Why so few black teachers?

Black and minority ethnic (BAME) pupils make up 27% of the school population but just 13% of teachers. Is this a problem and if yes what’s to be bone about it?

I was asked to field questions from the public on the subject on BBC Radio Leeds the day the statistics were published. Many of the them felt that there was no issue; just pick the best person for the job and get on with it. But the ‘best’ is a subjective term, how do we measure it? How much importance is to be attached to providing positive role models for BAME pupils?

“As a young black man” said Nathan Ashman, a secondary school teacher “you look for role models you can relate to and see what kind of jobs Black role models are doing. Teenagers can see black professional sports people they can look up to but when black students consider their influences around the plan for employment they don’t see black teachers teaching them.”

At seven a classmate asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up, I said I wanted to be a teacher, “but there aren’t any black teachers?” she replied. I have never forgotten what she said. I didn’t actually clap eyes on a black teacher until I was sixteen. I almost wanted to go up and touch her to see if she was real.

I never did become a teacher but for seventeen of the last 20 years I have worked in education; training teachers in cultural diversity and providing resources to help them deliver a more inclusive curriculum. It often felt like an uphill struggle. We were often brought in when there was a change in the leadership of a school and the new head wanted to reflect the culture of the pupils in the curriculum. I recall one teacher saying that she would not buy our books because they did not feature white children. I wonder if she considered the impact of books only featuring white children on her multiracial pupils.

Many times black teachers would come up to me privately after a training session and explain how much of that kind of attitude they were up against in their schools where often they were the only non-white teacher. Many had been asked to organise culturally diverse events as a response to their request for a more diverse curriculum. But steel pans and Samosas only go so far and why should it be the job of the only black teacher in the school to educate his or her colleagues on diversity on top of their already full timetable?

Union representative Thelma Crooks says “black teachers come into the profession full of enthusiasm. However young black teachers are sometimes given the worst behaving classes or mainly the bottom sets they often get frustrated and leave. The teachers who make it to middle or senior leadership are sometimes given too much to do with very little mentoring so it feels as if they are set-up to fail

Even the ones who do succeed often do so in the face of overwhelming odds. “Even as a Head now, I experience racism as a matter of course,” says Shazia Azhar MBE. “Sadly new teachers coming through are regularly in touch with me for support because of the negative comments they hear from staff about the BAME children in their schools, lack of promotion opportunities and lack of support from leaders. This is an institutional problem, not yet widely acknowledged but in my opinion impacts on children’s outcomes negatively, year on year.”

The new system of performance related pay brought in by Michael Gove in 2014 has made things worse. BAME teachers appear to be disproportionately failing to be given progression (effectively being denied a pay rise). One teacher was told that their teaching was good but not outstanding and that is why they had not been given a pay rise. This is clearly a statue a breach of the statutory provisions which state that continued good performance should result in progression to the top of the pay scale. Under the guise of austerity, increasingly discriminatory practices in schools have been allowed. The government has removed the statutory requirement for schools to monitor policies and procedures in terms of equality so much of this is going unrecorded.

All the policies implemented so far just haven’t made enough of a difference. Positive discrimination should be used to level an extremely sloping playing field. In the same way that part or all women shortlists have changed the national political gender composition; there should, for example be mandatory representation of BAME teachers on all shortlists. But recruitment is just the start, retention and progression have to be prioritised with more than just lip service.

If we really want young BAME children to feel they have a stake in our society we should demonstrate to them from early years onwards that they are an integral part of it and that includes their seeing teachers representing all parts of society.

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