DIVERSITY WITHOUT INCLUSION IS HOPELESS
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.
THAT CAN ONLY START WHEN THE RACIAL LITERACY OF GOVERNORS AND TRUSTEES IS MADE A PRIORITY
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.