Achieving workforce diversity (while avoiding tokenism)

Written by: Hannah Wilson | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

How do we create meaningful representation in our schools? Hannah Wilson, director of the Diverse Educators network, advises how we can diversify our workforce while avoiding tokenism

The lack of visible diversity and racial representation across the teaching profession has been highlighted during the past 12 months or so and there has been an increased focus on the need to diversify the teaching workforce.

This has led to incidents of calling out and calling in when organisations and teams are not diverse. There has been a lot of scrutiny of different groups such as trust boards, local governing boards and senior leadership teams that are not visibly diverse – although we must also remind ourselves that some diversity is not visible.

So, there has been a lot of noise about diversifying the workforce and redressing the imbalances – but has there been a lot of action?

We need to start by identifying the problems, to be able to find the solutions. To do this, we need to create talking and listening spaces which disrupt the hierarchy.

We need to dismantle the structures and systems, the policies and practices, that have resulted in a lack of diversity. The current way of doing things enables certain groups and identities to rise and succeed, while other groups and identities are oppressed and marginalised.

The data

The data speaks volumes about the lack of diversity: who we recruit into the sector, who we retain, who we promote, who leads our schools and our trusts, and who governs and sits on trust boards.

An important first step is to capture the data of our local workforce. This will demonstrate who we have in our school or trust team. It needs to be broken down by protected characteristic (there are nine according to the 2010 Equality Act) and by role/position. Understanding the representation of all parts of the trust or school workforce is essential in enabling us to interpret the data and begin to see what the data is and is not telling us.

The national data reveals a lack of diversity across the system. It tells us that our workforce often does not reflect the diverse communities that we serve. But when you begin to drill down into the data, it reveals further gaps.

Ultimately, the higher you look up the educational hierarchy of a school, a trust, a locality, the paler the skin tones become. This is a stark truth which creates a sense of discomfort and unrest. But it is a truth we need to accept and understand in order to be able do something about it.

The sense of belonging

To build on the quantitative data collection we then need to move into the qualitative gathering of staff views. Again, this may cause discomfort as we are going to hear and learn things that we did not know, or perhaps do not want to hear.

The lived experiences of a disabled colleague, a gay colleague, a black colleague, a pregnant colleague or a Muslim colleague will all be different and will reveal who has power and privilege, who feels safe and has a sense of belonging within the organisation.

Edurio’s recent report – Equality, diversity and inclusion among school staff (Ozolins et al, 2021) – with responses from more than 16,000 school staff, provides a useful benchmark for schools to use.

These internal activities will help to get our own houses in order, to understand the lay of the land to feed into a robust diversity, equality and inclusion (DEI) strategy. Laying down the strong foundations of intent and articulating them through the school or trust’s vision, mission and values will enable us to create DEI actions that achieve our intentions with integrity, thus avoiding the tokenistic approach that some have taken.

The challenge

In areas which are less diverse, the reality is that we will need to work harder to diversify our teams and we will need to navigate more push back. Yet, it is not impossible. If anything, the call to embrace diversity in a rural or coastal region is even more significant than in an urban environment, as we are preparing our students for the world, for their future workplaces, which will ultimately be more diverse than perhaps the bubble of their formative years.

The approach

Our people management strategy needs to be intentional and aligned with our school priorities. Our approach to DEI needs to be intersectional in all areas, including hiring. By making our commitment to DEI explicit we will attract people who are looking to work in a school with these values at the heart of the vision and mission. The strategy then needs to be broken down into stages:

1, How we attract

For the last year there have been a lot of call outs for diverse teachers, leaders and governors, but no-one wants to be recruited and offered a seat based solely on the colour of their skin nor the identity they hold. Identifying a lack of representation is one thing, but diversifying the team needs to balance the skills, qualities, experiences and expertise needed to fulfil a role too.

So rather than saying “we need a governor who is a person of colour”, it is better to lead with “we need a governor with finance experience, who represents the diversity of our local community”. Then rather than writing the same advert that has been used before, advertising in the same place we always advertise and activating a recruitment process we always default to, we need to diversify our thinking, our behaviours, our practices to achieve a different outcome.

2, How we retain

We tend to focus on who we are recruiting and promoting, instead of who we are losing from our schools. Reviewing the data of who is not appointed, who is not promoted, who moves on, gives us useful insight about us as employers.

Staff voice activities tend to focus on wellbeing and workload, but they can easily be developed to elicit information about the psychological safety and sense of belonging in the staff body. Equally, do you recognise the power of an exit interview? It might be painful to listen to, but it again gives us soft data that we can learn from.

3, How we manage talent

The leadership pipeline in the school system is leaky. We lose women in their 30s and the glass ceiling kicks in at deputy headship level. We lose people of colour at middle leadership tiers as the concrete ceiling prevents progression to senior leadership roles. We lose parents and carers in organisations that are not flexing their people management policies.

The work does not stop there

Some employers fall into the trap of diversifying their teams but failing to consider the need to change other things about the culture and ethos, behaviours and language to ensure that they are inclusive for all.

By getting different people on the team and around the table, we will get different outcomes, but we then need to behave differently to be more inclusive. A DEI strategy is thus iterative and does not develop in a linear way. Instead, it is a cycle. In the panel on this page I list some of the on-going components of this cycle with questions for you to reflect upon.

The diversity, equality and inclusion cycle – questions to consider

  1. Strategy: How is DEI hard-baked into your school’s self-evaluation framework?
  2. Communication: How are you articulating your DEI commitment through your school’s vision, mission and values?
  3. Culture: How are you developing a shared understanding about one’s own lived experience and an appreciation for intersectional identities?
  4. Ethos: How are you empowering everyone to stand up and speak out about social justice issues?
  5. Safeguarding: How are you creating a collective responsibility for the accountability of DEI in your school?
  6. Governance: How are you holding yourselves to account and how are you inviting challenge?
  7. Policies: How are you reviewing your policies through an intersectional lens?
  8. Processes: How are you ensuring your processes meet the needs of your staff as well as the needs of your learners?
  9. Attraction: How are you wording your adverts. Where are you advertising?
  10. Recruitment: How are you ensuring that your recruitment practices are inclusive and that unconscious biases are being addressed?
  11. Retention: How are you developing and retaining your whole staff while reflecting on who leaves your team?
  12. Development: How are you talent-spotting for potential and investing in diverse educators to become diverse leaders

  • Hannah Wilson is director of grassroots community Diverse Educators and was one of the contributors to Edurio’s report Equality, diversity and inclusion among school staff. Follow her on Twitter @Ethical_Leader and visit

Further information & resources

This material is protected by MA Education Limited copyright.
See Terms and Conditions.


Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Sign up Headteacher update Bulletin
About Us

Headteacher Update is a magazine, website, podcast and regular ebulletin dedicated to the primary school leadership team. We tackle a wide range of leadership issues, offering best practice, case studies and in-depth information, advice and guidance. Headteacher Update magazine is distributed free to approximately 20,000 primary school headteachers.

Learn more about Headteacher update


Register to receive regular updates on primary education news delivered free to your inbox.