Will Diversity In School Governance Support The Recruitment and Retention of Black Teachers?


You can have diversity without inclusion, but if you’re inclusive there is diversity. Let’s stop treating our black and Asian teachers as numbers to improve our diversity quota and develop a model of true inclusion instead.


I’ve been working in education since 1986. In 35 years of service I have never been interviewed by a Black person for a role, I’ve never been appointed by a Black person and I’ve never been line-managed by a Black person. In my first headship as the founder headteacher of a primary school in 1999, the school governors were all white and middle class with the exception of one Caribbean woman. In my second school, which I turned around from a failed school to a highly successful school, there was a minority of Asian governors but the decisions were dominated by the white governors. It is a very lonely place being the only Black voice in the room.  It is isolating and exhausting, especially when the governors do not have the lived experience to understand the complexities that the pupils and staff have to navigate in society. In my school I was able to represent the voices of the pupils and staff at board level, and it was no surprise that it meant that we had a team of diverse and talented staff.  Together we ensured very high pupils outcomes for all cultures, as well as excellent pupil behaviour and a zero exclusion rate and I am confident that having staffing diversity and some governing body diversity was a significant contributor to our success.

Governors are a school’s critical friends. They have a strategic role in setting the ethos and values of the school and setting the policies and targets to ensure that a school performs well, and does its best for all pupils and staff, and that everyone is treated fairly and is properly provided for. They do this by holding the leadership to account for achieving the aims of the school through a balance of support and challenge. They are also responsible for headteacher wellbeing.

Governors make the best decisions they can, but when we talk about barriers, it’s difficult for them to make informed decisions if they do not have the life experience to understand the complexities. It means that, nationally, year on year, governors and trustees receive information on low attainment and high exclusions for the same groups of pupils, and concerns are raised about by the lack of diversity in teachers, which narrows down to us having just 3% of Black and Asian headteachers. Out of a workforce of approximately 550,000 teachers there are just 100 Black women headteachers and 4000 Black male teachers. We’ve been having these same conversations for more than half a century. There is a desire to make changes but a lack of understanding on how to make those changes.

22% of newly qualified entrants to the school sector in 2015 were not working in the state sector two years later. Black and Asian teachers leave at a higher rate than White British teachers (DfE, 2018). The main reasons for leaving are stalled opportunities for career progression, as well as the overwhelming feeling of being tolerated by the community rather than feeling like they truly belong. Many also report on being seen as the problem rather than the problems they face – including overt racism. When things go wrong there is a complaints procedure to follow with the right to a hearing by the governing body. Talking about racism is extremely difficult, more so if you are the only Black person in the hearing so leaving is often considered to be the least painful way out. Ethnic diversity of senior leadership teams is critical in the retention Black and Asian teachers.

The key problem is the lack of diversity in school governance. We tend to recruit people who look and sound like we do, so white governing bodies tend to appoint white school leaders. When Black teachers and leaders are appointed, they are expected to set aside their own authenticity so that they can fit in with white values and identity. It brings unhappiness, misunderstanding and dissonance which often leads to the Black teacher leaving the profession. We all perform best when we remain true to our cultural identity. This is something that I really struggled with when I was a school leader. I was clearly patronised as the headteacher who happened to be Black and often felt dominated and insignificant, because of my culture. If you try to adopt the values of someone that isn’t you, you can’t be your true self and it is highly challenging to reach your true potential.

Governors have responsibility for setting school policies. In some schools, policies are approved that discriminate against Black people, with governors being unaware of this or failing to understand why. For example, dress code can be culturally specific and discriminatory against some cultures. There are some schools that forbid afros whilst white pupils are permitted to wear their natural styles. There are Black girls not permitted to wear their hair in pom poms because it is considered to be unprofessional and untidy, but white girls are permitted to have ponytails. Black girls are not allowed to have extensions in their hair, because it’s considered to be a fire hazard, but white girls are allowed to have long hair. Asian girls are not permitted to have mehndi on their hands at times of family celebrations, or have a nose piercing, even though it is culturally appropriate. Pupils are excluded for not following these rules even if their behaviour and learning are excellent. I know of one boy who spent 6 weeks in isolation, losing a half term of teaching, until his hair grew to the length the school deemed to be tidy, which was not the same as what his mother considered to be neat and tidy. When parents appeal against the exclusions, governors uphold the decisions because the child has not followed the school dress code, especially in schools where governors and the school leadership is white.

DfE data shows us that the exclusion rate of Black pupils is up to 5 times higher than it is for white pupils in some parts of the country. The headteacher has responsibility to manage school behaviour, including making decisions about sanctions when things go wrong. Parents have a right of appeal, and those that do are invited to a governing body hearing. It is an overwhelming experience to ask any parent to hold the school to account in the presence of the decision maker, more so if the school leadership and governors are all white and the parent is the only Black person in the room. It is unsurprising that most governing bodies uphold the decision of the headteacher to exclude.

