‘If I can’t see myself there, I can’t imagine myself there’

9th February 2018 at 00:00
We need to do more to help attract – and retain – BME teachers in Scotland

Here are some stats that may surprise people: the number of teachers from black and minority ethnic backgrounds across the whole profession declined from 1.9 per cent of the total workforce in 2011 to 1.3 per cent in 2016, when 639 teachers identified as BME.

Of these, 229 are in the primary sector (1 per cent of the workforce) and 378 are in secondary representing (1.7 per cent). The number of teachers from minority ethnic backgrounds in the special sector is a mere 32 (1.7 per cent). Early indications are that those statistics have not improved for 2017.

The lack of diversity within the Scottish teaching workforce on the basis of ethnicity was highlighted in a government-commissioned report by Kaliani Lyle, Addressing Race Inequality in Scotland: the way forward, published in December. It recommended the setting up of a short-term working group to increase the number of teachers from under-represented groups at all levels in Scottish schools.

I have been asked to convene this group, whose full list of members can be found online. We will focus our efforts on four key areas:

•  To explore whether initial teacher education (ITE) programmes and associated recruitment activity are attractive and relevant to students from black and minority ethnic backgrounds.

•  To consider whether university admissions processes capture the range of possible applicants from diverse backgrounds.

•  To explore student-placement experiences and the ongoing support for students from minority backgrounds.

•  To consider issues around the retention of student teachers and teachers from minority backgrounds.

Some might argue that the demographics of the teaching workforce should not matter and what really counts is the quality of individual teachers. Others might say that, given black and minority ethnic pupils achieve better results than their white counterparts in Scotland, the current teaching workforce is doing a sterling job.

Our work does not question that young people are being well served by the teaching profession – our focus is on the need to diversify the workforce to better represent the communities we are part of.

The words of Maya, a young person I spoke with as part of my research on race equality matters, ring out for me: “If I cannot see myself there, then I cannot imagine myself there.” This young person was referring to the lack of diverse teachers as part of their school experiences.

If we wish to diversify the teaching profession, we need young people like Maya to imagine themselves as a teacher and to view teaching as a profession they can choose.

Damaging experiences

We also want to explore how to better retain student teachers from minority backgrounds.

We hear student teachers and teachers talk about the importance of having positive placements and probationary or work experience as important reasons for staying on in the profession. Given the drop in BME teachers, we must find out what more needs to be done to enable them to stay on and to move into promoted posts, if that is what they aspire to do.

Research on the experiences of black and minority ethnic teachers in Scotland and the UK finds that being “different” or “visible” does have an impact on workplace experiences. Some of the impact is positive, in that diversity is welcomed and harnessed. However, some of these experiences are not.

Noor, a secondary teacher, describes the types of throwaway, insensitive comments that can impact: “We have students from Pakistan, India, Syria, Russia…we have quite a mix in the classroom and there have been terminologies used…colleagues have said things like, ‘Oh, I think I am coming into a refugee camp’ when they come into the classroom.”

Other experiences are more damaging, but less obvious to those not on the receiving end.

Take Miriam, who was recently on placement. The school was not used to working with BME people. The teacher with whom she was placed complained to the university tutor that Miriam had body-odour issues. Miriam’s university tutor did not think Miriam had such issues and was at a loss as to how to challenge the teacher without detriment to Miriam, but realised she needed to.

What became clear was that the teacher Miriam was placed with did not provide the learning environment and support she needed. Miriam was often left isolated during breaks. The school of education that Miriam is with had a role in speaking with the teacher and headteacher of the school – and did so.

It would be difficult to say what was actually happening in this example, but it would be foolish to dismiss the possibility that ignorance and everyday low-level racism might have been at play. Regardless of the intent, the consequences are that this experience has impacted on Miriam’s self-esteem and her perception of the profession she is entering. It also raises the question of whether Miriam would proactively encourage other black and minority ethnic students to consider teaching as a career of choice.

Improving the diversity of our workforce requires multi-pronged strategies. This is why we are writing to a range of education stakeholders for advice and will be talking with BME teachers. If you have any suggestions you wish us to consider, please email the secretariat of the group. We welcome any ideas that can assist our work.

Please send suggestions to kelly.ireland@gov.scot by 16 March

Professor Rowena Arshad is head of the University of Edinburgh’s Moray House School of Education and chair of a Scottish government short-term working group on diversity in the teaching profession

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