Bias is no one's fault, but everyone's;Opinion

18th June 1999 at 01:00
My favourite aunt was a teacher in the Caribbean and, despite having retired more than 25 years ago, she remains "Teacher" to the many who knew her in our village, and still commands deep respect and affection among those who seek her out in North America where she now lives. Every now and again I run into fellow Guyanese who also remember her or her friend, Teacher Flossie.

These are women who taught generations of children and who are fondly remembered by their pupils. But while teachers here in Britain may inspire fondness in equal measure, they are not generally recognised as important local figures as teachers are in Guyana. This is particularly true in our big cities, where teachers frequently bear the brunt of alienation between schools and their communities.

This might help explain the sense of frustration among black British teachers. Not that they're a gloomy lot; far from it.

Two weekends ago, I visited the National Union of Teachers' black teachers' conference in the Midlands. I spoke for 30 minutes and then debated with them for another hour. It could have gone on for twice that - this is a feisty, intelligent group, with bucketfuls of opinions. They may be partly self-selecting - after all, there are still very few minority teachers - but as an experienced conference-watcher, the meeting seemed pretty representative of black opinion.

It is clear that black teachers feel undervalued and unrecognised. There are still relatively few black headteachers - you can tell that there's a problem when most people can list them. Even below that level, the little research so far done suggests that there is no huge cohort of deputies and department heads in waiting.

I suspect that not only is there a shortage of minority students coming through into the profession; there may also be far too many experienced teachers giving up teaching to look for careers with greater chances of progression.

There is another kind of problem which I had not anticipated. Many black teachers would like to gain a wide range of experience. However, the feeling, and in some cases, the experience, is that gaining jobs in urban schools with large minority populations is possible; whereas winning a post in a school where there are few non-white children is virtually impossible. But without a wide range of experience, a teacher is unlikely to be in the running for senior jobs.

There is no evidence that selection panels actively discriminate against black teachers - but there is anecdotal evidence of some kind of unconscious bias. It's what Sir William Macpherson's report on the murder of Stephen Lawrence really said - everyone means well, but somehow the result isn't what we all want. It's no one's fault - but it's everyone's.

These impressions may be incomplete; but the lack of information on black teachers is pretty astonishing, given that we collect numbers on virtually everything else in the school system.There's a major job for the Department for Education and Employment here; the mood music there is good under schools minister Charles Clarke, and its support for work by several groups, particularly that on exclusion by the Runnymede Trust, is encouraging.

But there still seems little priority attached to this issue by teachers' organisations. If there is a major initiative being run by one or more of the teacher unions, there was little evidence that the teachers themselves had heard of it.

Depressingly, there are few black members prominent in the leadership of the teaching unions; it is little wonder that they are frequently so defensive on race. If the profession is to respond to the Stephen Lawrence tragedy, it could begin by working on the beam in its own eye. After all, we want all children to have a healthier attitude to race than their parents. School cannot help in this task if the only black authority figures which pupils see are all behind the dinner counter.

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