Student teachers from ethnic minorities must be encouraged to overcome the racism of colleagues and parents, as well as opposition from within their own communities if primary school staffs are to be representative of the population as a whole, a conference in Lancashire heard this week.
The conference, "Daring to Teach", which focused on the recruitment and experiences of newly-qualified black and Asian teachers in Britain, was organised by two Lancashire teaching colleges, Edge Hill and St Martin's, in conjunction with the county council.
It marked the third year of the Lancashire Project, also called Access to Primary Teaching for Asian and Black people (APTAB), which will produce its first graduates next year.
APTAB provides locally-based training throughout Lancashire for the first year of the degree course, and then offers ethnic minorities subsidised travel for the remaining three years. This has been of particular benefit to Asian women who make up 90 per cent of the intake, and are often denied such opportunities because of family obligations.
Co-ordinating tutor, Sughra Khan said: "Although these teaching colleges had good reputations they realised they weren't attracting blacks and Asians, despite them making up 20 per cent of the east Lancashire population. Their research found that the community did not want to leave their homes to study, so they decided to bring the degree to the community."
Ms Khan pointed out that racism encountered by many students during school placements, had driven some to drop out. "There has been a mixture of experiences. There are a lot of assumptions that they are nursery nurses or bilingual assistants or they are asked whose mum they are. Some teachers feel threatened by the presence of Asian teachers, and though this hasn't been the only factor in causing them to leave, it has been a major factor in creating needless stress."
However, many third-year students remain determined to qualify as teachers. Shagufta Shah, 30, had her third child last year and admitted: "I do find it very difficult. There was some opposition to me doing the course, but my husband and mother were very supportive. I certainly couldn't have done this if it wasn't local." She has her priorities sorted out; being a good teacher is paramount, but being a positive role model for the children she teaches and other women comes a close second.
Students said that they were often forced to prove themselves far more than white trainee teachers, but added that the emphasis on personal development and counselling throughout the course had been invaluable in combating this. Also their multilingual expertise was recognised as an advantage in many schools where there were many ethnic-minority children.
Gaining acceptance among the academic fraternity was also a problem, said Margaret Entwistle, manager of the Edge Hill base.
"The course is gaining acceptance. It has taken time to permeate throughout the college, but understanding is spreading, as people realise that these students are doing exactly the same as others on BA honours teaching courses, " she said.
Despite having come so far, job prospects are not that healthy for imminent graduates. As Sughra Khan pointed out: "These students will be looking for jobs in the same area, they all have the same skills and experiences, and although some schools will be eager to employ black and Asian teachers, I don't think it's going to be easy. There have already been a number of job cuts in Lancashire."