Cultures and actions to drive leadership diversity

Written by: Orlene Badu | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

As part of anti-racism work, the diversity of our staff and senior leadership matters. Orlene Badu says this work begins with a focus on retention and creating cultures to challenge racism and inequality


As an education consultant and former headteacher, I often discuss with school leaders the ways in which we approach race equality in education, with many senior leadership teams desperate to improve outcomes and lived experiences for all pupils.

In discussion about systemic change, one of the first places school leaders are able to address race equality is the curriculum. Having curated Hackney’s Diverse Curriculum, which is available to schools globally (see further information), I recognise and value the impact that a school’s curriculum can have.

While it is a vehicle to achieving race equality, it is just one of many systems. It is not the panacea and will not rectify systemic inequalities in our schools and settings alone.
It is one part of our system, and my articles for Headteacher Update consider changes across many of those systems. My last piece asked us to consider why black and global majority* pupils were not being inspired by their own education to return and be teachers and senior leaders in our schools and settings. I also asked us to consider what examples black girls saw in their schools of black leadership and pathways to that leadership (Badu, 2022).

This is an important question for all of us.


Leadership diversity

Many of us, in our work to be (actively) anti-racist know that we must focus on the diversity of our teaching teams and more importantly our senior leadership teams.

At the very least, many of us will understand the importance of senior leadership teams reflecting the community they serve. At most, ensuring that every child in a UK school has diverse role models of leadership and teaching in their schools is key as we seek to move beyond “tolerance” to a society in which all our children are supported to be anti-racist leaders of the future. This is important in mono-cultural schools too (not just schools in more diverse parts of the UK).

The report Race equality in the teacher workforce (Worth et al, 2022) cites data indicating that there is a great deal of work to do in diversifying senior leadership teams.
The authors identified that the “under-representation of people from Asian, black and mixed and other ethnic backgrounds is most pronounced at senior leadership and headship levels”.

For example, 96% of heads are from white backgrounds, compared to 83% of the wider population.

The report also states: “These trends contribute to schools having senior leadership teams that are predominantly white: 86% of publicly funded schools in England have an all-white teaching staff. Children entering school today have a high probability of rarely or never being taught by a teacher from an Asian, black, mixed or other ethnic minority group.”
I would urge senior leaders to engage with the report as our communities continue to change. The researchers clearly highlight the increased challenges we face. The challenge is that being in senior leadership teams that are not diverse means we end up in echo-chambers, hearing similar voices all of the time, and thus making the same decisions again and again.


A focus on retention

Many schools have a focus on recruitment to address the lack of diversity both in their senior leadership teams and across all levels and roles. However, much of my work focuses on the need for a strong plan and drive for retention first.

While we cannot all achieve diverse senior leadership teams immediately, having a plan that seeks to retain the talent of black and global majority staff is key to addressing inequalities in our school and wider communities.

The limited or non-existent transitions from teacher to senior leadership for staff of Asian, black, mixed and other ethnic minority backgrounds is challenging and caused by systemic barriers and biases.

To address it with recruitment alone will not answer the problem – because if we are not retaining a diverse staff team, or they are not seeing a pathway to progression, it is likely that your new recruit will have the same experience.

The report Making progress? (Tereshchenko et al, 2020) found that: “Racism and associated inequalities are at the forefront of BAME teachers’ minds in conversations about retention, not workload.”

It continued: “Our participants highlighted how both overt and covert racism takes a toll on BAME teachers’ wellbeing, progression and job satisfaction. BAME teachers had the same high levels of workload as all teachers, plus an additional ‘hidden workload’ of coping with racism.”

When addressing retention, it is useful to focus on the culture of your staff teams and leaders in seeing talent. But consider too the following activities and cultures that we need to create to challenge racism and inequality, provide equal access to opportunities and networks, and ensure that all staff feel their schools see their value and worth.


Understanding the importance of diversity

Senior leaders understanding the importance of diversity is paramount to retaining a diverse staff team. It is not something that only “some” senior leaders can seek to change. All senior leaders have a responsibility to see talent and provide the resources and support to make it happen.

Training for senior leaders on the school’s commitment to diversity, to challenge any biases they may consciously or subconsciously hold, and the actions they can take to support progression for all staff members will begin the discussion. This needs to be led by a clear plan of how we will achieve racial equality in our senior leadership teams with identifiable outcomes that we assess along the journey – the journey that we must start now.


