Excellence is colour neutral

27th November 2009 at 00:00

Career paths blocked by culture of racism," shouted a TES headline recently. New research commissioned by the National College for Leadership and the NASUWT apparently shows that schools still have "entrenched racism", and that career prospects are affected by it.

I hate this kind of headline. It gives the impression that institutional racism is present in all our schools. I work in an area with a very large ethnic population, and that certainly hasn't been my experience. I also found it significant that the response rate to the survey was merely 11 per cent.

I have worked with many black and ethnic minority teachers throughout my career, some outstanding and some less so. But during the past decade I have never heard any of them complain about a lack of promotion prospects due to their colour.

This isn't to say I have never witnessed racism in education: early in my career, I was promoted to a school where the head was overtly racist and his attitude towards the single black teacher on the staff horrified me. But there has been a sea change since then.

In my second year of headship, I experienced what can only be described as a baptism of fire over the non-promotion of a black teacher. A staff member took early retirement and I needed supply cover urgently. There were no agencies, and supply teachers were recruited and sent by the local authority. An Asian teacher arrived and I made him very welcome, but during the course of the term he was constantly absent, his preparation was non-existent, and his discipline was extreme.

I cautioned him, was promptly accused of racism, and ended up at a tribunal, alongside five other local heads he had also accused. Although his attitude stemmed from the fact that he'd never been promoted, it was obvious why. I do wonder whether there is an element of that in this latest survey.

My school was populated with children from white working-class families when I was appointed to it. Thirty years later, there are few white children, and I am conscious that my current staff doesn't reflect our ethnic mix. But they were all appointed because they were first-class teachers. Despite the imbalance, the parents have massive respect and affection for them and racial issues in the school are therefore virtually non-existent.

Nevertheless, when we were seeking a new deputy three years ago, I was keen to appoint a black candidate to continue the outstanding work done by my previous West Indian deputy. Three were in the shortlist, all very promising. But not as promising as the New Zealander who was eventually given the job. It would have been easy to give the job to a black candidate simply to help balance our mix, but it would not have been right.

Throughout the 1980s, the Inner London Education Authority made pioneering progress in countering racism in its schools, with a determination felt throughout the country. But it did not always get things right. For a while, there was an odd assertion that failing black children could only be successfully taught by a black teacher - any black teacher. All my white teachers assisting special-needs ethnic minority children had to be re-interviewed by hastily appointed - and often not very competent - black inspectors to ensure they were fit for the job. It was a ridiculous exercise, generating anger and resentment.

Teachers must always be appointed according to their abilities, and governing bodies, surely, must be very aware of this in today's climate? By all means undertake reviews to ensure this is being done, and take action where it isn't. But don't tar us all with the same institutional racism brush.

Mike Kent is headteacher at Comber Grove Primary, Camberwell, south London. Email: mikejkent@aol.com.

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