24. Aug, 2020

Sitting at the Table

How am I improving my behaviours in order to sit at the tables to change the norms in an activist way?


I have reason to believe that I have always been a reflective practitioner during my professional career; looking for ways to improve my practice and that of those around me. The teaching profession demands that practitioners review, research, share and improve their practice.  Over the last 4 years I have had 4 posts all with the remit of rapidly improving outcomes including, staff, the reputation of the institution and most specifically the pupils’ standards to help improve their life chances. As part of this role I employ two vehicles that assist me in remaining effective. One is to be immersed in the best practices by researching them, reflecting on them and networking with other professionals. The second is to observe practices of those responsible for staff and pupil outcomes. As a headteacher and school improvement leader since 2010 observing and reflecting on the effectiveness of teaching or leadership has been and is a daily action.

Alongside my commitment to improving outcomes for all, I have been curious to consider why I am so passionate about improving outcomes particularly for children from disadvantaged backgrounds and even more specifically, those from BME disadvantaged backgrounds. As a mixed-race female born in the mid-sixties, brought up in rural Wiltshire in care for 18 years and leaving school with no qualifications, I fall into the category of BME disadvantaged. Yet despite these disadvantages and being at risk of failure to achieve a fulfilled life with almost limitless opportunities that has not been my story.  I have a professional career that has flourished and consequently been afforded a fulfilled life. My curiosity of this has led me to further interrogate my ontological values and in the immediate future I intend to, by using others’ educational living theories, build on my epistemology of these to discover my own.

I am finding my own voice, so this initial account of my journey through being a leader I share some emerging themes and theories. I will introduce you to some of my generalisations and values which have often guided and influenced me.

Most recently, I joined a BME aspiring and established school leaders’ group in Bristol, funded by the DfE. There are approximately 12 participants, all based in Bristol, except for me, each with different ambitions and leadership journeys, united by the belief that our ambition and our desire to collectively study  and pursue a dialectic discourse considering the plight of BME leaders will lead us to being empowered by the synergy of the group and limitless opportunities.  I am developing ways of my voice and that of my new found peers being recognised and used as a vehicle for change. It is believed that the group emerged because of a disparity in the number of of BME leaders in education against their white British counterparts and the government’s desire to address this. As Theresa May’s government in 2016 commissioned a Race Disparity Audit with a premise to address any obvious disparity, (Green, 2017)

We believe that how far you go in life should be based on your talent and how hard you work – and nothing else. That was the ambition set out by the Prime Minister on the steps of Downing Street in July 2016, and it remains this Government’s abiding mission to tackle burning injustices.

Meeting this challenge requires taking a hard look at how people of all ethnic groups are treated across our public services. Britain has come a long way in spreading equality and opportunity, but we want to go further. p3.

Moreover, the most recent set of government workforce data on ethnicity illustrates that mixed black or black Caribbean or black African headteachers are firmly in the minority in schools.  According to the DfE’s 2020 data release (Department for Education: School teacher workforce, 2020) (Department for Education Schools, pupils and their characteristics: 2020[PS1]).

With a working population of this ethnic group at 4.4%, with 2.7% being teachers and 1.3% of England’s 21,261 state funded schools being headteachers. This is compared to 78.5% of the working population in England being White British and 85.9% of all teachers being white British, and 92.9% of headteachers in England’s state funded schools being white British.

This data illustrates there are approximately 276 mixed black or black Caribbean or black African headteachers among England’s 21,261. If the number of headteachers was comparable to the number of mixed black or black Caribbean or black African working population in England the figure should be closer to 935. This compares to 19,751 white British headteachers. Again, if the working population of this ethnicity of 78.5% was fairly represented among headteachers, the figure would be closer to 16,689. Therefore, this data would suggest that as a mixed black school leader in England I am privileged to sit at this table. So with a difference of -1.7% between the England’s mixed black or black Caribbean or black African, working population and teacher population and a -3.1% difference for the same group being headteachers compared to +7.4% difference between the white British working population and teacher population and a 14.4.% difference between the working population and the headteacher population, I ask an initial question, how am I able to sit at the table to change the norms in an activist way?

