The diversity problem in school leadership – and how we can fix it

17th June 2016 at 00:00
The route to diversity relies on all of us eliminating our unconscious bias, says this deputy head

A few months into my deputy headship in 2013, I bought a book called Heads Up by Dominic Carman. It promised a view on school leadership from headteachers in some of the country’s leading independent schools and I was eager to learn more from the people in the hotseat. I laughed at the candour in some places – such as the head who swore by Rigby & Peller underwear – but one particular passage made me pause for thought.

Diane Ellis, founding partner of the education practice at Odgers Berndtson, was interviewed about diversity among independent school heads. She spoke of putting ethnic minority candidates forward for headship but them not having any luck in getting jobs. She was hopeful of success soon, but asked if she could see more ethnic and mixed-race independent headteachers in the future, she answered “I wouldn’t think we’d rush to do that”. Her reasoning: “Because what people are buying is British education, and, therefore, they want to see a British leader.” (The firm has made it clear that this is not its own view.)

I was dismayed at the time to read this. It would seem that no matter how good I, or other people might be, they would not have the opportunity to lead a school because of this image of a British leader, one that was linked to physical appearance.


Winning attitudes

This realisation lingered and as I watched the Six Nations rugby tournament this year, I wondered again at the idea of a British leader. Removed from the context of the education sector and applied to sport, the view felt outdated and out of place. It certainly didn’t bear any resemblance to the leadership behind the winning English team, whose coach, Eddie Jones, has a Japanese-American mother and an Australian father. England’s drive for superior performance led them to consider a range of people; a similar approach can pay dividends for any organisation.

The management consultancy firm McKinsey re-released a report last year stating that the organisations that were committed to ethnic and gender diversity outperformed those that were not. In a system where outcomes mean a great deal, you would think that schools would fully engage with this commitment – but the figures show this is not the case.

Heads from a minority background make up only around 4 per cent (around 46 schools) of state schools linked to local authorities. The Headmasters and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC), representing 277 of Britain’s elite independent schools, does not currently produce any data on the ethnic background of school leaders. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that the number can be counted on one hand. Independent Schools Council (ISC) records show that 30.3 per cent of independent-school students come from a minority background. Within the state sector, black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) students constitute 30.4 per cent in state-funded primary schools; 26.6 per cent in state-funded secondary.

How can this gap between student population and leadership be understood and, more importantly, overcome?

One possible way to think through the issue is provided by psychologist Daniel Kahneman and his theory on fast and slow thinking.

Kahnman says that when we engage in fast thinking, our responses are driven by emotions and unconscious biases. When we think slowly, we can involve more rational processes in an effort to override emotions and biases.

If fast thinking is a habit or reflex that you don’t even know you’re doing, then slow thinking is about gaining the consciousness to stop.

However, slow thinking is hard, especially under pressure – just ask anyone who bites their nails. For governors in the high-stakes situation of appointing a headteacher, thinking slow is difficult, especially when under the pressure that a poor decision can prove costly for students, staff and reputation. As a result, mental shortcuts are easy and the tendency to hire in one’s own image is very strong indeed.


Biased thinking

A report from the University of Bath and the National Governors’ Association in 2014 indicated that governors were overwhelmingly white – 96 per cent. The conclusion was that “…governing bodies do not tend to reflect the diversity of the ethnicity in their school’s community. Moreover, it would appear that governing bodies tend not to appoint headteachers who reflect the diversity in the ethnicity in their school’s community.”

Even when the risks are mitigated by using recruitment firms, such as Odgers Berndtson, Saxton Bampflyde or Perrett Laver, there is no guarantee that they can reduce bias.

There are ways to check the various biases we hold and live up to the intention of creating a fair and open recruitment process.

The Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), a UK governmental organisation, produced a paper for the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development on how organisations can use the knowledge available about human behaviour in order to improve recruitment.

One of their suggestions is to look very carefully at the wording of job adverts and criteria. One story in particular exemplifies why this is important.

In an attempt to understand why very few women applied for management positions, internal research at Hewlett Packard (HP) found that women employed by the company applied for promotion only when they believed they met 100 per cent of the job specification.

Mike Buchanan, head of Ashford School in Kent, decided to address this by redrafting the latest senior leadership advert and paying careful attention to the language used.

“I asked a colleague to strike through any traditionally masculine adjectives in the person specification that might deter women from applying,” he explains. So, out went words such as decisive, independent, powerful, competitive and in came words such as committed, supportive and dependable in order to make a more attractive balance.

The result was that more women applied for the post and one was appointed.


Blind faith

BIT also suggest making applications blind, so that identifiable information on CVs and application forms – such as names, gender, education institutions attended and address – should be removed before scoring potential candidates. BIT have created a website to help organisations hiring by addressing unconscious bias ( Although it is currently in private beta, you can still apply to use it at your school.

There are many more resources and strategies you can adopt, too (see box, above).

Schools and their governing bodies play an important role in a society that prizes performance and fairness. It is also clear that the best organisations are open to diversity and change. By examining the unconscious bias involved in the recruitment process, and reflecting the communities we serve, it may be possible to move a little closer to our societal ideals and be a British leader in line with the British values that we communicate to our students and teachers every day.

Dr Nick Dennis is deputy head (academic) at Nottingham High School and a governor at Greenwich Free School, London. The fee for this article was donated to the Nottinghamshire Hospice ( @nickdennis


How to improve diversity

These suggestions can help you to increase diversity in your workforce and improve performance for all staff.

Guarantee a commitment to diversity

One of the first places to look at is the make-up of the governing body itself. A commitment to diversity should start at the very top.

Use all the networks at your disposal and change job adverts Going beyond the usual advertising sites is useful. Use networks like LinkedIn and the groups feature to source potential candidates. Facebook groups or organisations linked to increasing diversity can help. If you are using a recruiting firm, ask them to specifically craft an application pack that ensures a wide variety of responses.


Make sure to reduce bias during the shortlisting process

Identifying applicants based on the institution or school they attended can reflect preferences for particular socioeconomic groupings. Seeing the names of candidates can also prove detrimental to shortlisting. Make leadership applications blind by removing such data; instead, score them according to the job specification.


Ensure that great mentoring and support is in place to help retention

Making sure you recruit a diverse leadership team is only part of the solution. Providing support when people are in organisations is just as important.

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