The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Aldaine Wynter

Representation in school leadership: accountability, visibility, action

In the first in a new series of blog posts, Aldaine Wynter looks at the importance and impact of a diverse school leadership team.

Representation is about having classroom teachers, middle and senior leaders as well as principals who reflect the diverse student body they serve. From early years settings to post-16, the importance of representation for students should not be underestimated.

In this series of blog posts, I will be exploring representation and the implication for schools when there is diversity in leadership, teaching staff and the curriculum. I consider what can be done to ensure accountability, increase visibility and enable meaningful action.

In this blog post, I will focus on representation in the leadership teams and what this means for students and staff. I will also talk about leadership teams which lack diversity and the importance of being an upstander.

How diverse is your leadership team?

With the population becoming increasingly diverse, it comes as no surprise that this is reflected by the students enrolled in schools in the UK.

And yes, it should be noted that the UK is incredibly diverse in some areas and far less in others. Consider your own school context when reading this post. The latest census (2021) indicated that more than eight million people who reside in the Britain come from an ethnic minority background.

When considering diversity, we can consider a range of components. As individuals, we are diverse in the ways we think, which may be influenced by our religion and/or our beliefs.

We are diverse in the languages we speak, not just in the world but also in the countries where we live.

We are diverse in our backgrounds and experiences; the way in which we experience gender, sexuality and identity.

Not to mention we are diverse in how we experience the world with regards to neurodiversity and physical disabilities. 

With all things considered, it is important that we see ourselves represented in the world around us. The question is whether your school leadership reflects the student body. And if not, why not?

Look at the data

By looking at data, we can see how education reflects the population by noting if any numbers stand out and what that could mean for staff and students.

According to the 2011 Census, women and girls made up 51% of the population of England and Wales, and men and boys made up 49%

The 2011 census, which covered people in around 25 million private households, found an almost 50:50 split for women and girls to boys and men. The split was found to remain consistent amongst all ethnicity groups except the Arab ethnic group, which has a larger male than female population.

The British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA) found in 2020 that 30.5% of teachers in the UK were male and 69.5% were female.

92.7% of headteachers in the UK are white British

Government figures show that 87% of people living in the UK are white but almost 93% of headteachers are white.

At the other end of the spectrum, 3.3% of people who are living in the UK are Black. However, only 1% of headteachers in the UK are Black

With an overrepresentation of headteachers in one group and an underrepresentation of headteachers in another, what impacts does this have on our schools?

Check your policies are fair

In all that we do, we should be considering our intent and our impact. For many schools, recent events have allowed an opportunity to reflect on the systems and structures in place and the impact on members of our school community. Policies have frequently been in the news, from the policing of Black students’ hair and female bodies through to archaic uniform policies.

For students, the constant policing and rigid application of policies, in particular the behaviour policy, often results in Black students and students of colour being sanctioned more than their white peers.

If you are able to, I recommend you look at the data that shows the number of students in detention or with sanctions on record. What does it tell you?

If educators hide behind policy, they are removing themselves from being accountable; that is, accountable for how they are making their students feel and the barriers they are building.

Most schools use policies for uniform and behaviour to promote equity amongst students, as well as providing a framework of support for staff.

And while schools review these policies annually, with members of the senior leadership team (SLT) often in charge of the reviews, it is not surprising, given the lack of diversity, that many schools’ policies have been flagged as discriminatory towards particular ethnic groups and those of a particular sex or gender.

Incorporate diversity into your vision

All schools should have a vision and identify some initial steps as to how they look to diversify key areas in school. Here are some examples:

Governance leadership Do the school governors represent the diverse needs of the student body? 
School environment Are the school’s values and expectations around diversity evident as you go around the school?
Continued professional development Are there consistent opportunities to engage in CPD focused on DEI?
Written curriculum Do we amplify a diverse range of voices? 
Parents and the wider community Do we celebrate and encourage members of our community to deliver sessions to staff and the student body?

At least one member of a school’s senior leadership team will be involved in one or more of the areas mentioned above. It is crucial that leadership is accountable when looking to increase a school’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.

With accountability comes meaningful action

Diverse leadership means a diverse range of voices at a senior level that have influence over key aspects of school day.

Many of the issues highlighted in the coverage on discriminative policies bring to attention a lack of sensitivity rising from the lack of different voices in the room. We are beginning to see the consequences of a lack of diversity in leadership.

A lack of diversity does not just impact students but also staff, who are already in an industry where underrepresentation is the norm. It is vital that leadership is visible and clear about their thoughts and views on DEI in connection with their school’s vision.

Recent cases, from George Floyd to Sarah Everard, have created a huge shift in cultural expectation of how schools should respond to issues around race, sex and misogyny.

For schools where there is a notable lack of diversity, it is important to collaborate with staff and students to ensure ‘missing’ voices are heard.

Be an upstander

It is possible that schools will have barriers that make it difficult to either diversify their leadership teams or engage with a diverse group of school members. These cases highlight importance of being an upstander and speak up for and be supportive in moments of injustice.

Being an upstander in these environments cannot be understated. It is important that leaders, and most certainly principals, have a clear stance when it comes to showing their support to amplify the voices of underrepresented groups.

For example, when meeting with staff it is important to have a long-term plan that shows key dates throughout the year where national and international dates are promoted. Being visible and present during initiatives like assemblies on DEI topics are being delivered.

Being a leadership team, whether diverse or not, is about being an upstander and uplifting and amplifying the voices of the underrepresented groups that we serve.

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