns large oak trees grow – diversity among academy trust leaders

30 September 2021

Equality, Diversity and Inclusion - what is behind the words?

Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) is on the agenda of many boards nationwide. Organisations are working out what EDI means in the context of their own sector and how they can work towards encouraging a more equitable culture. Following on from the impact of George Floyd’s death and movements like “Everyone’s invited” it is to be expected that academy trust boards will be challenged about diversity and equality.

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a disproportionally negative impact on some communities and widened the learning gap further. A study by Camden Learning highlights recurring themes which impact on learning including overcrowding and language barriers. BAME students and students from disadvantaged communities found it difficult to adapt to home learning, with limited resources at home and the lack of support where parents speak English as a second language. 

For all these reasons schools and academy trusts are under pressure to pursue diversity. They need to be tackling potentially discriminatory practices, non-inclusive behaviours, and the unfairness of learning gaps to ensure they are fully engaged with, and credible in, the eyes of the communities they represent.

There are many and varied ideas of what EDI means but it is a label we need to look behind if we really want to see a fairer society. The concept of equality may be familiar to us through examples like the Equality Act, designed to protect people with protected characteristics by making discriminatory practices unlawful. However, the concept of equality alone does not necessarily advance the prospects of disadvantaged people.

Equality of opportunity will not necessarily result in equality of outcomes because some people start from a more disadvantageous place and others from a more unconscious advantageous position. To level the playing field we need to introduce ‘equity’ to provide tailored support to address the systematic barriers that create the advantaged and disadvantaged in society. Progress has been made in the education sector and elsewhere but that there is still a long road ahead.

Diversity is the presence, in a setting such as an academy trust, of people who together have various elements of human difference, such as gender and gender identity, race and ethnicity, faith, sexual orientation, disability classification, and class. However diversity alone is not enough which is why inclusion is so important.

Inclusion refers to actions that invite and support ‘difference’ in a setting. An inclusive organisation enables all of its people to fully participate in and shape the collective, for example by supporting people to be themselves, to speak out about concerns and to be heard. Diversity that does not sit in an inclusive environment will look like tokenism; to avoid this an organisation needs to live its values and call on the principles of equity to ensure a person from an under-represented or disadvantaged background who succeeds is supported to continue to achieve.

To inform and lead the sector in addressing EDI among academy trust leaders, Forum Strategy published the first national research report into EDI among Chief Executives of academy trusts at its National #TrustLeaders CEO Conference on 29 September 2021. The report identifies successes but more so the challenges and details how EDI can be improved.

Why is EDI important?

There are moral and societal reasons why tackling inequity in the workplace and our education system is important. From a moral perspective, increasing diversity among trust leaders will help to put schools and academy trusts in a better position to tackle society’s diversity issues. This practical argument for increased diversity is highlighted in research from the YMCA on the young black experience of institutional racism in the UK in which it found : 

  • 95% of young black people report that they have heard and witnessed the use of racist language at school; 
  • 49% of young black people feel that racism is the biggest barrier to attaining success in school

There are also organisational advantages to diverse trust leadership. As recommended by the Charity Governance Code (Principle 6 EDI) having a diverse board will make it more effective by drawing on a wide spectrum of perspectives, experiences and skills. A diverse board will have lived experiences so it will understand the barriers that prevent both staff and pupils reaching their full potential. With this knowledge the barriers may be dismantled to the benefit of all.

The responsibilities of trust leaders at all levels

The Charity Governance Code Principle 6 clearly sets out the responsibilities of individual trustees and the board collectively. The rationale behind Principle 6 is to guide an organisation towards balanced decisions to benefit the entire community under its governance.

A trust board should be supporting EDI through its own practices to set standards and embed EDI values in the whole trust. Then it should set a strategy to deliver its purpose and inclusive values and culture, reduce obstacles to participation and to become more effective by reflecting different perspectives, experiences, and skills.

Boards are advised to extend their duties to the collection of data to assess the state of EDI in their organisations. However, as Forum Strategy has identified, trust boards alone will not drive a change in culture and increased inclusion in their schools. The entire trust has a role to play and CEOs are key players in the implementation of policy across schools. CEOs remain pivotal in assessing the policy roll-out as well as monitoring how effective these policies are upon implementation. Trustees rely on CEOs to implement their strategic vision. In pursuing diversity, the duties of trustees and CEOs must work hand-in hand.

Research has shown a lack of diversity amongst trust CEOs which boards are encouraged to address. This will be an organic process with roots in the recruitment and support of NQT and junior staff from diverse communities. They will only thrive in an inclusive culture; so the strategy must be to encourage fairness at all levels of the trust and not only from the top down. In this way from small acorns oak trees will grow.

Boards should assess their own understanding of EDI before considering what must be seen across the trust as a whole. Any gaps in understanding at board level should be met by discussion, learning, research or seeking information.

Boards should then assess their own diversity and recruitment processes before setting context-specific and real targets in its plans for the trust. Once the strategy is in place the board should put in place arrangements and resources to monitor and achieve the EDI plans and targets including those relating to the board and tackle any organisational or board inequalities and gaps that have been identified.

To conclude we can see that diversity alone in the school setting is not enough. Without the right mentoring and support and without creating an inclusive culture it is almost bound to fail. The way forward lies in nurturing diversity at the top focusing on trust CEOs and throughout the academy trust structure whilst cultivating inclusion and equity from the bottom up and sideways too. Trust boards must work with academy trust CEOs; rather than diversity measures being lost in the pipeline, CEOs can take trustee strategies and deliver them within the academy trust framework. In this way, trust leaders can be held accountable for the delivery of their diversity policy.

If you would like to discuss any aspect of this article further, please contact Sue King.

You can also keep up to date by following Wrigleys Education on Twitter here

The information in this article is necessarily of a general nature. The law stated is correct at the date (stated above) this article was first posted to our website. Specific advice should be sought for specific situations. If you have any queries or need any legal advice please feel free to contact Wrigleys Solicitors.




Sue King View Biography

Sue King


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