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Still as white as ever

Jill Parkin talks to black and Asian headteachers to find out why they continue to be so rare in schools

Nearly 20 years ago I interviewed the head of a Bradford girls' school, where 98 per cent of pupils were Asian.

We talked about the relationship between home and curriculum, the premium parents attached to single-sex status, and the delicate approach sometimes needed with careers advice.

Today I think I would have had another question to ask: "Ninety-eight per cent of your pupils are Asian. Why is their head white?" Or: "In 20 years will your job be done by an Asian woman?"

The answer to the last one would be, "Probably not." A survey of 1,000 schools that had headship vacancies released last month shows that of 768 primary heads appointed in England and Wales in 2003 only 19 were from ethnic minorities. Of those, six were already heads. None of the 159 secondary heads appointed was from an ethnic minority.

When it comes to race, the figures just don't add up. Ethnic minorities make up 9 per cent of teachers; almost 18 per cent of primary pupils and just over 16 per cent of secondary pupils. In special schools where 37 white heads were appointed in 2003 and no non-whites, 17.2 per cent of pupils are non-white.

None of this surprises Faz Islam, the new head of Atlas community primary school in Bradford. He is against tokenism and has yet to appoint a non-white member of his staff to his senior management team. Perhaps that's not surprising either: when we asked Bradford how many of its heads were from ethnic minorities, the city came up with what it called a ballpark figure of just six out of 194.

"It's complicated. There isn't a single reason. Ninety-five per cent of success is to do with focus and confidence, but we are not getting the calibre of black and minority ethnic student that teaching needs. We need to get it right in the early stages of recruitment, which means that young people need to see black people taking responsibility, being decision-makers, being leaders," says Mr Islam, who comes from Bangladesh.

"This is something the Government is trying to address, but for a long time teaching just hasn't had the kind of kudos in the community that it needs.

There's an Asian stereotype that says Asians want their children to be accountants, doctors, lawyers - not teachers. It's a stereotype, but there's some truth in it too."

Atlas primary is in the Manningham area of Bradford. Nearly half of its 420 pupils are eligible for free school meals and 99.4 per cent have English as a second language. It's very different from Mr Islam's previous job as deputy in a white school in a part of Dewsbury where there was significant British National Party support.

But putting yourself about is just the right way for an ambitious black or Asian teacher to get credibility, says Mr Islam, who also spent more than two years as an education authority literacy consultant.

"I wanted a variety of experience. If you're a leader in a school which is predominantly the same ethnic group as you are, you risk being seen as having got the job because of your ethnicity. That can be a huge drawback."

The National College for School Leadership and National Union of Teachers jointly run a course for black and minority ethnic teachers, called Equal Access to Promotion. The focus and confidence mentioned by Faz Islam is something course leader, Jan McKenley, thinks is vital for success."We shouldn't be over-gloomy," she says. "Fifty-five per cent of black and minority ethnic teachers have only been teaching for 10 years. It takes time to reach leadership posts."

Having said that, she says many who come on the course are "remarkably ignorant" about what they need to do to be successful. "If you ask people on the residential course for the National Professional Qualification for Headship when they first felt the call to leadership, they all talk about the tap on the shoulder from the headteacher.

"You only get that tap if you get involved in the high-profile parts of school life. You need to be on top of things such as curriculum development and learning and achievement. Black teachers tend to get used for pastoral stuff, but if you want to lead you have to do more than that.

"Then there's the hidden curriculum, where cultural differences play a big part. Things like going to overnight conferences, going to the pub, going on twilight courses: these can be hard for Muslim teachers. One of the things we do on the course is say: 'look, here are some choices. Here's some information about the way ambitious people behave. When you go for a job you need to talk about your portfolio. We work on their presentation skills so they know how to talk about all the things they've been involved with."

In spite of the course, Professor John Howson of Oxford Brookes university, who led the survey, is critical of the NCSL. He feels that without hard information the situation cannot change.

"What worries me is that the NCSL doesn't keep proper figures of how many people from the ethnic minorities attend all their courses, succeed in them and are then appointed," he says. "If I were a manager of such a training college I would want to know what was happening."

An NCSL spokeswoman said: "We are concerned to do everything we can to effectively monitor and increase black and minority ethnic participation on our programmes. We already collect data on the ethnic background of participants. The data is, however, based on voluntary declarations and legally we have no powers to make it mandatory to complete the declaration." He said the college has set up a diversity group to improve monitoring and attract more ethnic minority teachers to its courses. It is also setting up systems to track the career progress of participants.

The figures the college does have show that since 2001 when it took over the National Professional Qualification for Headship programme, of just over 18,000 participants, 3 per cent were from the ethnic minorities, 3.7 per cent of unknown origin, and the rest white. In the first year of the Leading from the Middle programme (to September this year) of just over 4,000 participants, 3 per cent were ethnic minority, 18 per cent unknown and the rest white.

Kaushi Silva, now a school development adviser with Tower Hamlets, was head of a school in Brent before she was 30. After four years, she took another headship at Primrose Hill community primary in the Camden, north London, where she spent six years. There were 48 languages spoken at the school and five language courses running in the evenings.

"I had people come into meetings between white deputies and myself and assume that my deputy was my boss. I tended to treat such occasions as educational opportunities," she says. "I think we have a long way to go to solve this type of problem. The profession has not got enough quality black headteachers and we are not going to attract them unless we can show them that it is a satisfying and rewarding job to do.

"I personally think it's the best job in the world. "

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