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Diversity in schools – To what extent should you try to ensure your teaching staff is sufficiently diverse?

To what extent should a school’s leadership try to ensure that its teaching staff is sufficiently diverse? Three headteachers share their views with Adam W Hunter...

  • Diversity in schools – To what extent should you try to ensure your teaching staff is sufficiently diverse?

Your school should have a diverse teaching staff. That’s a pledge enshrined in the government’s 2018 Statement of intent on the diversity of the teaching workforce, which talks of wanting to see ‘More women and ethnic minority teachers’ in leadership, and doing ‘more’ for teachers from the LGBT community and those with disabilities.

What national statistics miss, however, are the nuances at play within individual schools, where headteachers must appoint, develop, and empower staff who serve their own distinct community. Every teacher must look at their own school and ask – have we got this right?

I spoke to three London headteachers – Mouhssin Ismail of Newham Collegiate Sixth Form, Katharine Birbalsingh of Michaela Community School and Dominic Bergin of The Elmgreen School – about the diversity challenges they have faced when recruiting and supervising staff.

Cultural capital

“I personally like hiring ethnic minority teachers, just because the kids are 95% ethnic minority,” says Katharine Birbalsingh. “If this were a majority white school, then I might not be concerned. And it would be a bit hard if all the teachers were men, or were women. I suppose I’d go out of my way at that point.”

For Dominic Bergin, having teachers and students who share heritage allows school to be a more relevant and positive experience: “There are such complexities around these communities’ achievements, around their families’ experience of schooling and the rich cultural capital those families have,” he says. “The school should reflect that.”

For these three headteachers, a key consideration is having adults who can share relevant experience, and for students to see role models they can identify with.

“I actually think it’s less important when it comes to their teachers,” Birbalsingh says. “It’s more important that lawyers, doctors, management consultants and so on come and talk to them, so that they can imagine that those paths are also open to them.”

Mouhssin Ismail adds, “It’s important to have a diversity of views and perspectives, because it enriches the conversation. There are some students who don’t think Oxford University is for them.

Part of it is seeing someone who looks like them, but more importantly, it’s seeing someone from a similar background and realising what it’s possible for them to do.”

The be-all and end-all

None of the three, however, have any explicit policy on the make-up of their teaching staff, their sentiments largely echoing each others’. “What’s more important is that they’re being taught by a good teacher,” asserts Birbalsingh.

Similarly, Ismail observes that, “For me, whilst diversity is important, the first thing is having talented people. I think sometimes we can get caught up with diversity for diversity’s sake, and miss out on talented people as a consequence.”

Bergin meanwhile concludes that, “You can’t just throw somebody in, or presume they think [ethnicity] is the be-all and end-all of who they are, because it won’t be. Every person is different.”

Bergin goes on to suggest that governors can often be overtly anxious about diversity among staff, but maintains that it takes time to build the right people, and for those people to come through.

Birbalsingh repeatedly brings the narrative back to her students: “In my earlier days I did surveys with kids, asking whether gender mattered to them, race mattered to them, and so on,” she says.

“Every time, 98% of kids would say they just didn’t care. What they wanted was a good teacher.”

The bigger picture

If it isn’t the demographic make-up of their colleagues, then, what does diversity actually mean to these three headteachers?

“It’s not just about gender or race,” maintains Ismail, “it’s also about socioeconomic background. Social class isn’t talked about much, which is a massive issue in terms of glass ceilings. On another level it’s about diversity of thought. I want people challenging my thinking, because if they don’t, you miss things. Clearly, if you’ve got people with different viewpoints and experiences, you’ll have a more enriching education.”

Birbalsingh, meanwhile, prefers to consider wider societal issues when it comes to maintaining a balanced staff room.

“Too often in education, you can sort of predict what people think – on politics, or the environment, or which newspapers to read,” she says.

“I would find it very difficult to predict what my staff think, and the school tends to attract diverse thinkers. You could have had a different job, come from a working class background, or from the countryside or the city. You want children to be exposed to a real variety of people.”

For Ismail, it’s not necessarily the teacher’s background that matters, as much as their commitment to the young people of Newham. “It is about high expectations,” he says.

“If you have an Oxbridge degree, and you’ve had privilege your whole life, that’s less important than if you have that passion and drive for supporting disadvantaged people getting to Oxford and Cambridge.

“You can say, ‘This is what my peers did when I was growing up, this is what you need to do to bridge that gap.’ I quite like the phrase ‘meritocratic hubris’ – the idea that people get to certain positions supposedly because of their talents alone, but fail to realise it’s also due in large part to other people supporting them.

It’s important to say to young people, ‘Whether you’re from a middle-class background, or you’re white, male or female – they’re all there to support you.’”

Pulling the levers

And yet, individual headteachers will still find themselves faced with certain choices when appointing and promoting staff. All three seem to agree that diversity is important, so I ask what levers, if any, they can pull in matters of recruitment and staff development.

Without an explicit policy being put in pace, the make-up of Bergin’s staff room has nonetheless changed markedly over his seven-year tenure. This is an organic result, he says, of values expressed in “Internal structures, how you advertise and the language you use about the school.”

In Ismail’s view, “It’s still about meritocracy. If there is an area where there isn’t representation, then we encourage more people from a particular group to [apply], if they have the talent and experience. Identifying gaps is one thing; supporting people to think they should be applying is another.”

For Birbalsingh, the issue is a complex one with no correct answer. “It’s never cut and dried. You’re looking for the right fit at that point in time. I would consider diversity, just as I would consider whether I need more presence in the corridors, or stronger organisational skills.”

Teachers must therefore examine their own staff rooms, and consider whether the school truly represents their values, and is ultimately doing as well as it can by the students its care.

Vital statistics

  • According to findings from the Education Policy Institute (2020) and the latest government data, around 35% of secondary teachers are male (around 15% in primary schools) and the number is falling; around two-thirds of headteachers are female
  • Government data from 2019 shows that 85.7% of all teachers (and 92.7% of headteachers) in state-funded schools in England were White British, compared to 78.5% of the working age population in the 2011 Census
  • Reliable data describing other measures of diversity are difficult to find; a TeacherTapp survey of voting behaviour dating from 2019 showed that out of 3,317 respondents, 56% supported Labour, 14% Conservatives, 13% Lib Dems and 5% Greens

Adam W Hunter is a former teacher turned writer, journalist and musician; follow him at @adamwhunter.

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