Rowena Arshad

19th April 2013 at 01:00
One of Scotland's leading anti-racism campaigners - now the new head of Edinburgh's Moray House School of Education - warns that training in equality issues is in danger of being sidelined in cash-strapped times and institutional racism still lurks in the Scottish education system. Interview by Elizabeth Buie. Photography by James Glossop

There are still comparatively low numbers of ethnic minorities in teaching. Why?

One could say, in the very crudest sense, that people recruit in their image, so I think there is something here about selectors for teacher education programmes being a bit more creative in how they look at someone's CV. But role-modelling is also quite key. I think I'm the first minority ethnic head of a school of education in Scotland, so I would hope that would create a little bit of a change. There is an organisation that started up recently - the Scottish Association of Minority Ethnic Educators (SAMEE) - which has more than 50 teachers and is supported by the EIS and universities, and I have certainly given my support to that group and offered to provide formal or informal mentoring.

What can be done to address this issue?

We have to be more proactive at secondary school level at getting minority ethnic young people to consider teaching as a serious, worthwhile and fulfilling career. Second, the sector itself has to consider its preparedness to accept diversity within its ranks. In the main, I would say students have a positive experience, but I do get, still, examples of minority ethnic students knowing that they are different when they go into a school and being made to feel uncomfortable. I'm not talking about formal structures of exclusion; I'm talking informal structures of exclusion. The final bit is the role of those who educate the teachers of tomorrow, and what we're doing to assist majority teachers to become comfortable with diversity. We can do quite a lot but we have to have the will to do it, as well as the courage to be honest with ourselves that there is still cultural and institutional racism.

Do teachers need more training to improve the experiences of minority ethnic students?

Yes, without a doubt. This is something teachers themselves have called for; this is something that teacher education students have called for; and research backs this up. At present, because of budget cuts, sessions that offer teachers opportunities to converse and learn about diversity and equality issues are being eroded, and so people who are learning about those issues are doing so in their own time or they are individuals who may have a particular interest.

Education secretary Michael Russell recently referred to some schools as 'coasting'. Could the same charge be levelled at some schools of education?

There's no room for complacency. I know we are producing graduates whom we would wish to be reflective learners and stimulating teachers. I think we are at the cusp of change in terms of the professionalisation of teachers and this is something the sector has been calling for, including more visionary and creative leadership, so I think schools of education have a lot to offer and certainly Moray House has.

There are ambitious plans to implement the Donaldson report - in Edinburgh's case, putting third-year BEd students out on a full year's school placement. Were you involved in that?

I was not involved in the team that put that together, but I was in the validation when questions were asked about that all-year model. I think the concern lies in whether we are giving students enough experience by allowing them just one placement in one school. The response that came back from my colleagues was robust - because schools are very diverse, complex places, we do not think that by just being in one place they will have one experience.

Five years from now, what will teacher training look like?

There will be fewer silos of university teaching, school experience, being a local authority employee or an employee of an independent school. I would like it to be a much more seamless journey. I also think that teachers hopefully will be able to go beyond the four walls of the classroom and feel themselves as active agents of change within their school or local authority or educational policy.

Do you think teachers have enough courage to make their voices heard?

I think teachers do not feel confident about engaging with challenging policy, writing policy, being involved in the change process or modernisation process of education. This is not to say they don't have the ideas, but I think what we need to do at management and leadership levels is create the mechanisms for teachers to do that.

Earlier in your career, you worked in community education - is it still the Cinderella service?

When I started in Moray House in 1991, I was a community and youth worker and I do believe some of my colleagues must have thought: "What could she possibly offer in a teacher education college?" I think community education has a lot to offer to formal education - the way it engages young people to participate, its creative ways of actively engaging with parents and communities.

You're active on Twitter - will being head of the school of education constrain your views?

I only tweet things in public that I'm prepared for the world to know about.

Personal profile

Born: Brunei, 1960

Education: Methodist Girls' School, Malaysia; Bulmershe College of Higher Education, Reading; MEd community education, Moray House College and Heriot-Watt University; honorary doctorate in education, Edinburgh Napier University

Career: Recent roles: head, Institute of Education, Community and Society; director, Centre for Education for Racial Equality in Scotland; head, Moray House School of Education.

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