Leadership profile: A passion for diversity and education

Written by: Jo Corrigan | Published:
Recognition: Headteacher of Raynham Primary School Marva Rollins shortly after receiving her OBE earlier this year

Earlier this year, headteacher Marva Rollins received an OBE for services to education. A passionate supporter of diversity in education, she is keen to support high-performing teachers from the female and BME workforce. Jo Corrigan speaks to her to find out more about her life and work

Department for Education statistics show that the percentage of teachers recorded as White British is over 89 per cent and White British headteachers exceed 93 per cent of the workforce. Raynham Primary School is based in Enfield local authority where the BME pupil-teacher ratio is 2.38 (i.e. 50 per cent of pupils but only 21 per cent of teachers are of BME origin).

The school has many challenges to overcome in order to support individual pupil progress, including deprivation, a transient pupil population and cultural beliefs about education.

Yet, after 18 years as headteacher at the school, Marva Rollins still enjoys the role and making a positive difference for the children and families in her community. The following quotation is displayed on the wall of her office:

“Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.” John Wesley.

Marva, who is headteacher at Raynham Primary School in Edmonton, north London and also a member of the SSAT Primary Advisory Board, was awarded an OBE for services to education in the 2017 New Year’s Honours.

Where do you get your drive and ambition for education from? Was there a defining moment in your life?

“I was born in Barbados, where one of my aunts was a teacher. When I came to England in the 1960s I attended a secondary modern school where none of the kids – never mind a working class, Black, immigrant female – was going to be a teacher.

“My drive comes from the people who have been part of my journey to becoming a teacher in my 30s. I have been fortunate to have been involved with people who have spotted my talents before even being aware of them myself.

“In my second year of teaching, a more experienced teacher surprised me by encouraging me to apply for a senior position within the school. Although I had not been teaching long I had a lot of transferable skills and quickly moved up the ladder. People often tell me they remember me – people listen and take me seriously. I understand educational theory and research, and use both in my practice. I have made a difference over the years to many lives, including my own, using education as the medium.

“I told colleagues in a briefing this morning: basically, I am the person who will sit in a corner with a book, Sudoku or solitaire – that is me at the heart. The other part of me has taken over to ensure I make a difference and has pushed me into the arena. If that hadn’t happened I would still be the person sitting in the corner. Put simply, I do what I do, I don’t know how to do anything else. I make time for all sorts of things – I don’t know how! Before and during my career in education I have raised three sons.”

Is there a Black, female professional who you gain inspiration from?

“When I started my journey Angela Davis was the one who made me think ‘gosh’. I was fascinated that there was a Black woman out there who was doing and saying things that needed to be said. A book written by Bell Hooks, Ain’t I A Woman?, has also been part of my journey. These were the women doing great things, but who were not recognised enough alongside men.

“There are lots of pictures in my office of Maya Angelou. She had a high level of dignity for someone who had a challenging childhood and I really admire her. I’d like to think that in my humbleness I also have dignity. I’m sure that none of these people know my name!

“I’ve met lots of people on my journey also. Professor Dame Elizabeth Anionwu, founding member of the Sickle Cell Society and current patron, would not know how much she has done to shape me into the person I am. I have been very, very fortunate.”

(A young teacher who Marva has recently been supporting has written An Ode to Marva which mentions people such as Rosa Parks, Angela Davies and Oprah Winfrey as inspirations. Marva is proud that she is listed among such people.)

Were there BME teacher role-models from your own experience of education in this country?

“My dad arrived in England seven years before me, and my mother five years before me. I remained in Barbados with my grandmother. My parents covered the lowest paid jobs and after five years had not made the money they were promised. When I arrived from Barbados my parents had recently bought a house but we had to share rooms as rooms had to let out to help them pay the mortgage. There was one other Black girl in my school. During my childhood England needed people in other professions, e.g. to rebuild industry after the war. I have a colleague headteacher whose mother was a Black headteacher in the 1960s, but I was not aware of anyone at the time. I have never been taught in this country by a Black teacher.”

Tell me about your journey to becoming a headteacher and what you still wish to achieve

“I have led a complex life. In 1972 I met a seamstress on the streets who taught me how to sew. I had been living in a tower block for eight years. My dad insisted I was to study, although I wanted to work as we were poor. I completed a six-month course to be a ‘comptometer’ (an operator in an accounts department). That was good enough for my dad as it didn’t mean working in a factory like my parents.

