The only way is up

28th November 1997 at 00:00
Recruiting from ethnic minorities might seem like a convenient quick-fix to the teacher shortage. But who wants to join a profession in which the chances of promotion are negligible? Audrey Osler reports.

The Teacher Training Agency is energetically courting ethnic-minority communities in its attempts to ease the teacher shortage. Yet ethnic-minority entrants are likely to stay in the profession only if they see opportunities for progression.

What factors encourage recruits from ethnic minorities to persevere with the profession? How can we break down barriers which discourage others from becoming teachers?

I interviewed 26 established ethnic-minority teachers, including some in senior posts. Several achieved their early promotion after specialising in pastoral care - an area regarded as particularly appropriate for black teachers. But this can be an unreliable route to senior management. Once in a pastoral post, it can be difficult for an ethnic-minority teacher to break out of the stereotype and achieve recognition as a specialist in an academic subject.

While many heads of multicultural schools welcome ethnic-minority teachers, they do not always recognise their potential for senior posts. One young woman was able to become a head of department only after changing school twice and accepting a job without any extra pay. She said: "Each time the excuse was, 'I'm sorry you haven't got experience' or 'We can't have you this time round'. I felt it was something deeper than that. I felt it was something to do with the lack of confidence, among senior management, in terms of employing blacks or Asians as heads of department or heads of year, even though you had the kind of qualifications they wanted."

It is hoped that greater numbers of ethnic-minority teachers will help redress the racial imbalance in teaching - currently they represent only about 2.5 per cent of the profession. No national statistics are available, although in Birmingham only 6.8 per cent of teachers - but more than 40 per cent of pupils - are from ethnic-minority backgrounds. They are much less likely to be promoted than their white colleagues, and represent only 2.9 per cent of the city's headteachers.

Many of the teachers I interviewed argued that their professional development was enhanced through joining black teachers' networks, or through working with other black teachers in Section 11 posts. A schools inspector recalled working in the latter environment: "It was quite an emotional experience, and I mean strongly emotional, to meet other people who had been in similar situations on their own, as black professionals; to be able to talk about the dimensions of race and education."

A number who had risen to become advisers or inspectors pointed out that they had followed this route because the road to a headship appeared blocked. An inspector noted: "They call it accelerated promotion, but none of it is in the area in which I am academically qualified. So it is like a continuation of the pastoral phenomenon; it is multicultural by virtue of my racial experience and cultural experience more than my formal study. My credibility is built on my capacity to articulate and analyse who I am."

Overwhelmingly, the teachers I interviewed, particularly those in senior positions, were inspired to stick at their work when things got tough by a belief that education could transform pupils' lives. One headteacher said: "Teaching I consider to be a real mission. Education does matter. And it matters for young black and white kids in inner-city Manchester, inner-city Birmingham, inner-city London.

"When I went into the classroom, the first thing I said was, 'I am not here to play. I am here to work, and you are here to learn. Your parents are working hard for you to be here; they are working anti-social hours and you are not going to mess about'. I understand what parents want, I understand that education is potentially liberating and useful."

These teachers set themselves high standards, and many believed they needed to work twice as hard as their white colleagues to succeed. As one primary teacher explained: "I aim for excellence and I try not to take chances, because I think my mistakes are taken up very sharply; they are pointed out. And I cannot afford to be human, someone people could relax with. I think that is racism, because other people could get away with things."

Teaching has been described as a hazardous profession. But the hazards identified by the recent House of Commons select committee report, such as unruly pupils and excessive amounts of paperwork, are unlikely to be the only ones which ethnic-minority recruits will face during a teaching career. They need to be assured that the Teacher Training Agency and other organisations are taking measures to overcome the present barriers to progression.

Ethnic-minority teachers can make a substantial contribution to improving educational standards. In return they need to be guaranteed equality of opportunity in their careers.

Dr Audrey Osler is a senior lecturer in education at the University of Birmingham. Her book, The Education and Careers of Black Teachers: changing identities, changing lives, is published by the Open University Press.

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