I have found that the governors who were Black and Asian, tended to be parent governors, rather than community governors and they often withdrew from the role because they felt invisible in meetings. It was hard not to notice that they were only really called upon when there was a vote, or a challenging race-related situation. Eventually, people will feel redundant, overwhelmed and inevitably bow out – and we see this happening in governance as well as in staffing.

We are stuck, and at times it appears that we are becoming more separated in the classroom and in our schools. Research shows us that nonhomogeneous teams make better decisions and are better skilled in creating a culture in which everyone feels safe, seen, heard and respected. Governors have a responsibility in ensuring the whole community belongs, feels listened to, and has equitable chances for success. If our governing bodies and trust boards were more diverse, decisions about policy and understanding about school performance will be more informed, which can only lead to school improvement. We will see the appointment of more Black leaders, thus leading to increased recruitment and retention of Black teachers. That in turn will lead to raised attainment for all pupils and a narrowing in the exclusions gap. We all want a successful workforce and successful pupils and that should be our common goal.

I recognise how stuck we are, and it is really frustrating. I am a member of many roundtables on how we can raise attainment for all our pupils and reduce exclusions as well as what can be done to recruit and retain more Black headteachers and teachers? The challenges are parallel. We cannot just see Black teachers as statistical units and keep recruiting until the data appears to be improved. The system has to change and the diversity of leadership at the top has to change. It is critical that we tackle homogeneity in governing bodies and trust boards and make equity, diversity and inclusion training a statutory requirement for the role so that they can truly support the whole school community. A governing body which makes a conscious effort to develop their racial literacy will be better able to support their community and improve outcomes for all. Until that is done, we will simply perpetuate the problems we see in our schools today, nothing will change, and it can only be seen as conscious bias.

This How We Look When We Lead

When I made my decision to leave headship and become an Independent Consultant, I worked with Marianne Hartley, on how best to brand myself. Her response amazed me. “I can design something for you but you already have your own brand, your look. Your hair.” How could the one thing that’s been the source of so much negativity in my life be my ‘brand’?

My birth certificate labels me as ‘Cape Coloured’, a label invented by colonialists during the pre-apartheid regime. We were a group who were not white enough to be white and not black enough to be black, in a culture where whiteness guaranteed a life of privilege. As a child, growing up in a violent and toxic culture of apartheid, where everyone strived for a better life, having skin that was not too dark and hair that was not ‘too naughty’ impacted on the type of life you lived. Looking ‘almost white’ could open doors to opportunity, education, work, as opposed to a life of poverty and oppression. It was also an external reflection – the elephant in the room – of the ultimate taboo – interracial relationships. As a child I wore my hair mainly long in two tidy plaits and as a young adult I kept it short as way of controlling it’s unruliness. And then I had a ‘my hair doesn’t define me’ moment. I hated the time and what felt like an eternal battle to blow dry it into something it wasn’t. So I let it be. And opened the door to what often felt like judgement, disappointment and commentary.

One of my most vivid moments of my hair and my leadership came when I went for an interview for my first headship. I was advised to blow dry my hair and tie it up in a bun so that I could look more professional. And I did it. I arrived in a suit, straightened hair, scared as hell. I was the only woman out of 7 candidates, the only candidate who had not had headship experience, and only black person in the whole process. I felt utterly displaced, emotionally and physically uncomfortable. I did not feel like me and I asked myself over and over what the hell I was doing there. I did not belong. Each time I caught sight of myself I felt like I did not belong to me. We were told that 3 candidates would be asked back for Day 2 of interviews and when I was invited to report back the next day to do an unseen presentation and panel interview, I convinced myself that I was included for tokenistic reasons.

I spent that evening in floods of tears of rage and fear and rang my inner circle for support. I was being used, they knew who they wanted. And once I sobbed myself to the point of exhaustion I had another ‘I don’t give a damn moment’. If I was to go back there the next day then I needed to go as me and share my vision of what a school should look like. I went in the next day. No suit and I left my hair in it’s natural style. I knew I wouldn’t get the job, I had nothing to lose by going as me. But…. I got the job, my defining moment for making a promise to myself to always show up as me.

Throughout my leadership journey I became used to comments being made about my hair. I was brave, untidy, unruly, unconventional, sassy. I recall a TA telling me, after I’d lost some weight, that I looked great and if I just sorted out my mop, I’d look amazing. I rarely engaged, after all I had a promise to keep to me. To embrace and accept myself for all that I am. I understood that we become what we think.
Self-acceptance is a principle of leadership and of being human. It means accepting our imperfections and building on our strength. It means less time devoted to self doubt and changing how we look and how we lead to what others think leadership looks like and more time getting on with the job with the confidence and conviction that we look right, we do right.

