'Was it because I'm a woman? Or because I'm a black woman?'

Too many BME aspiring leaders suffer unconscious – or conscious – bias when applying for headships, writes one head


Barriers still stand in the way of black and minority ethnic teachers who want to move into school leadership, writes one head

My own school experience was dismal. But unlike many others who, having gone through the same horrible experience as me, left at 16 and never looked back, I knew that I wanted to return to school. I wanted to be part of an education system that would work tirelessly to make sure that no child was left behind.

I left with no qualifications. This wasn’t because I wasn’t capable but because the system failed me and allowed young people like me to just disappear. A black and minority ethnic (BME) child from the local council estate who today would be defined as pupil premium.

Everything changed when I decided to return to education and do a night course in childcare. This was followed by an access course into higher education, and then I moved on to SOAS University of London to do a degree. It was here that I really decided I wanted to become a teacher so after completing my degree I went to the Institute of Education to complete my postgrad.

Teaching began for me in 1999 in a challenging school in London before I moved to an all-girls school in the same area. It was here in 2008 that I heard about the Future Leaders Programme. One of my colleagues, the associate deputy head, was doing the programme at the time. The programme's mission really resonated with me: it works towards building a network of leaders in schools who have the skills to transform the lives of those children who need this the most. And after some closer reading, my journey to headship began.

Overcoming prejudice

I am now a headteacher in London, and I’ve always felt that both governors and leadership teams should be representative of the communities they serve. Statistics show that we’re a long away from that – just 3 per cent of headteachers in the UK are BME.

The step up from senior leader to headteacher is a real struggle for a black teacher. Time and time again, the aspiring leaders who ask me for advice and guidance talk about unconscious bias.

I applied for 12 deputy head positions before securing my first one. For 10 of these, I was in the final two. The others, I didn’t get through to day two.

Now, I do personally believe that "feedback is a gift" but it was often difficult to understand feedback that lacked any substance and, was, on occasions, full of empty platitudes that did nothing to help with future interviews.  

Comments like “you’re just not the right fit” would often leave me questioning – fit for who? I got the impression that when mainly white governors interviewed me, many were risk-averse. After all, how would parents, staff and the community relate to a headteacher who did not look like them? You can have the right skill set, you can be personable and hard-working, but it’s still not enough.

At another interview, I was told that I was too similar to the other deputy they had. She, too, was black. Clearly, one school can only diversify so much! Who wants to disturb the status quo?

We need more black headteachers

My first headship in rural Cambridgeshire did very little to change my view on unconscious bias. I had been the headteacher for 12 months when an academy chain took over and decided that I was not the right "fit" for the school. I recall my first meeting with the powers that be – it was in a room full of white men in suits who did not even take the time to find out who I was, what I stood for and what I had the potential to achieve.

Was that because I was a woman? Or because I was a black woman? Or was it because they just wanted white men in sharp suits in the role?  

Racism is not always subtle or unconscious in school leadership. In my years teaching, I have been called a "frizzy hair golliwog" by a member of staff (she was dismissed but only eventually) and verbally assaulted by a parent because of my colour.

Does any of the above deter me? Absolutely not.

Does it make me even more resolute and determined to be at the forefront of change? Yes, it does.  

Can we do more to encourage and support more people of colour into school leadership? Of course we can.

But in order for it to happen, governors need to have faith, be less risk-averse and ask themselves: “Can this person lead this school and make great things happen?”  

If the answer is yes, then make the appointment. Mine did.

The writer is a headteacher in London 

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