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Opportunity blocks

Female heads are more likely to live alone. And some disabled teachers feel so isolated in staffrooms that they are looking to leave. A new study reveals the way equality legislation is working in schools. Anat Arkin reports

You don't have to be a white, able-bodied male to make it to the top in teaching - but it helps. After some 30 years of equality legislation, heads with disabilities or from ethnic minorities remain thin on the ground, and women are still significantly under-represented in senior management teams in schools.

A comprehensive study has found that women who do reach the top of the career ladder are far more likely to be single or childless than their male counterparts. Nearly one-third (32 per cent) of white female heads live alone, compared with 2 per cent of males. And part-time and supply teachers, predominantly female, report problems gaining access to training and promotion.

However, it is not so much gender as their role as carers that is holding back many women, according to Janet Powney of Glasgow university, one of the researchers. "Since women tend to be the main carers, having children affects their careers, but we did find that in some instances men's careers had also been affected," she says.

The Glasgow team conducted a postal survey of 2,158 teachers in 62 English local education authorities then interviewed teachers and governors in 18 schools. Of the respondents, just over a third of white males and 20 per cent of white women hold senior management or promoted posts. In contrast, only 9 per cent of ethnic minority males and 5 per cent of ethnic minority females have experienced such success at work.

Ethnic minority staff are more likely to go for promotion than those from other groups, but many feel that appointments panels are not giving them a fair deal.

"It does not matter how competent you are in all aspects of mainstream and special teaching and management, organisation, and leadership skills - as a black professional, you have no chance of progressing," one 52-year-old male ethnic minority teacher comments.

The position of the small number of teachers with disabilities is even worse. Most experience difficulties in entering the profession and in making progress within it. Like teachers from ethnic minorities, they often feel isolated and are less likely to have warm relationships with their colleagues. They believe their workmates often underestimate the physical effort needed to get to work by public transport. Even minor changes to school buildings would improve their lives, they say. Two interviewees report that the effort involved in pressing for improvements has damaged their health and led to their quitting the profession.

Almost three-quarters of respondents with disabilities are thinking of leaving, compared with just over half of the rest of the teachers in the survey.

Age also has an impact on career progression. Older teachers believe that interview panels prefer "younger, more energetic" applicants. Younger women from ethnic minorities think that they may be at an advantage.

Nor does homosexuality or lesbianism seem to be a problem. Discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation was banned in employment regulations that came into force in December. Some 22 per cent of respondents think sexual orientation has some impact on promotion prospects, but none of those interviewed believe their careers have been harmed by their sexuality.

Disabled, ethnic minority and female teachers are likely to think that disability, ethnicity, gender and, to a lesser extent, age, have affected their careers. In stark contrast, many white male respondents believe teachers are promoted solely on the basis of experience and ability. The research highlights the pivotal role of headteachers in making sure that staff have fair access to career opportunities.

"The influence of a headteacher's management style on school ethos and the career development of staff was regarded as paramount by most interviewees, especially those whose careers encompassed experience of several different management styles," the researchers write.

They also conclude that governors have a role to play by monitoring the way school managers implement agreed strategies. Despite finding examples of good practice, the study found that some governors, heads and other staff were not aware of the needs of teachers who have disabilities and those from minority ethnic groups. Coupled with a similar lack of awareness of the need to embed equal opportunities within school policies and plans, this stands in the way of some teachers' career development.

One way to ensure that schools do not neglect equal opportunities, the researchers suggest, is to make such policies subject to inspection.

The study comes in the wake of official figures which show that experienced teachers from ethnic minorities stand less chance of qualifying for performance pay bonuses than white teachers. It is likely to make uncomfortable reading for the Government. Certainly, the Department for Education and Skills, which funded the study, has done little to draw attention to it.

The National Union of Teachers has accused the department of burying the "problematic" findings on its website. John Bangs, the NUT's head of education, said: "This has got to be a trigger for the Government to do some work. There may not be discrimination - who knows? - but the evidence is disturbing and top priority needs to be given to an investigation. We are prepared to work with the Government on that."

A DfES spokeswoman said that schools and education authorities, like other employers, should follow equality legislation.

"We want all teachers to be supported if they choose to move into leadership positions - that's why we set up the National College for School Leadership," says the spokeswoman.

"The NCSL is already looking at how it can best support women and minority ethnic groups into headship or senior positions. For example, it has jointly developed with the NUT a career development programme (Equal Access to Promotion) for Black and Asian teachers and later this academic year will be piloting one on Women in Leadership and Management."

'Teachers' careers: the Impact of Age, Disability, Ethnicity, Gender and Sexual Orientation' by Janet Powney et al. The report (RR488), price pound;4.95, is available from DfES Publications, PO Box 5050, Sherwood Park, Annesley, Nottingham, NG15 0DJ.or from

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