Why diversity in schools must start with recruitment

With almost half of UK schools having no BAME teachers, how can leaders make their recruitment process more inclusive?
5th January 2021, 5:00pm
Thishani Wijesinghe


Why diversity in schools must start with recruitment

Diversity In Schools: How Can Schools Make Their Recruitment Process More Inclusive For Bame Candidates?

A recent report by researchers at UCL's Institute of Education suggests that almost half of all schools in the UK have no black, Asian and/or minority ethnic (BAME) teachers at all.

The study also reports that teacher retention amongst BAME teachers is lower than that of their white counterparts, and that BAME staff struggle to move up the ladder to positions in senior leadership teams (SLT).

Data from the Department of Education shows that 92.2 per cent of headteachers and 89.7 per cent of deputy and assistant headteachers in the UK are white. What these figures show is that the majority of schools in the country are run by all-white leadership teams.

The lack of BAME school leaders

When I read the UCL report, much of what was written resonated with my own experience.

I had moved to teach abroad after failing to secure a position as head of department in a UK secondary school after 10 years of teaching.

At the time I thought nothing of the fact that at every school I applied to the interview panel was exclusively white. I didn't reflect on the questions they asked me and the feedback - or lack thereof - I received when they rejected me. Time and again I was told that I was not the right "fit" with no explanation as to what this meant or how I could improve my application.

I too, like some of the individuals mentioned in the report, was applying to schools in London and the South East where the corridors and classrooms were full of pupils from ethnic minority backgrounds but the senior leadership teams were not.

Time for a change

Some school leaders may read this and ask: why does it matter? It matters because diversity benefits all. The study shows that BAME teachers are mostly concentrated in cities like London, in socially deprived areas and in schools where there is a large ethnic minority pupil body.

However, even if a school has a student body that is majority white, it benefits all students to have teachers from different backgrounds. If the recent Black Lives Matter movement has taught us anything, it's that the majority of students, no matter their background, are motivated by issues of race and inequality and want to make a change for the better.

If we are to look forward to a world where racism no longer exists, we need to start in our schools. While there's a lot to be done to address this imbalance, here I will focus on recruitment policies and processes.

If BAME applicants are facing all-white interview panels, there are several factors working against them, and there is no point in denying this fact. Rather than denying it, schools need to face the facts and do the following:

Six ways to make your teacher recruitment process more inclusive

1. Acknowledge bias

We are all biased by nature. Each of us has our own particular preferences, opinions, assumptions and beliefs as a result of our unique life experiences.

However, if you were to ask someone whether or not they were biased, the most likely answer would be "no." We know that bias is wrong so our instinct is to deny it.

However, are we aware that by denying our bias we are, in fact, condoning racism? Unconscious bias against a particular characteristic could lead to illegal discrimination.

Unconscious bias is no longer an excuse to justify the "accidental" discriminatory treatment of another human being and school leaders can no longer hide behind it. If you're still unsure, EduCare by Tes has a straightforward course on Diversity and Equality that should be compulsory for all school leaders.

2. Make your recruitment policy accessible

If you don't have a recruitment policy, make one. Once you have one, make sure it is made available to potential applicants on your school's website.

Transparency is key: a BAME teacher is more likely to apply for a job in a school where they understand the process before they begin and know that the process will be fair.

If we feel intimidated by, say, the all-white make-up of the leadership team or the lack of diversity amongst students, at least we can be reassured that the application process is fair and just and therefore not a waste of our time.

Some of the best policies I have seen include: a checklist of criteria used by senior leaders to construct their shortlist; details on the interview and selection panel; details of the interview procedure and application process.

3. Reconsider the make-up of the interview panel

If the interview panel (commonly made up of members of senior leadership and the headteacher) is all-white, consider inviting a BAME member of staff to sit in on your discussions or ask them to look over your notes.

If the interview panel is all-white and all-male, for example, and you are interviewing a woman, consider asking a female member of staff to attend the interview.

Try and get consistency across candidates, both in terms of who is in the panel and the questions asked. Interview questions can often seem ad-lib and unplanned. By contrast, having a standard set of questions addressed to all candidates will provide the interview panel with comparable data on which to base discussion.

4. Don't be 'colourblind'

There was a time when it was considered supportive to say "I don't see colour: I treat everyone the same", but enough research has been done now to prove that this outlook is unhelpful.

It is more useful for an all-white SLT interview panel to acknowledge that the BAME applicant sitting in front of them might have had to overcome more obstacles than most to get to where they are, and that they could enrich and enhance the diversity of your school as a result.

Positive action is not illegal and if you acknowledge the lack of diversity in your senior leadership team and want to do something to redress the imbalance, there is nothing stopping you from putting out an advert to actively encourage BAME teachers to apply.

5. Reflect on your judgements

Recruitment processes can be time-consuming and, given busy schedules and other commitments, it is no wonder that school leaders find themselves in a rush to appoint. However, slowing down the process and building in time for reflection can benefit all parties.

Take the time to reflect on your interview notes and your initial impressions about a candidate, then consider what makes you feel the way you do about them.

Perhaps you had a pleasant chat about growing up in London, leading you to believe that you will work well together. That's affinity bias. Did the candidate arrive late to the interview, meaning that you immediately judged her as being disorganised? That's horn bias.

You need to look carefully at the reasons behind your judgements, and doing so takes time. Interview panels also need to take the time to discuss and hear one another's points of view, and to play devil's advocate if need be.

6. Provide useful feedback

Schools often say that they cannot provide feedback to applicants. However, not doing so is illegal. It is a legal requirement that employers keep interview notes on file and share these notes if requested.

The most useful information for any unsuccessful candidate to receive - BAME or not - is feedback as to why they did not get the job. Withholding feedback means that the applicant might not be able to progress in future interviews.

Make sure that the feedback you provide is constructive and relevant. Avoid offering feedback that is vague or unmeasurable, for example: "In the end, another candidate was a slightly better fit."

Having a "rubric" or standard evaluation proforma (made available to the candidate in your recruitment policy ahead of the interview) will actually make giving feedback a lot easier and will reduce the chances of selection based on unconscious bias.

Thishani Wijesinghe is currently head of English at San Silvestre School, Peru, having taught in the UK for five years

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