Where are our BME leaders in education?

We must urgently address the lack of BME leaders in our schools, writes founder of Oasis, Steve Chalke
12th February 2019, 4:04pm


Where are our BME leaders in education?


52 years ago, Tony O'Connor was appointed as headteacher at Bearwood Primary School in Smethwick, West Midlands. He is believed to have been Britain's first black headteacher. Two years later, Yvonne Conolly became Britain's first female black headteacher at a primary school in London.

And yet, in five decades, the picture has barely changed. As of 2017, the statistics from the Department for Education show that just 3.2 per cent of state-funded secondary headteachers identified as non-white, while for primary school headteachers, the figure was 2.4 per cent. In January 2016, according to official figures, just 39 secondary head teachers in England identified as black.

Fifty years. Two generations. During this time, the UK has changed almost out of all recognition and yet black and minority ethnic (BME) people are still massively under-represented in leadership positions in UK schools.

This, of course, has a hugely negative impact on the life opportunities of BME children and students.  

With no BME leaders, how can we best tackle racism in our schools?

With no BME leaders, how do we encourage BME students to aspire to be leaders themselves?

With no BME leaders, how do we address the unconscious bias that we are instilling in all our students, of any ethnicity: that leaders are white, and for that matter, most often male and middle-class?

Growing up ‘mixed-race’ with an Indian father in the 1960s, the only role models I had at school were white. The fact that kids today, 50 plus years later, are experiencing the same distorted view of our society is unacceptable.

Oasis, the charity that I founded back in the 1980s, currently runs 52 academies around England. As such, I am extremely aware of the under-representation of BME leaders in senior roles in primary and secondary education both across the UK as well as in my own organisation.

In 1985, Sir Keith Joseph, then education secretary, commissioned The Swann Report, which looked into the education of children from ethnic minority groups.

It formally identified what educators already knew: that there were "disproportionately low numbers of teachers of ethnic-minority origin in our schools".

The report called for action and, overall, the statistics for classroom teachers have improved. But, 34 years on, we still face the same issues and we still shake our heads at the same statistics when it comes to leadership.

We are in a cycle of low aspirations; a cycle that will never eradicate racism and unconscious bias; a cycle that will never break the ceiling on career opportunities for BME teachers.

Why, when everyone has recognised a critical issue for decades, can we not find a solution?

I don’t have the answer and, to be honest, I’d be highly suspicious of anyone who claimed that they did. But if the 35 plus years I have spent engaged in community leadership has taught me anything it’s that there’s never been a problem that collaboration, as a community, cannot solve.

It's easy to say; I don’t think it’ll be easy to do. It's quick to say; I don’t think it’ll be quick to do. However, I do believe it is achievable. I’m committing myself to being part of the solution and I’m asking you, all of you, to join me.

Over the past year I have regularly been meeting with a small group of BME leaders in education to look at how, working alongside others already in this field, we might help to break this cycle and bring about significant change.

Our group is broad, ranging from Lord Michael Hastings to leaders in local authorities to unsung trail-blazers like Joan Deslandes, headteacher of Kingsford Community School. Joan has created a fantastically supportive culture and as such can boast a leadership team that is impressively representative of BME people.

Sharing stories and identifying best practice, together we reached the conclusion that we needed nothing short of a national grassroots initiative in order to make the change that we all want to see.

This is where you, the readers of Tes, come in. Whether you’re NQTs, experienced teachers, school leadership or education management: we need your input. Your experiences, your insight and your commitment are crucial to making change happen.

We are launching a movement called Break the Cycle. Its goal, to explore how we change the culture and promote BME leadership in education.

To start this off, we’re hosting a one-day conference for 300 participants.

During the day, participants will work together to produce the Break the Cycle manifesto backed by a pragmatic and straightforward action plan that can be delivered by small local groups. These groups will be supported by a website with a tool kit of ideas and a support network.

Tes are our media partner and Damian Hinds MP, secretary of state for education, and Baroness Valerie Amos have agreed to take part: but it’s you, the individual teachers, who we need to contribute your insight in order to drive this forward.

Steve Chalke is the founder of the Oasis Community Learning multi-academy trust.

Break the Cycle – generating equity in education leadership takes place in central London on 9 March 2019.  For more information, click here.  

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