Diversity creates ripples of impact – is your board choosing to cast the pebbles?

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True equality is a powerful thing. It creates ripples of impact across organisations and people’s lives. Your board is a representation of your organisation’s culture and values. It has the power to cast the pebbles that will create those positive ripples. But is that what it’s doing? Here, thevaluecircle senior associate Aruna Mehta shares her thoughts on equality in the education sector and some questions for boards to consider, based on almost a decade of experience as a non-executive director, governor, and vice-chair of the board of one of the UK’s largest multi-academy trusts (MATs).

The power of diversity

Cultural cohesion, built on equality and respect for diversity, has the potential to create excellent outcomes. This is as true for organisations as it is for schools and MATs. We treasure diversity in nature. We campaign to maintain it. So why do we tolerate such a lack of it in our organisations? The links between diversity and success are clear. In fact, research in 2018 showed that companies with diverse boards and pools of managers add 9% to their bottom line when compared to companies with below-average diversity on their management team. If diversity is so transformational then, why do so many boards find it hard to see diversity as an integral part of governance? Worse, how is it possible that some boards believe they have policies and procedures in place to ensure fairness and equality in everything they do, but their organisations still are not equitable places to be a part of?

Equality isn’t about treating people equally

True equality is about creating parity for everyone. But as we all have different starting points – whether influenced by race, socio-economic background, or other factors – that can’t possibly mean treating people equally. To make the learning experience equitable we must act differently. And we must measure different things. Do you know what percentage of your workforce is from a Black Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) background? If you run a school or MAT, do you know how that ratio compares to the children in your care? That matters, because young people need role models who look like them. It raises aspirations, which in turn can improve performance and life chances.

The right foundations

Equality must be built from the centre of the organisation, starting with values. Values aren’t the statements you paint on the walls in reception. They are the description of what an organisation thinks is most important. You see them in the way an organisation and its people act, not the marketing collateral. This is the opportunity for your board to cast those pebbles, creating ripples based on your collective values. Those ripples will impact your students, but your staff too. And why is this important? Staff are your greatest asset. They are critical to the outcomes of our children and future generations.

Positive actions for boards to take on equality and diversity

To enable healthy and meaningful dialogue about inclusion and equality of opportunity, there must be diversity at every level. That starts with the board. True diversity will elevate different voices, integrate contrasting insights, and welcome challenging conversations. It will support equality. Boards must lead the way in embedding values by their actions. You are the role models everyone will look to. You must be able to talk clearly about the values you’ve adopted, and understand how they should influence your behaviour. Equality and diversity must be embedded in your recruitment and performance processes. Everyone has to be responsible, in a measurable way, for upholding those values. Your people will probably need training. This could cover a wide spectrum of equality and diversity issues, including culturally-appropriate language and unconscious bias. Training will help you hold people to account. Creating networks is another key stepping-stone to achieving equality. A BAME network will be a safe space for issues of race to be raised and fed back into the organisation.

Measuring equality and diversity

What gets measured gets done. Board members need to be visible in schools and communicate with teachers and students. They should be inquisitive and curious, seeking assurance and evidence about culture change. This evidence could take the form of staff and student surveys, in addition to regular visits. Regulators have a key part to play. In healthcare, the regulator has taken on the issue of equality, diversity and inclusion more seriously with the new People Strategy. And there is the Workforce Race Equality Standard which results in a league table of NHS trusts. This in itself this breeds a board-level focus. This isn’t a problem confined to the education sector. Only this week the president of the Supreme Court, Lord Reed said the lack of diversity among the 12 Supreme Court justices was a situation “which cannot be allowed to become shameful if it persists”. A great many sectors and industries need to look more closely at the issue of diversity. It would be good for Ofsted and the Department of Education to make progress.

Maximising the diversity ripple effect

We must make the most of the ripples that diversity creates. If schools and MATs can construct communities of people who truly respect one another inequality will decrease. Diversity will be valued. The ripple effect will help with decreasing health and housing inequalities, all while raising the aspirations of the next generation. If we are to truly #BuildBackBetter then we must take the opportunity to tackle inequality and a lack of diversity in all of their forms. Or we risk letting the waves of inequality overwhelm our society. Aruna Mehta is a former managing director at JP Morgan, vice chair of the board of one of the UK’s largest multi-academy trusts, an experienced executive and non-executive director. She was recently invited by the Confederation of School Trusts and New Schools Network to contribute to their Diversity Discourse series of essays.

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