A school of education is hoping to boost the number of minority ethnic student teachers on its courses by favouring applicants who speak another language.
As of this year, the University of Edinburgh’s Moray House School of Education will take additional languages into account in its selection process, particularly community or heritage languages, such as Urdu or Polish.
Rowena Arshad, head of the school, said that it was taking the step because, “you could count black and minority ethnic [BME] student teachers on the fingers of one hand.”
The first students to benefit would begin courses next year. Dr Arshad explained: “It means that if two students are head-to-head, we will look at their profiles and go for the one with this additional extra.”
Dr Arshad acknowledged that such a move by one school of education could only have a limited impact and has called on the Scottish government to launch a campaign to attract more ethnic minorities into teaching.
The teaching workforce did not understand the daily lives of BME youngsters, which affected pupils’ wellbeing, sense of belonging and their effectiveness in school, she warned.
“It’s no use schools of education doing one thing and employers doing another. This needs to be backed by government, so we are all pushing in the same direction and really encouraging people in the same way,” said Dr Arshad, who is also co-director of the Centre for Education for Racial Equality in Scotland.
“The government is trying to recruit more Stem [science, technology, engineering and maths] teachers; a similar drive to recruit more minority ethnic teachers is needed.”
Dr Arshad made the call for the Scottish teaching workforce “to better reflect the increasingly multicultural, multilingual and faith diversities of the pupil population” in one of a series of research briefings prepared by Moray House.
It highlighted the largest ever study of the everyday experiences of minority ethnic young people in Scotland, which was carried out by academics at Newcastle, Edinburgh and St Andrews universities last year.
The 12- to 25-year-olds who were involved in the research reported new forms of racism based on Islamophobia, anti-immigration attitudes and religious intolerance. Subtle experiences of racism happened on a daily basis in public spaces such as bus stops, the gym and in city centres, they said.
Schools needed to play a larger role in educating against misrecognition – “when someone assumes because you are brown you are Muslim” – and in helping young people respond to incidents of racism and discrimination, said Dr Arshad.
But she added that this was not happening because teachers were not “reflective of the young people in their classrooms” and were missing a lot of the more hidden racism.
Dr Arshad continued: “I’m not blaming the teachers – why would they know? If you are not on the receiving end of these things you don’t, but that’s why the profession needs to become more diverse.”
More diversity would also lead to a more common understanding of the issues facing different communities.
The research she highlighted in the briefing showed that Scottish teachers lacked confidence in dealing with racist incidents and in discussing issues of race.
Many teachers avoided dealing with low-level racism and racial prejudice for fear of getting it wrong or causing offence.
But such issues would become part of the “social chat” if a more diverse range of people were present in school staffrooms, said Dr Arshad, and a common understanding would begin to emerge.
She added: “If you have a more diverse group, you can do checks with people – what are the dos and don’ts when dealing with that particular pupil, for instance. If you don’t have that checkpoint it’s harder. Individual teachers can’t be an expert in every kind of diversity.”
Another reason to boost the number of BME teachers was to provide the role models that would make minority ethnic youngsters see teaching as a career for them.
During one piece of research, a black girl commented: “If I don’t see myself there, I can’t imagine myself there.”
Andrea Bradley, EIS union assistant secretary for education and equality, said: “The EIS is in no doubt that this imbalance needs to be addressed as a matter of priority.”
Mike Corbett, an executive member for NASUWT Scotland, said that it was “harsh” to suggest that teachers were not “helping young people respond to incidents of racism and discrimination”. But he said that he was “supportive” of Dr Arshad’s comments and welcomed her initiative as “a sensible step”.
Politicians are being urged “to put evidence-based debate at the heart of this year’s Holyrood elections”, says Dr Arshad.
The school of education will publish a dozen research briefings aimed at politicians, covering everything from minority ethnic young people to outdoor education. The first six are available now on the University of Edinburgh’s Moray House School of Education website (ed.ac.uk/education), with another six to follow on 18 April.
Each looks at a particular aspect of education, and contains recommendations. All the suggestions are based upon existing pieces of research from Moray House. Dr Arshad said: “Politicians and policymakers have an envious wealth of expertise and research residing in the country’s universities. For the good of all in society, we urge them to use it. It’s time to give hunch-based decision-making the cold shoulder.”