School leadership is getting more diverse - but not quickly enough

By Julie McCulloch
ASCL Director of Policy 

The role that school and college leaders, teachers and support staff play in our society is crucial. They shape the lives and futures of children and young people directly through the work they do, but also indirectly through the people they are. They are a daily representation of the adult world we are preparing young people to enter.  

Few jobs offer such a tangible opportunity to model to young people what they might aspire to do and be. But what do our pupils see, when they look at the adults standing at the front of the classroom, or on the stage during assembly, or walking the corridors at lunchtime? 

For too many children and young people, what they see in front of them is very different from what they see when they look in the mirror. What does a 14-year-old girl, for example, take from the fact that, while around two thirds of her teachers are female, only around a third of secondary heads are women? What message are we giving to the third of school-age students who come from an ethnic minority background when they see that only 15% of teachers come from similar backgrounds, and only 7% of heads? Are we doing enough to support teachers and leaders to be open about their own sexual orientation – if they wish to be?

ASCL has been involved in discussions and actions around equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) in school and college leadership for many years. We’ve worked with grassroots organisations supporting women, BAME or LGBT leaders. We’ve organised and attended EDI workshops at the Department for Education, and signed up to the DfE’s ‘statement of intent’ on improving the diversity of the teaching workforce. And of course, as a trade union, we’ve supported members to tackle discrimination and unfair treatment. 

The situation is improving – but not quickly enough. Research from the University of Nottingham suggests that, at the current rate of progress, women will remain under-represented among secondary heads for another 20 years. The number of BAME leaders is slowly growing, but the slope to genuine representation is vertiginous. And too many barriers remain for LGBT teachers wishing to progress into leadership roles. 

There are no easy answers. But there is more, we believe, that we can do. This year, ASCL is putting a particular focus on what we can and should do, as a trade union and professional association, to promote equality, diversity and inclusion among school and college leaders. We are concentrating in first instance on the protected characteristics of sex, race and sexual orientation, but hope that this work will also have wider resonance. 

Diverse leadership is the key theme of our 2019/20 President, Rachael Warwick, and of our 2020 Annual Conference. The conference will bring together a brilliant range of keynote speakers, including England rugby world cup winner and commentator Maggie Alphonsi, poet and broadcaster Lemn Sissay, and senior firefighter Dr Sabrina Cohen-Hatton. And we are working with partner organisations on a set of workshops covering topics such as workplace culture, flexible working, empowered leadership and resilience. 

Outside of the conference, we are looking at other ways in which we can encourage and promote diverse leadership. We’re producing guidance for school and college leaders on topics such as best practice recruitment, creating an inclusive workplace culture, and identifying and nurturing talented people from under-represented groups into leadership. We’re developing training, coaching and mentoring for and about diverse leaders. We’re collecting and sharing case studies of people working flexibly in leadership roles. 

And we’re trying to do all of this in a spirit of humility, recognising that ASCL as an organisation has by no means got all of this right. The briefest of looks at our Leadership Group, or our Council members, shows that we have a long way to go to achieve the diverse leadership and governance within in our own organisation that we want to see across the system. Our EDI plan also includes a range of actions that we will be taking ourselves to address this – to walk the walk, as well as talk the talk.  

We’ve been hugely heartened by the response to this work as we’ve started to talk about it over the last few months. We believe we’re pushing at an open door, albeit one that’s pretty damned heavy. Collectively, we think we can push that door open, create new opportunities for talented people to take on the mantle of school leadership, and show every child or young person what they could achieve.

Posted: 16/12/2019 10:08:14