Events of the last 18 months have challenged educational organisations to their core. And these challenges have originated not just from the many and seemingly constant problems wrought by Covid but also from the issues highlighted by the Black Lives Matter Movement and the Everyone’s Invited website. These topics have now, rightly, moved to the top of the agenda for those involved in school management and the communities that they lead.
Diversity, inclusion and gender equality have long been a priority for schools. What the events of 2020-21 and the Black Lives Matter Movement have demonstrated is that for all the excellent progress that has been made in this area over recent years, the impact, pace and range of this work in our organisations needs greater urgency with tangible and visible changes to the experiences of our pupils.
The wider and welcomed activism of our pupils on a range of issues over recent years has also played a part in encouraging schools to look for additional ways of both hearing and responding to the voices of our pupils and alumni, above and beyond the traditional school council and prefect body.
Challenge, scrutinise and inform
At Caterham we have created a “shadow board” to ensure that the views of our increasingly diverse pupil and alumni body have a role in informing and shaping the way the school thinks about the current pupil experience and the future strategic direction of the school.
The shadow board is a UK first and has been embraced by everyone from trustees to pupils. The shadow board (it began life as a NextGen Board) is made up of ten alumni, all aged between 18 and 30. Their remit is to challenge, scrutinise and inform the conversations that the full board is having.
“The shadow board is a UK first and has been embraced by everyone from trustees to pupils.”
The members of the shadow board also have training in, and develop experience of, corporate governance, change management and board meetings. Our hope and expectation is that not only will some of them progress through to the governing body of the school but that the experience they gain will be advantageous within the organisations in which they themselves are employed. Change will come more quickly and be more effective as boards challenge themselves to be representative of their schools as they exist today.
The genesis of the idea of a shadow board predates the events of the last 18 months with the underlying notion being to work with young alumni to bring relevance and a different perspective to our conversations around issues such as sustainability, the digital transformation of the workplace, preparation for Higher Education and wellbeing.
As our plans for the shadow board developed over 2020, a group of former pupils rightly questioned us about their recent experiences as young people as the world responded to the shocking murder of George Floyd. Our response was to encourage these voices onto the shadow board from where they will be able support and challenge the work we are doing as a school in the areas of diversity and inclusion and beyond. This has been a hugely affirming exercise and has created a sense of shared endeavour.
The proposal for the creation of a shadow board originated with our alumni association whose committee members had professional experience working with global commercial brands who had seen multiple benefits and market insight from establishing such boards.
“To harness the benefit, there needed to be an open and strong working relationship built into the board’s structure.”
As we took the idea forward, we quickly realised that for a “next generation” style board to bring real impact to our school, it had to be integrated with the board of trustees rather than existing as an adjacent committee or enhanced focus group.
We felt that to harness the benefit of hearing from those who had recently stepped from school into university and early careers, and to truly hear young and diverse voices and allow them to challenge and filter our decision making, there needed to be an open and strong working relationship built into the board’s structure.
With this realisation, it was important to get the board of trustees involved from the inception. Members of the senior leadership team, the board of trustees and the alumni association committee worked together to build a model best-placed to bring effective engagement and voice to decision making.
There was huge positivity from all quarters to make the project work – which itself says much about the strength of community and shared ethos of the school. The resulting shadow board meets at Caterham three times a year and has a chairman who attends all full board of trustee meetings annually. Recruitment begun in the late autumn term and, following a competitive recruitment round, board members were announced in the new year of 2021.
“Issues they have focused on include pupil experience, with particular focus on diversity and inclusion.”
The shadow board’s work is to review key areas identified by the board of trustees in addition to bringing forward matters they believe are important to address. Since the inaugural meeting in spring 2021, issues they have focussed on include pupil experience, with particular focus on diversity and inclusion, and ethical investment, with a view to ensuring that any investments made by the school are in line with and support its ethos.
Educational leadership rightly demands a huge level of experience and knowledge to succeed. When big issues sweep across a whole sector, as was seen in 2020-21, it is surely logical that the only way to fully understand and resolve the issues and experiences involved is to ensure that a diverse array of voices are engaged in finding the solutions. Fortunately for schools, we often do know the right people: we work and live alongside them in our own communities.
“It signals a very important message about the willingness of the school to learn from the experience and expertise of others.”
It goes without saying that the issues of the last year have affected everybody. Throughout the spring and summer terms of 2021, at every open morning or family meeting, parents wanted to know what schools, particularly independent schools, were doing to respond to the highly sensitive matters around personal responsibility highlighted by Everyone’s Invited and the issues of gender and diversity surfaced by the Black Lives Matter movement. And quite rightly. Being able to demonstrate a proactive approach that embraces diverse voices and one which actively seeks out recent alumni experiences to prepare pupils for a rapidly changing world has been hugely reassuring to families visiting Caterham.
Powerful statement of intent
Of course, for current pupils and parents this has also been a powerful statement of intent from the governing body of the school. It signals a very important message to all of our community about the willingness of the school to learn from the experience and expertise of others irrespective of status or standing and plays to a strongly held view that we all have things to learn from each other.
It is our hope that Caterham School’s shadow board is one example of how engagement and inclusion can improve leadership and decision making for everyone.