Earlier this year the DfE held a roundtable event, the remit of which was to explore how diversity and equality could be promoted throughout the education profession. The statistics that would have been discussed tell a stark story – that the profession has a disproportionately, male, white and heterosexual school leadership that doesn’t come close to reflecting the diversity of the school population, or indeed the nation, as a whole.
The 2016 Schools Workforce Survey found that 93.1% of headteachers were white British, showing a clear gap in race representation at the top echelons of the school system.
Delve further and start to examine LGBT+ representation in education and you’ll find there’s hardly even any data available to provide a better understanding of the issues faced by the sector’s LGBT+ professionals. The under-representation of women in senior roles is another area of concern, despite the profession as a whole being overwhelmingly female-dominated.
There are clearly many problems that still need to be resolved, because the resulting impact on the children we serve is clear. If we continue to lack diverse leadership role models, we risk further exacerbating the problem for future generations – after all, as the adage goes, ‘You can’t be what you can’t see’.
So what can be done about the lack of diversity in schools now? How can we ensure that talented professionals from all groups are reaching the top?
It’s an issue that’s been raised by grassroots teacher movements such WomenEd, the MTPT project, LGBTed and BAMEed, which all speak on behalf of different under-represented groups in school leadership, and which each have own stories to tell.
Hannah Jepson from LGBTed (lgbted.uk), for example, observes that “We know there’s a huge problem with under-representation of the LGBT+ community in education – but before [addressing] that, we need to shine a light on the stifling effect of hetero and cis-normativity.
“LGBT colleagues have to choose to share who they are every day, in every new job, with every new colleague and every class. In doing so they expose themselves to judgement, intolerance and bigotry. These are not the words we should be associating with education – ever.”
Research has shown that discrimination is often so entrenched in the unconscious mind that we’re unaware of the bias that drives our choices. Without tackling our unconscious bias, true equality will remain very difficult to obtain. Positive action can be viewed as a controversial step in some quarters but it’s enshrined within the Equalities Act 2010 for good reason – as a necessary method to achieve much needed equity after centuries of discriminatory practices.
Taking measures to address unconscious bias is an important step towards inclusion for all. Leaders and governing bodies must therefore ask themselves if they’re doing enough to challenge unconscious bias in their recruitment processes and performance management.
According to Allana Gay, co-founder of BAMEed (bameednetwork.com), the issues facing BAME educators are embedded in both recruitment and career development processes.
“Recruitment into leadership is based on a stereotype that diverse leaders don’t fit into,” she says.
“As such, BAME leaders are less likely to be identified and supported into leadership early in their career, and the range of experiences or mentorship that would allow them to progress rapidly isn’t planned into their performance management.”
So what can be done at a school level? That depends on what stage of the journey your school is at, but the task of tackling diversity issues must always be accompanied by regular and purposeful reflection. There are a number of starting questions you can ask, which may help to prompt discussion and further investigation within your school.
A good place to start is to consider whether all staff, including those who are part-time, are viewed as potential leaders. Are they offered the same encouragement and access to CPD opportunities? Are you thinking creatively and facilitating part-time leadership roles in your school that are open to all?
Are you actively promoting awareness of diverse leadership across your school and challenging outdated leadership stereotypes? Linked to this is what you might be doing to celebrate diverse role models throughout the curriculum and across the school. Are you making a point of exploring and discussing key historical events and social justice movements?
Moreover, you should examine whether your school is actively challenging discriminatory behaviour and bias amongst both pupils and staff, and if so, what impact is being had as a result.
More broadly, are your staff able to access wider support networks? Coaching can be an effective way of helping staff realise their potential and build the confidence needed to take the next steps in their career. The Teaching School Council’s ‘Women Leading in Education’ regional networks, for example, provide a means of establishing coaching partnerships, as well as access to wider networking opportunities, sources of helpful advice and flexible working arrangements.
If your school offers ITT, what can you be doing to support and understand trainee teachers from a wide variety of backgrounds? Is there a risk that assumptions are being made about people’s gender and sexuality when new staff and trainee teachers are being employed, and how can this be avoided? Make sure that staff are given opportunities to openly discuss their experiences and understanding of race, gender and sexuality.
LGBTed, BAMEed and other such organisations might have different focuses, levels of visibility, and in some cases, very different barriers to overcome, but there’s much for schools to gain from collaborating with them. As Allana Gay puts it, “Diversity needs to not be the poster on the wall, but a lived experience.”
As stakeholders, we all have a duty to take steps towards creating a diverse experience in schools; to challenge discrimination and uncover the biases embedded within the systems and processes of our institutions.
It serves us well to remember that increasing diversity within our schools will have a positive impact on the lives of all our children – regardless of their background.
What the law says
The Equality Act 2010 put into place clear legal protection from discrimination for people in the workplace and throughout wider society. In schools, it applies to the treatment of pupils and staff alike. The Act cites specific ‘protected characteristics’ that cannot be discriminated against, which include age, disability, gender reassignment, pregnancy/ maternity, race, religion, sex and sexual orientation.
The Act states that all public bodies, including schools, have a duty to eliminate discrimination and promote equality through positive action that aims to promote diversity and achieve equality for people to whom those characteristics might apply.
Lucy Starbuck Braidley is a primary school teacher and subject leader for English and PE