I have often reflected on this. Why am I sitting at the table of leaders when there are just 276 of us in England’s 22,000+ schools? I have walked out of at least 28 recent interviews and waited for the outcome phone call, knowing that my skillset and ambitions were a strong fit, but being told later that day that I was wrong. When I was right, it felt it was as a consequence of people not viewing the colour of my skin as a barrier to success. Among the comments I received as to why I didn’t get the job included, ‘your presentation wasn’t a good fit, you didn’t visit the school and among my favourite you went over by 5 minutes in your assembly for the children.’

Knowing the odds of  gaining a leadership role were against me and knowing that 100% of the interview panels were white, I needed the panel members to be aware of the nuances  I was able to capitalise on as an experienced headteacher first and secondly a mixed black headteacher and for them to begin to understand the advantages of fairly considering a BME leader in their school or institution. Equally, I needed to get better at reading which of my white counterparts I could initially wholly align with, as each rejection caused me pain.

In Paul Miller’s White Sanction (Miller, 2016) he states that

Several of the participants expressed that white colleagues were like ‘gatekeepers’, and there was no way you could get a job without first impressing and/or forming an alliance with them. I have termed the situation of having to gain endorsement for progression and promotion from white colleagues as ‘white sanction’. p 212.

Suggesting that without the sanction of my white counterparts to appoint me,  I would keep hearing no not today as the outcome from my interview. I would, as necessary, have to align my understanding of cultural norms with theirs, as well as demonstrate that I had the ambitions, professional skillset and necessary pedagogy to go the miles with them.

When I have sat at the table I have got on with the job, not referencing the need for the profession to change or become aware of the need to address the disparity that blacks face until about 6 months in. I then often become vocal, pointing subtle differences out, sharing my stories and setting about change. For me in my current leadership role where I am not line managing anyone, but simply holding people to account for the delivery of their role, I cannot deliver on the practices that have made a difference to the communities as I did as a headteacher. As a headteacher I could influence parents, governors, teachers, support staff pupils and local partners and make the plight of the disadvantaged known and then together seek to redress the inequalities many faced. I would simply follow a recipe – awareness followed by action. For example, I would in my first year use Black History month as  a tool for raising an awareness of  and celebrate black people internationally, nationally and locally then in November for Armistice Day, I would use stories of black service members and my family or of BME people that I knew. In November, December and January I would ensure that the school’s children, including those from all faiths, understood and celebrated the key festivals and told stories through drama to parents and the wider communities – Diwali, Eid, Christmas and Chinese New Year.  I would challenge stereotypes and behaviours relating to our biases, often bringing in outside coaches and mentors, with my staff and with my community and sensitively develop a dialectic discourse to set about significant and innovative change.

In the 2nd year I would write these key events and historical moments into the curriculum. In my 3rd year I would share with my neighbouring partners our journey of curriculum development that included BME specific references and focus etc. When I was appointed into the role of leader for the local authority, I remember one of my first thoughts was as I looked at the calendar of events, I won’t be able to sell the stories of black people to children and staff anymore. The first race relations act in the UK was in 1965, and much legislation and laws have been implemented to ensure that the BME population in the UK is included. Yet I still feel that it is my duty and often only my duty to raise awareness. Because despite the fact I have led the way, when I have left the community, the mantle upon which the plight of BME’s was often shared and celebrated, often became obsolete.

References to date

Department for Education 2019. Black Caribbean Ethnic Group: Facts And Figures. Age profile. [online] UK Government, pp.1.2. Available at: <https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/ethnicity-facts-and-figures-black-caribbean-ethnic-group/black-caribbean-ethnic-group-facts-and-figures#population> [Accessed 1 April 2020].

Department for Education: School teacher workforce, 2020. School Teacher Workforce. London: UK Government, p.2. By ethnicity.

Green, D., 2017. Race Disparity Audit. [online] Assets.publishing.service.gov.uk. Available at: <https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/686071/Revised_RDA_report_March_2018.pdf> [Accessed 5 April 2020].

Miller, P., 2016. ‘White sanction’, institutional, group and individual interaction in the promotion and progression of black and minority ethnic academics and teachers in England. Power and Education, 8(3), pp.205-221.