Novelty factor or racism?

14th December 2007 at 00:00
Black and ethnic minority teachers can encounter unique obstacles in their careers, but some schools are making equality a priority. Hannah Frankel reports.Mubeen Azam is a British Asian Muslim teacher. He has a shaved head, a small beard, he wears a black coat and carries a rucksack. Mubeen is well aware that this also fits the description of the men who bombed London in 2005.

"I drew a picture of a Muslim man on the board for pupils to discuss and asked them how they'd feel if they saw him walk down the street," says the 32-year-old. "Most told me they'd feel uneasy and would cross the road or walk faster. I'd drawn me."

In multi-cultural inner cities such as Glasgow or Leicester, Mubeen may have had a different response. But in Devon, where he completed his PGCE in religious education earlier this year, ethnic diversity is still a rare thing. "It's a very white middle class area," says Mubeen, who grew up in Manchester. "My tutors told me I was the first Muslim they'd had on the RE course in more than a decade. It was a weird feeling at first but I enjoyed the year overall."

Not all black and ethnic minority teachers could say the same. A report on black teachers in London last year found that racism, coupled with a lack of support and career progression, is holding some back.

Exeter University is aware that they can face unique obstacles. It discovered teacher trainees were encountering racism at placement schools, but in the absence of robust reporting systems, were keeping it to themselves. "It was undermining their experience," says Sara Bennett, diversity resource officer at the university's school of education - believed to be the only such post in the UK. For the past five years, she has worked one day a week to support ethnic minority trainee teachers at Exeter.

"My role acknowledges that racism exists everywhere," she says. "I help to develop a strategy with every individual who needs bespoke support. If trainees encounter racism in the classroom, it's important they feel supported in the staffroom, but a lot of schools find complaints of this nature very embarrassing and difficult to discuss. It's like the 'Don't mention the war' sketch in Fawlty Towers: other teachers know you are black but insist they haven't noticed."

Black and ethnic minority teachers say that they would like to discuss their worries more, but only if the senior management team was visibly open and supportive. As one anonymous trainee says: "The management at the school was very defensive about any mention of racism ... so the issue could not be discussed in any meaningful way."

Some trainees believe that less is expected of them - something that could be countered by a more diverse workforce, including senior teachers from ethnic minorities.

Jacqui O'Connor is the only black and only female member of staff on the senior management team at St Andrew's Church of England High School in Croydon, a mixed school with a mixed staff to match. "I see myself as a successful teacher, not as a successful black woman," she says. "I think ethnic minority teachers can wait to be asked to take on a new role, but there is no reason why they shouldn't be promoted if they are doing well. You have to really believe you can do the job and push yourself forward."

However, Jacqui does know how it feels to be isolated on account of her colour. She did her training 12 years ago in Lancashire, where she was the sole black person in all three of her placement schools.

"When you're the only black face, you do wonder if people get a different impression of you because you're the first black person they've spoken to. It's not racism, but it is a novelty for them."

Steve Morrison, headteacher of Kingsdale School in Dulwich, south-east London, has made it to the top despite racism. When he was appointed head in 1998, 25 per cent of staff decided to leave, with one even announcing that he would "never work for a black man". Steve says: "I was delighted they left, because how were teachers like that treating our black pupils?"

The school is based in Southwark, which has one of the highest populations of black pupils (50 per cent) and teachers (18 per cent) in London. Kingsdale confounds those statistics, with half of the teachers (including senior managers) coming from ethnic minorities. "There are opportunities to be suspicious that prejudicial views are being made in this job," says Steve. "It can affect the way ethnic minority teachers feel about themselves. A lot will be deterred because they don't want to face negative judgments, but positives can be taken out of every situation."

Although 11.6 per cent of new teacher recruits in England were from ethnic minority backgrounds last year, the picture hides huge variations across the UK and even within different curriculum subjects. PE, for example, is the least ethnically diverse subject, with about 3.5 per cent of new teachers from ethnic minority backgrounds. However, because PE is not a shortage subject overall, the Training and Development Agency is unwilling to help it recruit more ethnic minority candidates.

"There may be an aspirations problem, especially among Asian families who don't consider PE a serious subject," says Margaret Talbot, chief executive of the Association for Physical Education.

Until the teaching force is representative of school communities, implicit messages about hierarchy will continue, argues Alistair Ross, director of the Institute for Policy Studies in Education at the London Metropolitan University, and co-author of Black Teachers in London. "All pupils should see a diverse range of teachers, even when the pupils are predominantly white," he says.

In the UK

- 5.2 per cent of teachers are from an ethnic minority background, compared with 9 per cent of the population as a whole.

- 22 per cent of primary pupils and 18 per cent of secondary pupils are from ethnic minorities.

- 45 per cent of black teachers have qualified teacher status but only 4 per cent are heads or deputy heads.

- Ethnic minority teacher trainees are more than twice as likely to drop out as white trainees.

How schools can be more inclusive

- Ensure teachers can report racism easily.

- Provide all staff with diversity training.

- Monitor unsuccessful ethnic minority applications to the school.

- Raise expectations by discussing potential with staff and providing high quality professional development.


The National College for School Leadership, in partnership with the National Union of Teachers, is launching an Equal Access to Promotion programme next year. It aims to inspire black and ethnic minority teachers in middle leadership roles to aspire to more senior positions. Visit

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