How do we create, sustain and encourage diversity in school leadership? Tracey Leese sets out strategies that will help to nurture and broaden the range of our school leaders of tomorrow…

At the start of every academic year, I can’t help but reflect on the beginning of my own teaching career. Sixteen years ago, there is no doubt that the cultural landscape in the profession was different. In my induction period at least, the notions of wellbeing and mentoring were a long way behind the experiences of the Early Career Teachers I work with today.

Also different was the way in which I perceived leadership. Rather than the manageable and accessible opportunity to influence students’ life chances I now know it to be, leadership seemed elitist, distant and essentially something of which I wasn’t worthy or capable. The opportunity to lead felt like something which was allocated by virtue of time served rather than on merit. To me, starting out in the profession felt like being on the bottom rung of a very long ladder, at the top of which was a modest TLR and a few extra non-contact periods (if you’re lucky).

Fast forward to 2022 and a profession-wide teacher recruitment crisis has renegotiated what leadership means and brought its impact into sharper focus. School leadership has never mattered more. It matters to the students, parents, teachers and the community beyond the gates. Effective school leadership transforms students’ lives and serves a key function in our society as a whole.

However, recruiting effective leaders is a hard job and is getting even harder each year as the recruitment crisis within the profession continues unabated. The need for succession planning at leadership level is becoming a time-sensitive priority. As a profession we cannot afford to wait for teachers to organically evolve into leaders, we need to proactively identify the leaders of the future and invest in them urgently to ensure that schools continue to be well-led.

“The need for succession planning at leadership level is becoming a time-sensitive priority.”

It is not just about the number of leaders though. In spite of the magnificent work of organisations like #WomenEd we still need more female leaders in our schools, as well as more diversity at leadership level. According to data from the Department for Education’s School Workforce in England survey in 2019, 92.7% of headteachers in the UK were white British, and of the female headteachers (the number of which are disproportionate to the number of women in the profession) were white British.

Furthermore, according to data from NAHT’s Closing the Gender Pay Gap published December 2021, by the age of 60 male headteachers earn £17,334 more than female headteachers. We also don’t retain female teachers who are statistically most likely to leave the profession between the ages of 30 and 39, surely not a coincidence that this coincides with the age at which women are most likely to have started a family. As a profession we seem to be aware of the lack of diversity, but translating this into action is key and is ultimately our collective responsibility.

And although this representation at decision making and policy level is playing catch-up, we as teachers are not powerless to affect change. There is plenty that leaders at all levels – including department heads, pastoral leads and ECT mentors – can do within their own institutions to champion and nurture potential future leaders, including those with protected characteristics, in all sorts of ways.

Role model it:

The easiest way for school leaders to promote leadership is to make it look both achievable and enjoyable. To ‘wear leadership lightly’ and find the joy amongst the pressure and privilege. Positive interactions, frequent small-scale celebrations and humour all go a long way in terms of creating school culture. Leaders set the climate of any school and remaining outwardly upbeat is key to making leadership look appealing to the masses

Communicate it:

Begin by telling your talented ECTs that they have leadership potential, it’s easy to assume that this is a given, but not teachers see themselves as potential leaders. In the fast-paced world of teaching (not to mention the myriad demands of the Early Career Framework) it can often be unsaid that an ECT is brilliant and therefore capable of leading. Frame your lesson feedback and mentor meetings with this in mind and direct staff to the relevant NPQ or other relevant CPD as soon as they’re eligible.

Dissenting voices:

Sometimes school SLTs consist of leaders who think in similar ways, and though shared values within a school are obviously key, it’s my experience that the more a team disagrees, the better they perform. Different perspectives informed by different life experiences will ensure that decisions and policy are richer, more authentic and more likely to bring about the level of integrity the profession demands. Actively looking to appoint teachers and leaders who are diverse is undoubtedly a worthwhile move.

Check your metric:

Something to consider when appointing into leadership posts is the criteria used to shortlist. Prioritising applicants is often a process loaded with unconscious bias which unintentionally rewards an applicant’s privilege. This is problematic because this fails to address the fact that potential leaders (specifically those with protected characteristics) may have already encountered disadvantage. The most dynamic and brilliant leaders may not necessarily be the obvious choice on paper.

“The most dynamic and brilliant leaders may not necessarily be the obvious choice on paper.”

Invest accordingly:

Truly great leadership doesn’t just happen. Leadership coaching (funded or otherwise) can reap huge rewards as it really will up-skill staff in the often-underrated soft skills of leadership. Skills such as empathy, conflict resolution and creative thinking. This level of investment is well worth the outlay in terms of the possible outcomes on school culture and students.

Early in my career it was common to undertake a leadership role unpaid in order to prove yourself worthy of a TLR, however the current teacher shortage makes this now impractical as certainly good Early Career teachers know their value and worth and goodwill now seems to have a price! Schools wishing to retain such talent will need to invest both time and money or risk losing skilled and dynamic staff.

Represent:

In our schools, our curriculum, our role models and the voices we amplify say a lot about who belongs. Ensuring that the school prioritises diversity as much as it prioritises academic rigour, will contribute to creating a culture in which teachers (and students) feel not just accepted but celebrated. Looking at your student leadership and role models through the lens of diversity is also incredibly worthwhile.

Ultimately, education is about inspiration and empowerment. We know the value of small victories and marginal gains because we chase them in the classroom in the knowledge that a far bigger win will follow. If we each make building diversity within our own institutions a priority, this would soon add up to the seismic change the profession needs; and who leads within our schools is a great place to start.

Further reading:

Diverse Educators, Edited by Hannah Wilson University of Buckingham Press (2022)

www.diverseeducators.co.uk

10% Braver, Edited by Keziah Featherstone and Vivienne Porritt SAGE publishing (2019)

Being 10% Braver, Edited by Keziah Featherstone and Vivienne Porritt SAGE publishing (2020)

www.womened.org

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