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Are you part of a governing board where everybody feels at ease and able to contribute?

| 9 minute read
ARTICLE Linbert


LS Informal Head Shot 1 modifiedThe concept of inclusion is often overlooked in the education sector, according to Linbert Spencer OBE, co-founder of Trust Inclusion, who says that even the language we use is confusing and sometimes unhelpful.


Linbert argues that having a diverse range of voices around the table will not necessarily lead to better decision making if those people don’t also feel included: that is, valued, safe, respected, trusted and have a sense of belonging.  

We spoke to Linbert about why inclusion is so important, not just for governing boards, but also for the schools and trusts that we support.

Linbert, you argue there’s a real need to focus on this issue of inclusion in the education sector.

Yes, that’s right. I've worked in many different sectors over the years and, bizarrely, education seems to lag behind. I think a lot of that is due to a focus on compliance with anti-discrimination legislation but, to be blunt, that only takes an organisation so far. There is no  significant development of individuals as a consequence of being in an environment where they are not discriminated against. It’s important and necessary, yes, but it’s insufficient. 

I believe the architects of the early legislation back in the 70s truly felt that if we could have  laws that stopped people from being discriminated against then everybody would feel included. However feeling included is actually very different from simply not being discriminated against. 

Also, the language around inclusion in education is challenging as it tends to be understood as  a physical presence . For instance, we talk about a pupil being ‘excluded’ from school and because of this, the concept of inclusion has come to mean being physically present. 

In recent years, there’s also been a move to increase diversity in organisations and  if this is perceived as successful, organisations often say they are now more inclusive. This amounts to using , wrongly in my view, ‘diversity’ as a measure of ‘inclusion’. Furthermore, and perhaps a bigger challenge, there’s a belief that if we increase the number of people who are different from the majority in an organisation or on a board, then naturally more people are included.

Overall it’s been more difficult in education, I think, to recognise that we're talking about two different concepts.

So what should we mean by inclusion and why does it matter?

Firstly, inclusion is an emotion. We refer to ‘feeling included in a process’ or we might say, ‘I’ve been at this organisation for a year now and I still don’t feel included’. You’ve still been paid or been involved in group activities, but regardless of any of those things you might not have felt included. And the point is that how we feel is often a, if not the, determining factor of how effectively we perform as learners, educators, enablers, governors or trustees.

For me, inclusion boils down to four different elements; feeling respected, feeling trusted, feeling safe, and feeling valued. And when we feel all of those, we have a sense of belonging

Feeling included or not included has consequences. For example, If we feel included, and we experience negative treatment,  or even direct discrimination, we are much more likely to have a conversation with that individual or with our line manager. But if we don’t feel included - respected, trusted, safe or valued and the same thing happens, whether it’s a major or minor issue, we are much more likely to take out a formal complaint, or a grievance.  

Having an inclusive environment doesn’t mean people are suddenly able to manage their unconscious biases. Inclusion isn’t a magic bullet in that sense,  but it does mean that when things go wrong, as they inevitably do, people will engage in a more positive way. It also means that people are much more receptive and open to taking on board new ideas.

It’s a straightforward concept and if you want to make progress in this area, it’s really important first of all, that everyone understands the concept.

It’s important for those sitting around a school or trust governing board table too.

Yes, very much so. I’m currently a MAT trustee and have sat on a number of boards over the years. In my experience, a large proportion of board members at any given time do not feel included and, as a consequence, they don’t make the kind of contributions that they could - either in offering challenge, new ideas and suggestions or even on the vigilance around governance issues.

We often talk about ‘fitting in’ to a group but really we should be talking about ‘fitting together’. Fitting together naturally implies some kind of shuffling around in terms of how things are done and understood so that everyone’s contributions are maximised. 

I like to use the example of a social event. If you’re having a few people over for a meal and someone arrives a bit late. The group will move around to make space for that individual so that they feel welcome and can join in the activity. But we tend to talk about how someone ‘fits in’.  In some ways, this is about individuals dulling some of their input in order to fit into a specific existing space. At board level, it’s critically important not to do this but yet it frequently happens.

If someone is reading this and thinking that maybe they don’t feel included on their board - is it up to them to try to shift the culture? or the chair?

