I was very pleased to represent the National Academy of Educational Leadership (NAEL) Board of Directors at a workshop session held as part of the UK Government’s ‘Disability Action Plan’ review. The workshop was held in Cardiff as part of the evidence gathering process, looking into reasons why the proportion of those individuals who apply for public appointments who declare a disability is so low and what can be done to improve the applications process for disabled people.

As my tenure as a board member is still in its infancy I was initially apprehensive about meeting other board members of public bodies. However, through my conversations with board members of arms-length companies similar to the NAEL, I was able to increase my understanding of the valuable roles our organsiations play in public life. Speaking with these individuals enabled me to put my own role on the NAEL board into a broader context.

The workshop, hosted by Lord Holmes of Richmond MBE, involved current and former public appointees (both disabled and non-disabled), disabled people who have unsuccessfully applied for public appointments. Lord Holmes is Britain’s most successful Paralympic swimmer winning a total of nine gold medals, five silvers and one bronze in his career. He was also Director of Paralympic Integration, responsible for the organisation of the 2012 Paralympic Games in London. He was appointed to conduct the review on behalf of the UK Government, with a view to encouraging more disabled people to apply for public appointments.

Lord Holmes put the review in context in a letter to public chairs sent in August 2018:

“Public Appointees play a unique and vital role in shaping and ensuring delivery of public services. However, government departments hold disability data on just 65% of public appointees, and just 5% of those who provided data report a disability.

I want to understand what is preventing disabled people from coming forward for these important and influential roles and why so few are appointed. We must confront the reality that while talent us everywhere, opportunity is not.”

During the workshop Lord Holmes posed four key questions, prompting an interesting discussion within the group. A number of points emerged during the discussion which are particularly relevant to the NAEL should it need to recruit new board members in the future:

  • Opportunities to contribute to public life provided by taking up a public appointment frequently go un-noticed by the public and the opportunities to become involved are not widely recognised. Strong views were expressed that the ‘best’ candidate is not always the right candidate and that opportunities for people from under-represented groups including disability should be increased
  • The current application process does not encourage applications from disabled candidates. Issues such as websites timing out before applications are completed and the formal and daunting nature of public appointment interfaces were identified as possible deterrents. Some considered the formal interview process to be an unnecessary obstacle, due to inappropriate venues and lengthy journey and waiting times.
  • In many cases, the only opportunity to declare a disability is at the early stage of the application process. No data is collected at further stages of the process.

It was evident from the discussions at our workshop that there are many serving members of boards who have a disability that have not been declared, skewing the data that is currently informing policy and decision making.

I was fortunate to speak with Lord Holmes during the session and was very impressed by his sincerity and his commitment to ensuring that disabled people are encouraged to apply for public appointments. Outreach by public bodies is essential for the general public to understand their work and to encourage more diversity in applications for board membership. I am confident that, with the steer of Lord Holmes, this review can make a difference not just to disabled people but to the futures of public boards across the country.

(Rosemary Jones OBE is the Vice Chair of the NAEL Board of Directors)