It was a Friday evening in spring last year and headteacher Evelyn Forde had arrived at the Association of School and College Leaders’ (ACSL) annual conference dinner in Birmingham. To her surprise, the table she had reserved was already occupied by another woman and her group.
“I said I had reserved the table. The lady said to me: ‘Are you sure?’ I said: ‘My colleagues are on their way. They’ll be here soon.’ And then she said: ‘Oh, I’m sorry! I thought you worked here.’
“It totally blew my mind,” says Forde, headteacher of Copthall girls’ school in Barnet. “I looked round the room, and I can’t tell you how many non-white faces there were, but it wasn’t many. The majority of the people who were serving us were young black people.”
When Forde told senior members of the association what had happened, they suggested she stand for a place on its national council to support its efforts to improve diversity among school leaders.
The association’s 2019-20 president, Rachael Warwick, had already identified this as an area of concern and will make it a key focus of the next year.
As Forde surmised at the conference dinner, the initiative is overdue. New figures obtained by the Guardian though a freedom of information request show that while there has been a rise in the proportion of teachers from black and minority ethnic backgrounds (BAME), the proportion in senior positions remains much lower.
The figures show that in outer London, where Copthall school is, 38% of teachers were from a BAME background in 2018 compared with just 25% of senior school leaders, including deputy and assistant headteachers and heads. In inner London, 44% were BAME compared with 31% of senior leaders.
Across England, the proportions are lower but the picture similar – 14% of teachers are now from an ethnic minority background compared with 9% of senior leaders.
In a typical multi-academy trust in London, the freedom of information response suggests just under 76% of its leaders are white British. The figure across Greater London as a whole is just over 72%.
Warwick now plans to make advances in equality and diversity a key plank of her ASCL leadership, with a focus on ethnicity and sexual orientation. She recognises Forde’s concerns. “We want to get our own house in order,” she says. “It’s a hard nut to crack, and the statistics haven’t improved for some time in terms of the representation of headteachers, in particular.”
Moves such as blind shortlisting of candidates for jobs could help, she suggests, but retention is also a major issue: although far more ethnic minority teachers are joining the profession than before, there is evidence they are more likely than white British entrants to leave in the first five years.
“It would be naive to think there isn’t some unconscious bias in education,” Warwick says. “We need to be aware of it, to work at it and to be explicit about it. When we develop women as leaders we do things that recognise the challenges. So we need to be aware of black and minority ethnic leaders to make sure they have the same opportunity.”
A recent research report for the Department for Education says that between 2010 and 2016 the proportion of primary heads from ethnic minority backgrounds rose from 5% to 7%, while secondary heads increased from 7% to 9%.
The DfE believes that over time, the picture will become more representative as young minority ethnic recruits move up through the system. But Paul Miller, professor of educational leadership and management at the University of Huddersfield, who has advised the government on ethnicity in education, says there are structural barriers: the Equality Act of 2010 has actually made it more difficult for schools to focus on supporting the careers of staff from ethnic minority backgrounds, he believes.
“The Equalities Act says it’s unlawful for any employer to discriminate against anyone on the basis of nine protected characteristics including race, but it also tells you it’s unlawful to take those nine characteristics into account in recruitment or progression. So the act is both a lock and a key,” he says.
For real progress, schools need to be made accountable, he says, through regular monitoring: “Unless it becomes one of their key performance indicators the motivation isn’t going to be there. If schools can use the loophole that the act gives them a to turn a blind eye, they will do nothing.”
Many teachers agree – that in a world driven by targets, things are unlikely to change unless there are carrots and sticks.
Jonathan Doel, a contract teacher who has taught in schools in and around London, says the balance feels wrong in many. “There is an unconscious bias,” he says. “There is institutional racism and that’s just not fair, particularly for the younger people coming through. Education should know better.”
The DfE says its equality and diversity fund, which provides coaching and mentoring for minority ethnic teachers, among others, has helped more than 2,500 teachers to progress up the leadership ladder.
“While we have seen a steady increase in the proportion of teacher trainees from minority ethnic groups in recent years, we recognise there is more we can do,” a spokesman said.
Back at Copthall, a diverse school that draws pupils from a wide area, Forde is determined to be a role model for her pupils as well as on the national stage.
Her own journey was not a conventional one – she dropped out of school in north-west London without qualifications and did not become a teacher until she was 28 and a mother of two – and she talks about that to her sixth formers in the hope that they will see the possibilities open to them.
She has chosen to stay mainly in diverse London. Her first headship, in a very white area of Cambridgeshire, was an uncomfortable experience: “I wasn’t right for it at the level of being a woman and on the level of being a non-white person. When a new chain took over I was happy to move back to London. It kind of pushed me to want to be the head that I knew I could be.”
Now she finds herself offering support to other minority ethnic teachers struggling for promotion. “I get a lot of calls and emails from people saying they’re applying for positions and not getting them, she says. “I do think there’s something deeper going on. What is it that makes people think a black woman, a black person, couldn’t be sitting in a headteachers’ conference?
“We have not smashed that glass ceiling just yet. There’s still inequality in all top jobs. I work on the premise that if I don’t, if we don’t, who will?”