December 2014


  • re:SEND
    Richard Newton Chance explores how the calculation of funding for special needs education is changing as the system moves from statements to education, health and care plans (EHCPs). More
  • Tackling Inequality
    Carolyn Roberts wonders why inequality persists when it comes to recruiting leaders and offers some ideas regarding how to tackle the barriers still faced by key groups More
  • Rethinking post-16 advice
    Changes to AS and A levels are creating a minefield when it comes to advising students on post-16 options. Tim Miller outlines the issues and some possible solutions. More
  • Meducation
    Chronic health conditions can permanently damage a young person’s educational chances without the right support. Libby Dowling looks at the policies, training and other measures schools need to think about under a new legal duty. More
  • Impact is what counts
    Workload pressures in schools are exacerb ated by the often arbitrary demands of ‘compliance’, says Brian Lightman. The government needs to recognise the fact and take a grown-up approach to accountability and inspection. More
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Carolyn Roberts wonders why inequality persists when it comes to recruiting leaders and offers some ideas regarding how to tackle the barriers still faced by key groups.

Tackling Inequality

I’m a third-generation teacher. My grandmother, born in 1901, was the child of a shipyard foreman and a domestic servant. Clever, she passed the test for the grammar school in Jarrow (Tyne and Wear) and became a pupil teacher and then a certified one, earning her own living up to the end of the 1920s, when she was forced to abandon her career because she got married.

My own mother was well educated and her father hoped that she’d go to university in 1951. She chose to go South to the City of Leeds Training College (a teacher training college) and did a two-year teaching certificate, qualifying at about the same time that women teachers started to be paid the same as men. She worked as a primary school teacher for 40-odd years in Teesside. My friends’ mothers in the 1970s didn’t work and I was proud of her career. Married twice, she wasn’t told to stop until she was 65.

Born in 1961, I did go to university. I’ve taught all over the place and picked up qualifications at two more universities. I chose not to work when my children were tiny and was a head by 40. No one has ever shown the slightest interest in whether I was married or not.

Some progress made? My story does not necessarily scale up. The November 2013 workforce census shows that while 73.6 per cent of teachers are women, 52.6 per cent of deputy and assistant heads are male and 63.6 per cent of heads. Male heads tend to be younger; there are 200 aged less than 40 compared to 100 female heads. There are also more men among leaders at the older end of the scale: 200 male heads and 200 deputy or assistant heads are aged more than 60. There were no records of female heads aged more than 60.

Where are the women?

What’s happening to the women? Well, they’re favoured as heads of girls’ schools, but it’s harder to get the big chair in a mixed or boys’ school. Women are more likely to be heads in London and other cities and less likely to be heads in shire counties.

It gets worse if you look at other inequalities. Only 2.8 per cent of male heads and 4.9 per cent of male deputy or assistant heads are from a black and minority ethnic (BME) background. For female heads, the figures are 3.5 per cent and 5.2 per cent. Most of the post-holders are in London. The British population is about 14 per cent black or minority ethnic. Something’s not working. What may it be?

A National College for Teaching and Leadership (NCTL) study in 2008 identified a series of barriers for women and BME people seeking senior positions. It makes depressing reading. Women said that:

  • they felt they had to justify themselves as female leaders
  • they were identified with caring roles in schools, which are less prestigious in an outcome-led system
  • they are still asked questions about family commitments in interviews
  • there are fewer useful role models and little special support for women’s career development
  • the shouty, super-confident hero head role model demanding 25 hours a day is off-putting

Black and minority ethnic colleagues said that:

  • they self-exclude by feeling not good enough, underpinned by lack of encouragement
  • negative experiences of application and recruitment processes put them off
  • exclusion from or inability to get on to training disadvantages them
  • additional skills, such as being bilingual, seem to marginalise career progression
  • slow routes to promoted posts are suggested to BME teachers, while others are informally mentored or ‘fast-tracked’

National College research in 2005 had found that black and minority ethnic teachers:

  • assume leadership positions at an older age than teachers who are white
  • experience greater difficulties if they’ve been educated or employed outside Britain
  • are less likely to be geographically mobile, limiting their promotion potential
  • experience racism from senior managers, middle leaders, colleagues, LEAs, parents and governors, sufficiently widespread to raise concerns about institutional racism
  • recommend equality and diversity training be part of leadership development for all staff
  • want support strategies, including mentoring and role model development
  • do not favour positive discrimination but do wish to see negative discrimination eliminated

Most BME leaders work in multi-ethnic schools but the ethnic balance of the staff does not match that of the pupils. In summary? A female, black deputy head may just about get to be head of a girls’ school in London, if she’s lucky and very, very experienced.

‘Vetting’ partners

That’s as long as she can prove that her private life is up to scratch, of course. Bizarrely, some governing bodies still try to meet the partners of prospective heads during the ‘informal’ interview process. Why? What are they looking for? That you can only write policies and develop a vision into the early hours if you have someone of the opposite gender to warm your metaphorical pipe and slippers? The law is the law and having a private life cannot endanger employment.

The research is depressing, but perhaps it is out of date. Unfortunately, the reformed National College doesn’t have the follow-up study. It is more worrying to think that, due to the changes in school provision and school commissioning, we may not have the same united commitment to schools modelling and creating a society that’s better, fairer and happier for all.

We need to act so that our young people know that all the doors in the world are open to them, and so that we uphold the spirit and letter of our liberal, largely enlightened laws. Here are some suggestions to get us started:

  1. Education is a public service. People should obey the law. No interview panel can ask questions about people’s home circumstances and private lives or seek to scrutinise their partners. Whistles should be blown on such governing bodies.
  2. Teachers’ career structures are pretty simple. It’s easy to see whether someone has the experience for a post. Anyone who meets the person specifi cation should be interviewed.
  3. Professionals have the freedom to organise their own working habits outside the school day. They need to be given the freedom to do so. What have we achieved if a service based on helping young people makes it impossible to combine work and family?
  4. A great school is a model of a better society. That’s impossible if leadership is denied to part of that society. What kind of example are we setting young people?
  5. Hero-head cults help no one. Leadership, like our schools, should be based on the solid principles of selflessness, honesty, openness, objectivity, integrity and accountability. We get the big salaries for those, not for talking about how brilliant we are.

We need a change in discourse if we are to get past this and make the world a better place. Any improvements in schools over recent years won’t have served our young people if young women, young black and minority ethnic people, and young LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people think that challenging and worthwhile career paths are closed to them. Our young people understand about equality and we should live up to their standards. Employment law protects us all and we need to use it scrupulously.

This is political correctness gone not nearly far enough.

For more details about any of the information used within this feature, see:

  • National College for School Leadership Tomorrow’s Leaders Today: A Guide to Achieving Equality and Diversity in School and Children’s Centre Leadership
  • National statistics: School workforce in England: November 2013
  • Black and Minority Ethnic Leaders: Final Report to the National College for School Leadership

Carolyn Roberts is Headteacher at Thomas Tallis School in London and ASCL Honorary Secretary.

Overcoming inequalities

We are looking at ways in which we can help colleagues in schools and colleges to overcome any barriers when it comes to equalities. Our newly appointed Leadership and Teacher Professionalism Specialist, Carol Jones, will help us to develop this agenda and our newly formed leadership and governance committee at ASCL Council will drive future developments. Together we will aim to make leadership within education accessible and fair for all.We welcome ideas on how to take this forward. Please send your suggestions to If you would like any advice or guidance on any equalities-related issues, call the ASCL hotline on 0116 299 1122. All calls will be dealt with in confidence.