‘Recruitment and retention of teachers from diverse backgrounds shouldn’t be like pouring sand through a sieve’

Penny Rabiger, education researcher, BAMEed Network co-founder and Bett Advisory Board member, on racial equality in the teacher workforce

Recruiting teachers with racial equality in mind isn’t just a numbers game or about representation alone. To address under-representation and career progression in the teaching profession by Black, Asian and Global Majority heritage staff, we need to first be completely clear about a number of stark truths.

Teaching is majority white

The NfER’s recent report on racial equality in the teacher workforce shows, yet again, what we already know – that there is significant under-representation of people from Asian, Black, dual heritage and other ethnic minority backgrounds within the teaching profession. Teachers from Black, Asian and Global Majority backgrounds have been marginalised in a system that seems to have changed little since the 1980s, back when the Swann Report identified that ethnic minorities were underrepresented in teaching.

What is striking in this latest report from NfER is the fact that people from ethnic minority backgrounds are clearly keen to become teachers, and are over-represented in Initial Teacher Training (ITT) applications, yet, at all stages thereafter, numbers decline. From acceptance onto the courses, to enrolment, achieving QTS, right through to becoming middle and senior leaders and headteachers, the trajectory points steadily downwards. White candidates, however, are significantly overrepresented at all stages of this career journey, except, significantly, at entry to ITT, and remain so consistently.

Unless there is simply coincidence at play here, or there is something inherently deficient in people of colour’s ability to deliver when it comes to training to be a teacher, and subsequently progressing professionally, we must examine the structural reasons why these trends persist. The simple fact is, improving ‘diversity’ by investing efforts in attracting people of colour to the profession is like pouring sand through a sieve if we don’t change the biases and structural racism which creates and maintains teaching as a white profession, and one which actively locks out teachers of colour at every stage.

Initial teacher training is where it starts

A recent DfE survey, revealed that only 53% of newly qualified teachers, six months into their first post, felt well-prepared to teach pupils “from all ethnic backgrounds” and only 39% felt well-prepared to teach pupils who use English as an additional language. Preparing teachers for multicultural Britain has been removed from ITT curricular since the 1990s, in favour of more technicist teaching approaches geared towards curriculum ‘delivery’ models.

We desperately need to ensure that teachers understand how society works, including concepts such as socialisation, power structures, structural inequity and inequality-by-design. Teaching, once regarded as a political act, has been neutralised to ‘curriculum delivery’, memory recall, and accountability to a marketised schooling system where children are regarded as assets or risks to schools’ position on the league tables.

Teaching and teacher education has a mandated ‘race’-evasive approach, even when it does purport to be the great leveller for social inequity. The Teach First manifesto to end educational inequality is a spectacular specimen of this approach. It fails to analyse how inequalities are socially constructed and operationalised, as it stumbles through some of the most used ‘tools of whiteness’ to evade ‘race’. The manifesto talks of potential as a finite entity and fails to acknowledge that far from being neutral, many of our current education processes create and reproduce inequalities, are high stakes, obsessed with labels, segregating, and creating hierarchies.

Most worrying is that Teach First, an organisation which made bold declarations around race equity over the course of the last two years, fails to connect the dots, including in its manifesto an entire section on supporting leaders from underrepresented backgrounds without once mentioning ‘race’, structural or institutional racism or what anti-racist practice might look like. This is hardly surprising perhaps given the tightrope this organisation must walk between being the government stars of teacher training. This is the same government insisting that racism is a thing of the past in the UK through the much-derided Sewell Report on race disparities which has released teacher impartiality guidance openly attacking schools’ commitment to antiracism education and practice as ‘political’ and ‘personal opinion’.

There are pockets of hope, however. The recently launched Anti-Racist Framework for ITT/E has been developed by Professor Heather Smith, Professor Vini Lander and Marsha Garratt in partnership with a number of leading organisations concerned with race equity in the education sector, including the NEU, CREDand The BAMEed Network. This collaborative project has generated new data and evidence for this research-informed anti-racism framework for Initial Teacher Education/Training, including PGCE and SCITT courses, in England.

How do we recruit teachers from Global Majority backgrounds better?

In the meantime, some schools do want to do better when it comes to attracting, recruiting and retaining teachers of colour in their ranks. For a campaign to ‘recruit for diversity’ to be successful, it’s worth taking an honest look at your organisational bias, and seeing why it may not yet be friendly to all humans. This is important because the last thing you want to do is recruit new people from more diverse backgrounds than you are accustomed to, only for it to be experienced as a hostile environment lacking the self-awareness to understand why only certain people will be able to thrive there.

To do this, you will need to commit some time and budget. You may benefit from some outside help to set the strategy with you, but you must carry out any work on this, as part of a committed whole-school learning process, even when you do have external support. You will need to commit time to reading, re-educating yourselves and un-learning some practices you have always considered normal. It is also important to have an educated grasp on what systemic racism is, and not frame racism as many schools do, as just dwelling in notable incidents and overt acts of racist abuse. The BAMEed Network has a wealth of free resources to help you, including recordings of the recent presentations delivered at The Bett Show earlier in the year. These cover issues such as identity and belonging, racial literacy, and developing psychological safety for Black and Global Majority staff in schools.

Other solutions which may be of interest are tools to identify and track where and how racial bias is holding your organisation back and ethical recruitment platforms which help to prevent bias from sabotaging the drive to improve diversity. Be warned, though: the mark of an organisation committed to change and anti-racism may be one that once you have learned to see structural racism, you see it everywhere. This can often be the marker of the shift from being ‘not racist’ to being ‘anti-racist’. Change takes commitment and time.

You might also like: How to recruit and retain the best teachers

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