‘There is absolutely systemic racism’: BAME headteachers share their views | Race

Josephine Okokon, head of St Martins-in-the-Field high school for girls, London

My race became an issue very early in my career as a teacher and I began to discover these subtle, covert barriers. I was often the only female teacher of colour and I soon began to see the white teachers getting more encouragement, more support and more mentoring than me. I was left to fend for myself.

Whenever I tried to put myself forward for promotion, I was told that I needed more experience but I’d look at the white teachers who had moved up and think, they’ve got the same, if not slightly less experience than me.

I always had to go over and above to show that I could do the job well. But even though I worked so hard, I still had to keep moving to different schools to make sure I didn’t get stuck.

It’s been incredibly frustrating and disappointing but I’ve taken pay cuts to get out of schools where I was told that I “didn’t fit the mould” or when I’ve found myself pushed towards pastoral roles instead of the academic route.

As I gradually worked my way up, I found that if there was any multicultural mix in the school at all, it stopped at the middle leadership. After that level, school governors are the ones making the recruitment decisions.

The only jobs I ever got at senior leadership level were when the governor panels were diverse: I never got the job if the panel was all-white – which almost all of the panels were. I sat in front of panel after panel of white men, hearing in their questions and the tone they used towards me that they couldn’t perceive that a black woman could do the job.

I began to be very strategic with my applications. I researched 26 deputy head jobs but, after visiting the schools and speaking with the senior leadership teams, there were only six I felt I even stood a chance of getting – purely because of my skin colour.

It was worse for headship roles. I looked at 23 jobs and, after researching each one, felt there were just four where my application would have been welcomed. I was offered two of those roles.

Funmi Alder, head of Bearwood primary school, Berkshire

Funmi Alder
Funmi Alder. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

There is absolutely systemic racism in the teaching profession, which makes it very hard to progress in your career. I know a disproportionate number of very good teachers of colour who would make amazing headteachers but seem to be stuck in middle leadership posts.

It doesn’t become easier when you become a headteacher. If anything, your position becomes more precarious because the higher you go, the more people have a problem with taking direction from those who don’t look like them. This is why new black headteachers have to work much harder than their white counterparts in developing relationships with staff with the sad reality being, that some will never accept you.

I’ve done my own research and found a disproportionate number of cases where a board of governors has decided to get rid of a perfectly competent black headteacher, perhaps because the area is gentrifying and they think a white head will attract a different class of parent. Governors are enormously powerful and largely unchecked. If they want to get rid of a head, they can.

I’ve also spoken to a lot of heads of colour who have decided to move on because the governors have made their position so uncomfortable. I know of cases where the heads have chosen to leave despite having really good Ofsted reports, because the governors have made ill-founded criticisms then gone off on fishing expeditions among the teaching staff, to find other faults to lay at the head’s door. The problem is that these heads have had to sign non-disclosure agreements, so they’re not allowed to talk about it.

Anne Hamilton, headteacher at the Evelina hospital school, London

Anne Hamilton
Anne Hamilton. Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

When I was doing my national professional qualification for headship (NPQH), my mentor – a white head – told me she didn’t know where I could get a headship. Now, why did this white woman imply that I would never be a head? I had got on to this prestigious course and she had been chosen as my mentor. It was her role to give me everything I needed to do a good job when I became a head, not to tell me to give up.

If I’d listened to her, I would still be a deputy head instead of a head entering her 10th year with a number of outstanding Ofsted reports behind her. Even as things were, it took me at least 15 years longer to be a head than it would have done, had I not been black.

When I was a teacher, the leadership of every school I taught in, bar one, was entirely white – as was the teaching staff. I found this meant my voice wasn’t heard when discussions about the school were made and I wasn’t offered the opportunities to progress in my career that my caucasian teacher peers were.

I had to keep moving schools to move up and avoid becoming like so many colleagues of colour, who have got stuck as teachers when their ambition was to go further.

Becoming a head hasn’t been the end of the problems. I’m convinced my race has a big part to play in that.

It’s never explicit racism but as a person of colour, I’m attuned to the micro-aggressions: the signs of the lack of respect, the lack of trust. The subtle undermining, challenging, second-guessing and constant questioning. The requirement for me to apply pressure to get anything done.

Ross Ashcroft, headteacher, Cherry Oak primary school, Birmingham

Ross Ashcroft
Ross Ashcroft. Photograph: Andrew Fox/The Guardian

One clear example of unconscious bias is the number of times I have turned up to greet a visitor in reception in a suit and tie, and they presume I’m a teaching assistant.

Almost every non-white leader of education I know, has had the same experience numerous times. But I don’t know of a single white leader in education who has ever been mistaken for a teaching assistant; not once.

I’ve been accused many times of being too aggressive, when I know that I haven’t been but that it’s an easy racial slur to throw at a person of colour. I’ve even had an executive head say to me, when I didn’t agree with him about something, “This is why your kind don’t make it in leadership roles.”

Going for headship interviews as a candidate of colour is a difficult and upsetting experience. I’ve often been told that I didn’t get the job because the governing board said I “wasn’t the best fit” or that “they weren’t sure whether they could work with me” despite me scoring top marks in all the tasks and having no areas identified for improvement in the interviews.

I’ve spent pretty much my whole career in pastoral, behavioural and safeguarding. It wasn’t what I necessarily wanted but being nudged or pushed towards these specialisms is a common theme among teachers of colour, especially black men. I can only assume that’s because BAME men are inherently thought of as being intimidating and confrontational. It means we often end up being glorified bouncers rather than teachers.

Because we’re given these non-academic specialisms, the knock-on effect is that we can hit a brick wall when applying for headships because most senior leadership roles require specialist experience in curriculum areas.

Appearance is also a hard one for teachers of colour. Very early in my career I was asked by my manager if I thought having canerows in my hair was “appropriate or professional”. These were professionally done, in straight lines and not patterned. I asked another member of staff who was also a teacher, with bright pink hair, a nose piercing and several visible tattoos, if management had ever asked her about professionalism. She said that they hadn’t, ever.

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