And women shall inherit the headships

25th April 2008 at 01:00
Last week, TES Cymru published an article based on the report I co- authored, Women Teachers' Careers

Last week, TES Cymru published an article based on the report I co- authored, Women Teachers' Careers. It showed that there exists in Wales a lack of proportion in the representation of women in school leadership. Meanwhile, only nine of the heads that disclosed their ethnicity were from black and minority ethnic or mixed backgrounds. That represents just 3 per cent of the 300 non-white heritage teachers in the workforce, compared with the 4.5 per cent of the Welsh teacher workforce as a whole who are headteachers.

How to explain these statistics? Is it discrimination, a lack of aspiration, structural and organisational barriers, or gendered leadership cultures? Most likely it is a complex mix of all these factors. Given the increasingly female constitution of the profession, career breaks are a key variable in the equation. This poses particular challenges for career progression, given that nearly 60 per cent of new entrants are over 25 and 20 per cent are over 30.

Teachers who are resigned to take a career break will automatically lose leadership or additional responsibility payments unless on their return they are appointed at their former level. But employing heads have to appoint such returners at the point on the mainupper pay spine commensurate with their years of experience. Thus, if the post is without additional responsibility, the returner will be financially unattractive by comparison with a recently qualified teacher.

This two-edged sword means most women returners, having begun to climb the career ladder, will - when the labour market is buoyant - not only lose status and remuneration on their return, but may also struggle to get a job. A compounding factor is that women with caring commitments are likely to be less mobile than men, who - perhaps because of their greater compass - are appointed to first or sometimes second headships at larger primaries that attract higher salaries.

Professor Alan Smithers of Buckingham University reported that in a survey of teachers in 2006, nearly four times more women than men cited factors in their personal lives that had limited their career development, and noted that women heads were less likely to be married or have children: a quarter of women heads lived alone, compared with just 7 per cent of men.

Although in England there has been a marked rise in the number of young female Asian teachers in the past decade - especially in primaries - there is a difference between the proportions of the various ethnic groups in posts of responsibility. Black and minority women heads were not far behind white women heads, but the differential between males was far greater.

In terms of career aspirations, the picture is mixed. Studies have shown that while black and minority ethnic men are largely more ambitious than their white male counterparts, white females show the least ambition. Overall, primary teachers are less likely than those in secondaries to want promotion.

Awareness of discrimination should now be more explicit in selection processes, but individuals who faced this previously are still affected by it. Studies also show that even where equal opportunities are central to decision-making in schools, a range of factors affect decisions to apply.

The proportions of women and black and ethnic minority teachers are gradually rising, while the older, mostly more male echelons are retiring. This will lead to a rise in the proportion of women in secondaries in the next decade, and a turnover in middle and senior leadership posts across sectors. This will provide opportunities and challenges for women as education leaders.

Olwen McNamara is professor of teacher education and development at Manchester University.

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