Routes into leadership

These need to be clear in our school or setting and not restricted to those who we have faith in or trust to do the role. Largely we will “believe” that our perceptions of staff capability are based on the actions and abilities of staff members. But we must also confront the possibility that it is likely to be because of our biases and preferring those who have similar characteristics, beliefs and understanding to us (similarity bias). Therefore, to avoid staff feeling that when jobs are advertised internally they are for a specific person (“they know who they want”), it is important that we have an open and transparent process where all staff “know” they are going to be taken seriously as a candidate.

Could we offer some guidance for all candidates internally on what support they can expect if they apply for a role? Can they all speak to the current/outgoing lead to understand the expectations of the role? Can we ensure all staff have access to an additional conversation with the senior leader who is leading the recruitment process about what skills they are looking for? Can recruiting staff be trained in understanding that all staff must have access to a role, irrespective of what they think of staff capabilities?

Finally, can all staff be given assurance that there is a point to them applying and they will be given a fair opportunity if they apply? Otherwise why waste their time applying?


Transparent systems in leadership roles

These are crucial for staff that we are seeking to retain. Having the job advertised for all staff and all having access to it at the same time is an important part of the process. If the job is going up online, in newspapers or in the staff bulletin, all staff should be invited to look at the role and understand the needs of the school. Staff will value this as it is open to all and will indicate that all staff have equal access. Similarly sharing it publicly with all staff in good time is vital and fair.


Everyone supporting progression

All staff supporting progression can only happen in a school that has a focus on creating the right culture to create this environment. That all staff members have a big part to play in ensuring retention must be a genuine aspiration of the school. If a member of staff goes to speak to the bursar about the budget for a senior leadership post that is coming up, that bursar needs to ensure that all staff get the same access to their advice and tips. The bursar will have no place to determine if that staff member “should” be asking and will have had significant conversations for them to understand what they should be saying to every candidate irrespective of their own perceptions.


Access to training and CPD

Schools should review access to training and development to ensure that all staff have equal access to developing their role. Do senior leaders review the characteristics of staff and the development opportunities given? Do senior leaders actively work to ensure all staff have access and is this transparent? Do all staff know that they can apply to the senior team for support for further study (if that is an option in your school)?


Final thoughts

We must avoid the ad hoc approach that can lead to inequalities in the way staff are given access to progression. We need a plan of action that allows all staff to see fair and visible routes for progression.

We should not be offering progression based on who we “think” can do the role; while our perceptions can be an important part it is also worthwhile considering that we have a large amount of untapped talent in our schools that we have not seen or do not yet know.

Our interview processes will make the decision as to who is most equipped. Not our perceptions or gut instinct. Having the culture in which staff can take those routes of progression and do not feel held back by roles that are not “meant for them” is vital for retention.

Transparent systems mean all staff will feel they are in an environment in which they can grow and, ultimately, if they can grow, they will benefit your school and they will stay.

These are just a few examples of how we can retain staff in our schools, there are many more. The focus in this article is the culture of transparency that we must work towards developing in senior leaders. This is a call to action to ensure all staff and pupils can see themselves as leaders in your schools and settings.

  • Orlene Badu is a former primary school headteacher who also has experience working in alternative provision. She is the author of How to Build Your Anti Racist Classroom (due June 2023 – visit https://bit.ly/3YXRDrz) and now works across London as a leadership and management advisor supporting schools and local authorities. She is also a school improvement advisor. She is the curator of Hackney’s Diverse Curriculum. Visit https://orlenebaduconsulting.co.uk/ and find her previous articles for Headteacher Update via https://bit.ly/htu-badu


Headteacher Update Spring Term Edition 2023

This article first appeared in Headteacher Update's Spring Term Edition 2023. This edition was sent free of charge to every primary school in the country. A digital edition will also be available soon via www.headteacher-update.com/digital-editions/

Further information & resources

  • Badu: Black and female: Adultification, bias and racism, Headteacher Update, November 2022: https://bit.ly/3URwgoi
  • Hackney Services for Schools: Hackney’s Diverse Curriculum, October 2020: https://bit.ly/3Yg946e
  • Tereshchenko, Mills & Bradbury: Making progress? Employment and retention of BAME teachers in England, UCL IoE, 2020: https://bit.ly/3Foey6m
  • Worth, McLean & Sharp: Racial equality in the teacher workforce: An analysis of representation and progression opportunities from ITT to headship, NFER, May 2022: https://bit.ly/39BL1tO

* “Global majority” is a collective term for ethnic groups which constitute as much as 85% of the global population. It is used as an alternative to terms which can be seen as racialised, such as “ethnic minority”.


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