I’ve watched both the BBC adaptation of the book and the National Theatre production of Andrea Levy’s book, Small Island. One of the key protagonists in Small Island was a young lady, Hortense Roberts who was a teacher in Jamaica who dreamt of coming to live in England where she would own a home and teach in an English school. When she finally got to England she was surprised to find that it would be difficult to attain a job in education, even though, in addition to her qualifications, she had a fair amount of experience. Though the book was fictional, it was stemmed in the reality of the prejudices of the time.
Against this background is quite amazing to learn of the story of Yvonne Connolly – Britain’s first female black Headteacher. She came to London on a banana boat from Jamaica in 1963 and worked her way up to the teaching profession to headship in 1969.
Yvonne faced prejudice from black and white people alike. Black people who were concerned that she was working in a white institution and thought that her role should be to support black children. White people who didn’t want their children to be in a school run by a black head and colleagues who expressed passive-aggressive behaviour. The great thing is that she didn’t seem to receive any push back from the children -black and white alike.
She continued working in education for the next 50 years, retiring in early 2019. 50 years on, you would have thought that there are black heads all across the country. Sadly, as of 2015, there were just 39 black secondary school headteachers in England.
With university, 2016-17 figures show that of the UK’s 18,940 professors, only 90 were black men and 25 black women. 2015/16 figures showed that for the third year in a row, there was no record of black academics in the elite staff category of managers, directors and senior officials.
I believe the real issue is that the pipeline doesn’t support any real change at any point soon. Across all schools in the country; 2017 Government statistics show that Black or Mixed Black Heritage constitute 1.3% of 22,200 Heads; 2% of 49,000 Deputy and Assistants; and 2.8% of 426,900 Classroom and others.
There are those that would say that it doesn’t matter, the most important thing is for the students to have good quality teacher that can teach well and provide them with a good education. I believe that good quality teaching is of crucial importance. However, it’s also important for students of colour to be supported by staff that represent the diversity of the wider population. I previously mentioned that Benjamin Zephaniah felt disengaged from school as he could not relate to the world as portrayed by tutors. Having teachers from diverse backgrounds have the potential to bridge the gap. Not dilute, but enhance messages and the range of options and possibilities – increasing both aspirations and engagement from diverse backgrounds. I believe the presence of staff from diverse backgrounds also has a positive impact on how white students’ perspective, expectations and engagement when they meet people of colour on a day to basis, within the community and the workplace in years to come.
Ultimately, not only do people from all backgrounds have something to offer in education; education is key to solving the problems around racism, prejudice and even the perceptions of discrimination Educational institutions are a good starting point for raising awareness in these areas. We will be much more effective in achieving these objectives if our educators include people with direct experience, knowledge and understanding of the issues in question.
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