Through my acceptance of self, came acceptance of others. It is truly liberating to accept people as they are. I don’t have any preconceived ideas of what a teacher looks like, or sounds like or presents as. I loved recruiting the best teachers who could teach from the soul, irrespective of how different they were to me. I have no preconceived ideas of what a successful pupil looks like, sounds like, presents as. I believe I am the truly lucky one because my self-acceptance gave me the opportunity to lead a truly diverse community of harmonious, successful people, who all had permission to be themselves and to accept each other. I modelled self-acceptance and I modelled what a leader looks like when they lead.

In words of India Arie
“I am not my hair
I am not this skin
I am not your expectations,
I am not my hair
I am not this skin
I am the soul that lives within”


Be You

I became an inner city teacher because I had dreams of making a difference. I wanted to be the teacher I never had. To be there for the ‘good’ girls, quiet and invisible – overshadowed by the boisterous boys; the naughty boys whose behaviour overshadowed their hidden talents; the children for whom there were limited opportunities.

I was born in South Africa. My birth certificate labelled me as ‘Cape Coloured’. It was there to define what I could and could not be in society, where I could and could not go. It was set to limit my aspirations. I did not belong to the superior group – the whites. We moved from country to country. I recall mimicking the accents of the children so that I didn’t stand out as being too different. More often than not, I was the only black child in the class, sometimes the school. Being quiet, shy and black was not the cool thing to be. I tried to break out of it, to fit in, but that just added to my awkwardness – my sense of not belonging. My parents told me that I must never allow myself to be defined by the labels put on me by others, to fight oppression and to be who I wanted to be. I simply did not want to cause ripples.
I was fortunate throughout my teaching career in having strong leaders who believed in me, valued my opinion and gave me opportunities to grow. As I stepped into leadership, education policy changed and a culture of fear of Ofsted and league tables became the driver in many schools. I had a successful first headship and was asked by my local authority to support a failing school. Everyone wanted the school to change but improvement was slow as no one wanted to change the way in which they worked and tensions were beginning to reach boiling point. I was just putting out fires, making the cosmetic changes that my Local Authority wanted to see as I was under heavy pressure to turn around the school. I found myself really implementing their vision rather than my own. Leadership was also at its most stressful and difficult, as I had allowed myself to doubt what I believed needed to be done rather than trusting in myself. I eventually ‘hit the wall’ and stress stood between me and my dreams of making a difference. I had become a victim of the system. I was reliable, a hard worker, ambitious, I delivered good statistical data. I was a thinker for the state rather than a thinker for myself. I was behaving as that little girl again, fearful of causing ripples.

It is very easy to lose our way in our education system, to follow a pattern, and eventually realise that we are surviving, and feel like we are barely making a difference rather than following our own visions.
What is your passion? Are you following your aims and ideals? Are you teaching from the soul? Is your job taking more from you than it is giving you? Has the fear of missing out become a guiding factor? Imagine how liberating it would feel if you give yourself permission to expect more. What will it do for your sense of self? What will it do for your wellbeing?

I had to learn the hard way to work differently, to find joy in my work. It meant finding the courage to lead authentically and to take up my authority to put my own vision in place. As soon as I started doing that, my wellbeing improved and I found a renewed passion for education. It took all of my courage to stand up against local policy but I became a stronger leader and my school went from strength to strength. I learned that headship can be managed and success can only be achieved by being authentic, believing in yourself and remaining true to your vision. Following the vision of others did not bring the success I enjoy. It takes courage and we have to give ourselves permission to lead authentically. When we are true to our vision it brings happiness and joy in what we do and it brings security to those around us.

“I believe that at the very root of our humanity is a passion to create value with heart, to work alongside others who care, and to make a difference. I believe that each of us has something of value to offer — all 7.5 billion of us. While not everyone will, anyone can.” ― Nilofer Merchant, The Power of Onlyness: Make Your Wild Ideas Mighty Enough to Dent the World

This is the very reason why many of us choose to teach. Are you waiting for that perfect moment to put your own vision into place? Now is the perfect time to set your own limits and be the person you really are. Yes it’s scary – but it’s hugely fulfilling and liberating. Do it for you, your peace of mind, and your wellbeing. Dare to be different. Dare to be you.

It’s 1st September, 2020, the start of a new school year ………Begin


‘Don’t prepare. Begin. Our enemy is not lack of preparation. The enemy is resistance, our chattering brain producing excuses. Start before you are ready.’ — Steven Pressfield