What does a school leader look like?

Written by: Allana Gay | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The BAMEed Network is aiming to end to under-representation of BAME educators in school leadership. Allana Gay explains

There is an activity where students are asked to draw “what a scientist looks like”. The response is generally an old White man in a lab coat with wild hair shaking test tubes while shouting “Eureka”. The result leads nicely to a discussion about stereotypes and diversity in science.

What if we apply the same principle of investigation then to: “What does a headteacher look like?”

A search engine charged with that task will give you a selection of images, male and female, posing next to billboards, gardens, desks and the like.

There are many permutations of this investigation. For example, “what does a headteacher in a challenging school look like?” or indeed a free school or a grammar school? This shifts the images to more male faces. And an “outstanding/executive headteacher” search brings more mature results.

One thing that doesn’t change through the permutations is the visible singularity of the ethnicity. In short, a headteacher looks White.

The Schools Workforce Census 2015 evidences this idea as around 97 per cent of headteachers identified as having a White background (see table, below). However, the UK is a changing demographic so surely there will be a change in that statistic 10 years from now.

Under-represented: Government statistics show that 6.2 per cent of classroom teachers are not of any White background, but this figure reduces to 4.1 per cent among deputies/assistants and 2.3 per cent among headteachers

Unfortunately, indicators show that change is unlikely to occur as a natural consequence of population change. Consider this: the 6.2 per cent of teachers who are not of any White background will progress to 2.3 per cent of headteachers (comparatively, there are two per cent of headteachers and 1.7 per cent of teachers identifying as White Irish).

So we can conclude that a visibly BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) educator has a significantly lower chance to progress to headship than a non-visibly minority ethnic.

There are many other factors that affect the progression of career. There is no deliberate attempt by education institutions and recruiters nationally to maintain a racial bias in leadership. There is, however, an unconscious bias in the system that has structured an image of leadership qualities, perpetuated across generations, that is now seemingly embedded into stereotypical practice.

Generations of BAME teachers are languishing in the shadow of a singular story. They have moved past the perception of educators that their parents, and perhaps they, have, based on the documented negative experiences of BAME students in schools.

They are trained in a system where there is no one way to teach but many scripts of teaching expectations. They face a lack of social identity as they skirt means of communication, behaviour and appearance to fit in with colleagues.

Then, once in the career, they will spend a large proportion of time trying to acquire and demonstrate the correct cultural behaviours to allow them a place alongside the leaders.

A teaching career disintegrates into a constant professional struggle in which they know they have a worse chance of progress. Worst of all, there is little to no recognition or discussion of the difference in career experiences that comes from a difference in skin colour. To do so is to modify the concept of meritocracy by accepting that for merit to work we all have to start from the same level with an unbiased structure. The profession has not evolved to the point where this concept is acknowledged.

In 2016, a European Study on diversity in the teaching profession cited 2007 NFER data identifying a number of barriers to teaching for Black and minority ethnic (BME) groups, including:

  • Systemic barriers (which also apply to non-minority groups in the teaching profession), such as low salary, high workload, stress, having no guarantee of a job and fear of discrimination.
  • Low prestige, for example, viewing “teaching as a low status profession that does not command respect from parents, pupils or the wider community”.
  • Racial discrimination, including anxieties about encountering racism in schools – this was found to have an impact on the retention of trainee teachers in a number of recent studies reviewed in the NFER report, which were conducted with BME trainees and NQTs.
  • Prejudice and stereotyping from colleagues, pupils or parents. This was also confirmed by Wilkins and Lallb (2011), which reports a number of negative experiences faced by some student teachers with BME backgrounds such as social isolation, stereotypical attitudes among White peers and instances of overt racism, particularly in school placements.

Fast forward 10 years since that NFER report and examine the profession. Any difference? Would another 10 years bring any change?

The BAMEed network has been born out of the statistics. Voices for change have always been prevalent in education, but the unification of those voices is now occurring. The network aims to give a platform for tackling unconscious bias, widening education structures and linking all the professionals who believe that education should reflect the diversity we promote in a global curriculum.

It works on the basis of inclusivity, acceptance and value for the contribution of all ethnicities. By opening the discussion and taking action to improve understanding, then we can work, as a whole profession, towards the same starting point and build a meritocracy in our recruitment, training, retention and progression of teachers.

We can act to ensure that the mould of education is not based on the historical structures, qualities and experiences of a single group, but is geared towards the enhancing inclusivity of all. Only in doing so will the next 10 years bring the change that allows the appearance of a minority ethnicity not to become a precursor to their chances of looking like a headteacher.

Examine the pulse of your school. As a part of their standard diet, are governors and senior leadership provided training to understand unconscious bias? This will allow for racial, class, religious and gender biases to become a conscious awareness within recruitment.

If your location has low visible diversity in students or staff, what descriptors and expectations do they project onto BAME people they encounter? When a BAME educator joins your staff have you noted the reaction they receive from others? This gives you an indicator of their stereotypes of global populations. Does it reflect the values of your school?

BAMEed depends of the support of educators of all ethnicities. The change in population must be reflected in visible diversity of leaders within the profession. This is the outward-facing idea of education.

Opportunities to support include becoming a coach, guiding members of staff towards coaching or even volunteering a venue for hub meetings.

Personal involvement includes ensuring conference speakers are diverse, speaking out against stereotypes of large numbers of people, and challenging unconscious bias.

  • Allana Gay is co-founder of the BAMEed Network and a deputy headteacher in London.

BAMEed Network

BAMEed is a grassroots network aimed at ensuring that BAME educators are “represented as a substantive part of the workplace”. It is open to all and aims to take “positive collective action” to support BAME educators to make the step-up to leadership. Visit www.bameednetwork.com or follow on Twitter @BAMEedNetwork


  • Recruitment and Retention on Initial Teacher Training: A systematic review, Bielby et al (2007), NFER: http://bit.ly/2kKE4fC
  • Study on the Diversity within the Teaching Profession with Particular Focus on Migrant and/or Minority Background, European Commission, 2016: http://bit.ly/2l6OHWj (annexes to the report can be found at http://bit.ly/2mku8po).
  • School workforce in England: November 2015, Department for Education, June 2016: http://bit.ly/2moQtST


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