Recruiting a more diverse range of people to governing bodies can, and must, be done. Alison Shepherd reports
Ask anyone in the street what governors actually do and you are likely to get a vague, undefined answer about school management. Ask who those governors are and the reply will be much more definite: white, middle-class and middle-aged.
Unfortunately, this perception is not far removed from reality in many areas of the country, and it is not going to improve any time soon, according to a new report for the Department for Education and Skills.
Barriers to participation for under-represented groups in school governance is proof that despite many similar reports over the years, not enough is being done to attract and retain a diverse range of individuals on school governing bodies.
According to the report, written by the Institute for Volunteering Research, there are six groups who find it difficult to find a seat around the governors' table: ethnic minorities, lone parents, disabled people, those on low incomes, business people and young people.
Jane Phillips, chair of the National Assocation of Governors and Managers, explains the advantage of a mixed board: "One of the purposes of a governing body is to reflect the community it serves. If a huge portion of this community is not represented the governors would have difficulty gaining credence or gathering information on the needs of those groups."
Researcher Steven Howlett, believes the first hurdle is the way governors are recruited. "If people see leaflets and posters trying to attract new governors, but they do not see themselves reflected in the images used, they will think it's not for them.
"The personal approach works well, but word of mouth will often mean governors speaking to those who are similar to themselves."
And if your governors all fit the stereotypes, they are more likely to replicate themselves.
Mr Howlett believes this is an area in which headteachers and other school staff can make a difference, as they regularly interact with the full spectrum of the school's community - in other words, the parents.
He also recommends using established networks known to community leaders to find ethnic-minority members. This is the tack taken by Northamptonshire County Council, which has developed a countywide strategy to attract as wide a range of people as it can to be governors.
According to Martin Lawrence, of the council's governor services department, the strategy involves four major strands: encouraging the political parties to ensure that the authority-nominated seats are all filled; establishing seven governor recruitment bureaux across the county; developing an effective information and training pack; and creating a system of training and support.
The recruitment bureaux are proving very effective. They involve all the community groups in that particular area: tenants and residents associations, parent-teacher associations, youth groups, religious organisations - anyone with an interest in the community.
"We are supporting the community to demonstrate concern for the school and its children," says Mr Lawrence. "We try to break down the barriers that many people feel when they talk about schools and education. It is about making the links between the learning process and the community."
Potential governors attend meetings in local halls and centres - very rarely in schools - to discuss how, for example, extended schools and exclusion impact on the community as much as neighbourhood renewal and crime. They are able to discuss the role of governors with serving members and heads, who put all the fears about time commitment and legal responsibility into a realistic context. There is also the chance to talk about the transferable skills that people can take into, and out of, governor meetings. Attracting ethnic-minority governors is a major theme of the strategy, which has involved many council departments, not just governor services.
"We have involved equality officers, personnel, and communications staff from across the council, who have all given good advice," says Mr Lawrence.
"We keep the messages on all our leaflets and posters as simple and universal as we can, and then differentiate with images and the placing of the literature."
In line with the community aspect of the recruitment drive, the benefits to schools of having ethnic-minority governors is often stressed, particularly for those children who will have their backgrounds represented.
Northants has worked in association with the national School Governors One-Stop Shop to recruit another under-represented group - business people - who, despite their transferable skills, still need persuading about the delights of governorhood (see overleaf). The one-stop shop, which has been in place since 2000, is beginning to show dividends, with around 800 people recruited and more than half assigned to school boards.
It is the work of organisations such as SGOSS and Northamptonshire council which could turn the tide in vacancies. But according to Jane Phillips it is likely to be an uphill struggle unless those in power read the research.
"There are a plethora of reports out there, but a whole lot of people do not have the time to read them."
Barriers to participation,RB500, see www.dfes.gov.ukresearch