Diversity among private school students is rising but heads aren’t following suit


Written By: Hannah Fearn  16/06/15

As more students from around the world enter Britain’s private schools, journalist Hannah Fearn explores why their leadership remains stubbornly white.

Dr Nick Dennis is a deputy head at Berkhamsted school, a prestigious single-sex and co-educational private college. Unusually for a leader in the independent sector, he is black. But when he talks about his job with other black teachers the reaction is surprising. Rather than praise his success, he reports being ostracised for apparently turning his back on his roots.

“If I was in any other profession I would be seen as a poster child for social mobility,” says Dennis, who grew up in Hackney in a single-parent family. Instead, conversation “stops pretty quickly”. “It’s almost that I could be betraying a particular view of how ethnic minorities are supposed to be,” he adds.

This stark response might help to explain why, despite an increasingly diverse intake of students, the leadership of independent schools remains stubbornly white. Dennis puts the lack of senior black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) teachers in the private sector down to two social pressures: one of responsibility, and the other of lifestyle.

There is that belief that if you have managed to make it to a certain point you should work within your own community and be part of the wider community,” he explains. “And where there are huge populations of minority ethnic groups, like Birmingham or Manchester, there are not that many independent schools. If you’re going to have to live in the middle of the countryside, that’s a location issue. Do you really want to move away and work somewhere that you have got no experience of?”

According to Nilesh Manani, headteacher at theSwaminarayan school, an independent Hindu school in north west London, some long-outdated cultural trends are still having a knock-on effect. “People from BAME groups had also not thought of entering the teaching profession, as traditionally they have tended to converge towards biomedical and financial careers.”

It is a quandary that creates an important moral question: as the number of BAME students studying at independent schools rises, does it matter that they cannot see anyone like themselves in positions of authority?

According to the Independent Schools Council (ISC) 29% of its pupils are from a minority background – far higher than the 14% of BAME citizens in British society as a whole. The rising popularity of private education is down to a number of factors: immigration into the UK, the attraction of a British education among the global elite and the larger number of BAME parents who attended state school but choose the independent sector for their children.

“I have got parents at my school – both black and white – who struggle to pay the fees,” says Jane Stevens, principal at Oakfield Preparatory school in south-east London. “I have a black single parent who I am aware has held down two jobs to pay for their child’s education. That’s not the sort of story that most people would attach to the independent sector.”

Despite these demographic changes, the ISC holds no data on the number of BAME headteachers or leaders among its membership. According to 2010 figures from the Department for Education, the state sector has achieved 6% BAME headship and 7% at deputy head level . Anecdotally, however, there are only a handful of black or ethnic minority headteachers in the private sector.

A spokesperson for the ISC said that it was aware that figures such as Trevor Phillips, head of the former Commission for Racial Equality, had raised concerns about creating categories between people that were “old fashioned”. “Indeed, one or two of our heads do not want to be categorised this way. It goes without saying that, of course, ISC schools are equal opportunities employers and welcome ethnic minority teachers among their staff,” the spokesperson said.

Yet, as long as the mismatch between students’ backgrounds and leaders persists, there will be awkward issues to face inside the school gates – ones which send out a troubling message to students. One black teacher at an independent school, who asked not to be named, described how they had been mistaken by an older member of staff for a cleaner.

“In every single school I have had anything to do with, I have been the only black female face in leadership,” Stevens says. “But I don’t think it’s their fault. Part of the problem is that people don’t apply to the independent sector. It has to be said that black people of my generation may not have had an independent sector education themselves.”

Manani is more critical. He believes independent schools have been “far too slow to grasp the essence of this issue” which must be solved if their students are to integrate into wider society.

Manini is seeking “change from within”, forcing schools to recognise and embrace the change in their intake. “Governors need to realise that a large percentage of their income comes from BAME pupils and must actively seek to recruit teachers from such backgrounds,” he says.

Schools can also learn from success stories. Dennis’ own school already has three heads of department from a BAME background and has offered mentoring and support for those on the route to leadership. He says “there are informal structures of support” available to BAME teachers in the private sector who aspire to reach the top jobs. He also stresses that recruiting for aptitude is essential, and forcing up the numbers through selective recruitment would be counterproductive.

“I think it’s important that we’re representing society, but if that’s your only driving factor when you’re really looking for someone who’s a good teacher then I’d be slightly worried.”

For Stevens, however, a simple first step would be to see independent schools put out an inclusive message when recruiting. “I think the message that they do need to work on is ‘we are not as you think we are’,” she says.

Source: The Guardian



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