Well I think the answer lies in the language we should be using, but don’t use. The term ‘fitting in’, puts the emphasis on the individual to be a good fit or to make any required  change when joining a new group. But if we think about ‘fitting together’, the emphasis is on everyone together to create the change and make the space.  It does, however , need the chair to set the tone when it comes to fitting together.

Personally, I have been explicit in boards or committees where I am a chair in making clear right from the start that my approach is to ensure that everybody feels respected, trusted, safe, valued and has a sense of belonging.  And my expectation is that we will work in ways where we take care to respect and value each other’s contributions. Even if we're providing challenges and/or  need to focus on a difficult issue of concern.

So I do think the chair has a strong responsibility here. If this isn’t happening already, it doesn't matter, it can start at any point. I'm going to a meeting of chairs of committees for a particular organisation later today, where there is a brand new focus on inclusion.We will be discussing what our culture looks and feels like and thinking about how to operate in a way that is more inclusive. But it hasn't happened overnight - it’s been a process which began with a better understanding of the importance of who we are and how we do what we do.

I suppose many boards focus on culture in a compliance sense - who’s signed up to the code of conduct, who’s attended meetings. We don’t tend to look at our own working culture in any great depth.

Absolutely. I’ve only been to a handful of board meetings where culture has been on the agenda. That's not to say that there haven't been conversations or discussions about culture. But rarely is it an agenda item and the extent that it comes up might only go as far as ‘what time of day do we meet’.

Do you have any tips for a chair who might wish to start thinking about their board’s culture?

I think it depends on where the board is on its journey. If the board has never had any real discussions around equal opportunity, diversity and inclusion - that’s a good opportunity as there’s not much to ‘unlearn’ as it were. In this case, the chair can probably begin to address this with a question, such as “I've been asking myself what kind of culture do we need to be developing so that everybody feels respected, trusted, safe, valued and has a sense of belonging? What might that look like?”

But if you’re part of an organisation where it’s understood to be primarily about compliance - for example, a leader might say to the board, ‘we have similar numbers of staff from different ethnic, cultural or national backgrounds to our student body, so therefore we’re very inclusive, then you need to be asking different questions - especially at board level, which might have to do with the extent to which board members feel that they are able to contribute, not just to topics that they’re leading on but whether they even feel able to ask the so-called stupid questions.

When boards are presented with data on diversity by leaders, how should they begin to introduce the concept of inclusion?

So you could say, ‘Well this all looks good’, or maybe ‘this is really interesting. Can you also talk to us about the extent to which this particular minority, or majority group feels included?’.

Staff surveys is another area you might wish to focus on. For example, when you hear that staff satisfaction is up from 70 to 80 per cent. The question is, what do we know about the 20 per cent who’re not satisfied?

We can sometimes be so focused on numbers improving that we miss another story. Which might be that 100 percent of the 20 per cent is from a particular minority group.

There’s an old adage, ‘a high tide floats all boats’. The problem is it won’t float boats that have holes in them. To continue the metaphor, an important question to ask is, does the organisation just focus on raising the tide, or is it also thinking about mending the leaky boats. We sometimes need to think more deeply about that 20 per cent which can sometimes be a challenge for boards. The right culture will help an organisation to focus on those who don’t yet feel able to fully participate. 

When boards look at their own diversity then, they also need to think about inclusion.

Yes, absolutely. If you start the conversation with ‘we need to have more diversity here to improve things’ it may not work. What message does that give to existing members? Are they somehow not doing the right job? It’s important to remember that it’s all about how people feel.

You can’t assume that just because you’ve all been working together for a long time that everyone feels included. You need to work on inclusion first or at the very least at the same time as you're working on increasing the diversity of the board.

I think this goes back to the language that we use in recruitment. As I’ve said, we invariably look for people to ‘fit in’ to our culture. Whereas I promote the idea that we should look for people who are ‘values’ aligned, but might be a culture ‘add’. An organisation with a culture that doesn’t change is very likely to die. 

Your organisation must operate in line with its values. But your culture ‘the way we do things around here’ (Charles Handy) is an entirely different thing. It will have changed from 5 years ago or 10 years ago, because the world changes and technology changes and, especially in education, our clients change and come with different expectations and different hopes and so on. Given the speed of change in the 21st century - migration, how individuals self-identify, to name just two, as boards, we need to consciously re-visit our culture if we are to remain fit for purpose.


At GovernorHub, like many others - we have been focused on compliance in this area. Linbert gives us pause to think about how we might also encourage inclusion too. 

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