Career paths blocked by school 'culture of racism'

6th November 2009 at 00:00
Research provides clearest evidence to date that black and ethnic minority teachers are struggling against entrenched racism. David Marley reports

Schools are blighted by an "endemic culture of institutional racism" that is stopping black and ethnic minority teachers from being promoted, says research published today.

Discrimination is viewed as the main barrier to male black and ethnic minority (BME) teachers being appointed to headship and other senior jobs, according to a detailed survey of school staff.

Overall, nearly half of respondents said they had been victims of discrimination on the grounds of their ethnicity. One in 10 also said they had been treated unfairly because of their faith.

There were significant differences between ethnic groups, with nearly three-quarters of African teachers reporting ethnic prejudice, compared with 40 per cent of Caribbean staff.

The findings are the clearest evidence to date of the extent to which teachers feel their careers are suffering because of racial discrimination.

"Foremost, and most worrying, it is clear that the incidence of discrimination reported by BME teachers and leaders within the school system is indicative of an endemic culture of institutional racism," says the independent study, commissioned by the NASUWT and the National College, the agency responsible for developing school leaders.

Governing bodies have a legal duty to ensure that racial equality is central to their work and that BME teachers are not disadvantaged.

But the report warned that teachers must be convinced that "the reality matches the rhetoric" if they are to persevere with their careers.

Chris Keates, general secretary of teaching union the NASUWT, said: "This report reveals the true extent of the problem of racism and discrimination that, regrettably, is still all too pervasive in our schools.

"Institutional racism must not be allowed to flourish. It is robbing schools of too many talented and dedicated teachers and potential leaders. We will be using this report to press for urgent action to tackle this serious issue."

The research, carried out by Manchester University and Education Data Surveys, examined the experiences of more than 500 BME teachers in England.

Overall, it found that concern about workload was the biggest single barrier to leadership ambitions, with lack of confidence ranked second.

But discrimination, ethnicity, recruitment policies and the attitudes of senior colleagues all featured in the top 10 difficulties (see panel).

Male BME teachers perceived discrimination as their greatest problem, whereas women ranked it sixth.

For women, lack of confidence was the second most commonly cited barrier, but this came only eighth for men.

The figures also highlight stark ethnic divides in the experiences of BME teachers. For African teachers, concerns over discrimination and ethnicity far outweighed other factors. They also complained that a lack of recognition of overseas experience and qualifications was a significant problem.

Overall, 70 per cent of respondents said it was harder for BME teachers to secure leadership positions than is the case for other teachers, according to the research.

As reported in The TES last month, figures from the General Teaching Council for England show that the number of teachers from BME backgrounds entering the profession has grown rapidly in recent years.

Following a campaign to create a more diverse workforce, between 2002 and 2008 the proportion of new teachers from BME backgrounds almost doubled from 5.3 per cent to 9.1 per cent.

But a national survey of appointments also shows that over the past six years just 1.3 per cent of headships in secondary schools and 2 per cent in primaries were given to non-white applicants.

The idea that this could be attributable to BME teachers lacking ambition, however, is dismissed by today's research. Four out of five respondents described themselves as very or reasonably ambitious. BME teachers who are successful in gaining headteacher positions are significantly more likely to do so in urban schools with high proportions of non-white pupils and staff.

Professor John Howson, one of the report's co-authors, said he had been seriously concerned about the appointment of BME teachers to leadership roles for some time.

"The level of disquiet uncovered in this research is extremely worrying, and now it is out in the open," he said. "There is a very sharp divide between different parts of the country with regards to where BME teachers are successful.

"We are not creating a multi-cultural society in terms of leadership in schools, and that really worries me. In that regard, this report is dynamite."

Ms Keates called for a system of ethnic monitoring to be introduced at both local and national levels to track the career paths of BME teachers in order to identify and remove the barriers they face.

She said that while considerable focus had been given to ensure that BME pupils received the right support, a similar level of care had not been taken with the treatment of teachers.

"This report shows a lack of awareness of indirect discrimination and institutional racism," Ms Keates said.

"People should not be afraid of saying it: it does not mean people set out to do it, but the structures are such that they don't realise how discriminatory they are being."

Ms Keates called for "positive action" to give BME teachers additional support and to ensure they have the same access to training and professional development.

She also called for governing bodies to review their recruitment policies and to carry out an "equality audit" in their schools to stamp out discriminatory practices.

Increasing autonomy for schools has also contributed to the problem, Ms Keates said. Local authorities, which used to be more closely involved in recruitment, have a stronger understanding of diversity issues than individual schools, she said.

The National College has launched a number of programmes specifically to address the problems facing BME teachers. It also provides grants and consultancy expertise to local authorities.

But Steve Munby, National College's chief executive, dismissed the notion of widespread institutional racism, pointing to the response rate to the survey of just 11 per cent.

"There is no doubt that many of the people sampled have experienced discrimination and that is unacceptable," he said. "We have to do even more to address it, but the research on its own does not tell us that the whole system is institutionally racist."

A spokesman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families said progress had been made over the past 10 years, but it was working with the National College to better support BME teachers.

"It is absolutely unacceptable for any teacher to be discriminated against because of their race, age, gender or religion - there's no place for it in any workplace," he said.

"We know there is more to do to break down the barriers stopping black and minority ethnic teachers from achieving their full potential."



1. Discrimination

2. Workload

3. Recruitment policies

4. Availability of suitable posts

5. Access to leadership programmes

6. My ethnicity

7. Qualifications and experience

8. Self-confidence

9. Attitude of senior colleagues

10. My age


1. Workload

2. Self-confidence

3. Caringfamily responsibilities

4. Qualifications and experience

5. Availability of suitable posts

6. Discrimination

7. Attitude of senior colleagues

8. My age

9. My ethnicity

10. Access to leadership programmes


As one of the most experienced ethnic minority headteachers in the country, Dina Martin (pictured) is all too aware of the barriers facing colleagues who want promotion.

Widespread racism on school governing bodies is stopping talented teachers from gaining school leadership and headship roles, she claims.

"It is happening and will continue to happen until we really tackle it," said Mrs Martin, head of Firs Hill Community Primary School in Sheffield.

"We need people from different backgrounds who bring different things to school leadership. We have lost that idea somewhere along the line."

Mrs Martin, who got her first headship in 1992 at the age of 34, said she had to perform three times better than white colleagues to win promotion.

Governors too often do not employ senior staff from black and ethnic minority (BME) backgrounds because they fear it will create problems they do not know how to deal with.

Mrs Martin points to complaints from parents accusing her of favouring black children as an example of the kind of situation governors want to avoid. At one parents' evening, Mrs Martin was asked by one set of parents whether she was a properly qualified teacher.

"Being a headteacher is lonely, but it is even lonelier for black heads," she said. "You can't always turn to colleagues to share your problems because they don't always understand."

Mrs Martin said she had advised new Muslim women teachers not to wear their hijab to interviews because it would stop them getting jobs. "If they are not getting jobs, I tell them to ditch the hijab and it makes a difference," she said. "I tell them to wear it again when they start work."

Mrs Martin, who mentors newly appointed heads in Sheffield, said she had been lucky that her governors valued her skills as a teacher and gave her opportunities.

However, she raised concerns that the focus on BME teachers is partly a response to a recognised shortage of heads, rather than concern about the underlying problems. "In the past, we have dabbled with help for BME teachers, but now we have to make sure we do it consistently," she said.

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