"NO ONE forgets a good teacher", we are told. Chances are no one forgets a black or Asian teacher either, so few are they in number in British schools.
The shortage of teachers from minority groups is a problem which has been taxing the Government, local authorities, teaching institutions and unions.
Any attempt to solve the problem, however, is hampered by the fact that extraordinarily little is known about the recruitment, progress and career patterns of those few black and Asian teachers we have. This is because schools, as self-governing bodies, are under no obligation to monitor teacher ethnicity. Many local education authorities which do collect figures are unable to obtain a complete picture, while some fail to collect any figures.
But the latest figures from the Office of National Statistics do indicate rising numbers - though the trend is unsteady.
The ONS labour force survey records 13,000 ethnic-minority teachers in British schools in 1992, representing 2.1 per cent of the 634,000 workforce. A decline to a low of 1.7 per cent in the mid- 1990s was followed by a rise to 2.6 per cent - or 19,000 - in 1998. Last year it dropped slightly to 2.5 per cent, or 18,000 (see graph).
This trend is reflected in the employment statistics of local authorities which do keep accurate records, such as Birmingham, where 6 per cent of the total teaching staff in 1994 were ethnic-minority, compared to 7.8 per cent in 1999. Of these, 16 were headteachers, representing 3.4 per cent of Birmingham heads (up from 2.9 percent in 1996). There were similar increases among deputy heads.
Some education authorities have been better at boosting their numbers than others, perhaps because the need is more pressing. The best recruiters are generally found in large urban areas such as the west Midlands, Bradford, and other northern cities. London, with 40 per cent of Britain's black communities, has many of the most successful.
Things may be moving in the right direction but "must do better" is the guiding principle of the Teacher Training Agency. The government quango wants to increase current trainee numbers from 5 per cent at primary level and 7 per cent at secondary level to 9 per cent overall by 2005. It now requires every training institution to monitor and publish the number of teachers recruited from ethnic minorities.
"We've got an eye on the classrooms of the future and it's important that the teaching force reflects the diversity of pupils. That's why the agency is working hard on initiatives aimed at making the profession more attractive to minority recruits," said a spokesman.
Teaching unions are concerned not just about ethnic teacher numbers but also with their status and career progression. Jennifer Moses, equal opportunities officer for the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, says: "We know ethnic-minority teachers are disproportionately on the lowest salary scales and are concentrated in schools with the highest percentage of ethnic-minority pupils.
"They are not appinted in rural areas because schools feel they have nothing to offer if there aren't high ethnic-minority numbers. We are unhappy with the whole area of recruitment and are looking at why they are not entering the profession."
The lack of ethnic teachers in rural areas is a concern shared by Ava Packer, the black headteacher at St Mary's primary school in Handsworth, Birmingham, who says: "There is this stereotype of where black teachers should be. I feel if you're a teacher, you can teach anywhere; you can take on any role you are competent to do. There may be black teachers who are very qualified, very adept, excellent, but go to a job in a certain school and people would feel they can't fit because their children are nearly all white.
"There's still this scenario
that black teachers are good at teaching black children and only black children. We
need to move away from
that and widen things a little. "
But since school is a microcosm of society there are clear advantages in having teachers of the same race and culture as black and Asian pupils. For Euath Forrester, a black deputy head at George Dixon school in Birmingham, it has proved essential for relating to children and parents. Eighty per cent of the pupils are Asian and 15 per cent are black, and the school has 20 ethnic-minority teachers.
"There are causes and consequences of behaviour and it's necessary for people dealing with it to have an insight into the children, make informed judgments and link with parents. That's a crucial part of my job. It gives kids a better chance."
These views are shared by Mrs Packer who educates 280 children - 83 per cent from ethnic minorities."It does make a difference to young children to see black people in positions that are good ones."
Ethnic teachers as role models, while important, should not be overplayed. Mr Forrester says: "Role models are important for everybody but my own career role models were two white men. I don't believe that putting a black person up there for them to look at is providing a role model. We all choose our own. No amount of thrusting people in front of them is going to change that.
"You just hope that what you do while you are among them is going to rub off in some way. I wouldn't for one minute think they'll want to turn out like me. They're more likely to want to be sports or pop stars."
Both teachers consider themselves lucky to have advanced in their careers with relative ease but racism is a reality in the profession. Mrs Packer says: "I think I've been quite unusual in that I've had so many supportive colleagues. I've spoken to lots of my peers who've had very negative experiences. And so have I, but very early on in my career."
Chris Vieler-Porter, of the Association of LEA Advisory Officers for Multi-cultural Education, says ethnic monitoring should be a legal requirement. "Until the Government requires this not just for teachers and headteachers but for pupil achievement and inclusion we will still have the patchy responses that exist at the moment with some authorities at the leading edge for data and others who have barely begun."