“My day started at 5am and I sewed until 8 to 9pm, earning 10 pence per skirt. These are days that make or break you. Years after I left the tower block someone asked why I never jumped out of the 10th floor window! Leaving this role coincided with my thought to be a teacher.

“1978 was a very important year in my life. I was 28 and the youngest of my three sons was five. I lifted my head up and looked outwards. I thought about myself. I met a couple of Black teachers who were part of a women’s group, the East London Black Women Organisation. This group still exists today. They propelled lots of us to do something with our lives and told us that becoming a teacher was possible. We were offered access courses in social work or teaching. I chose teaching, and completed a four-year bachelor of education.

“In my current role of headteacher I just need to keep going. I enjoy coming into school. I have never wanted to be an academy headteacher, despite being invited a few times. I want to keep making a difference in my school. I am a legacy-builder. I don’t need to work but to be doing something that makes a difference, like supporting individuals and other schools. When I move on from this role I want to continue making a difference by preparing people for leadership positions. I am more than a headteacher – this is my medium for making a difference.”

What changes have you seen in the representation of BME in teaching and leadership over the years? What reasons can you suggest for these changes?

“Black headteachers are still a bit of a novelty in this country, although not as much now. North London Polytechnic worked with City and East London to create the first access course to teaching. That initiative triggered universities to recognise that Black students have a brain and to look at issues around equality. More Black parents who went through the education system here recognise that they could have done better if the expectations for working class children were higher. A number of us have been at the forefront saying ‘you can do it’. When the national curriculum was introduced it forced schools to provide a better ‘deal’ for children; and Ofsted can now hold them to account. Lots of factors have been combined in order to make a positive difference, and although some children are still underperforming, more are performing better. But there is still a long way to go.”

What has been the biggest challenge in your career; and what challenges do new Black headteachers today face?

“I was ‘the one’ Black headteacher in my local authority at the time (Newham) and was sometimes viewed by colleagues as a ‘token’. I had to challenge and overcome this on a number of occasions. My Jewish mentor was very strong and we are still in contact today. She overcame lots of challenges in her career, which is possibly why she was selected to be my mentor. I had to hang on to my perception of representing my community and challenging the ‘token’ comments. I was in this role due to my skills, not my colour. When we were growing up, people in the Black community were told that to succeed they had to be 10 times better. I used to ask, 10 times better than what?

“Now, 2.7 per cent of the leadership group nationally are Black or BME, which is 2.7 per cent more than when I started. New headteachers today have the same challenges to overcome as I did, probably more. There is a lot of tenseness currently within education. But, they can now choose to have a Black mentor.”

What challenges do you continue to face as headteacher of Raynham Primary School?

“I have a team who recognise that all of the children in their class could be their own child. Our challenges come with the area around our school. During my time here we have not seen any improvements to the socio-economic conditions of the area. Our parents would describe their personal circumstances as ‘just about getting by’ rather than poor.
“Our children come into school below age-related standards. We admit children into years 4/5 who have not previously attended school and we have a high level of mobility. I have not been able to have a positive impact on the level of poverty in the area – that is bigger than me. Our parents are lovely and want the best for their children. They rely on us to get their children out of poverty. I understand being poor, I was 12 before I realised how poor my family was.”

What makes Raynham so successful? How does it compare with the school you became headteacher of many years ago?

“I took on a school, 18 years ago, where children were cherished and the staff felt that the children’s lives were so hard that they needed lots of nurturing. They did this very well. What I had to do was to say, ‘I have lived in one of those tower blocks. That was my starting point’. I had to turn the tables to make education equally important.

“The only way out of poverty is through education. Back when I started staff would ask ‘what do you want me to do with these children?’ It has been many years since I have heard that comment here.

“Today, I have a strong nurture team who support the children, teachers and families. Some of our parents do not always see the importance of school, as they did not have an education themselves. Some of their stories bring tears to your eyes. We are not perfect. We are on a journey and we like to learn and share with others.”

What do you consider to be the proudest moment of your career?

“I tell the pupils at Raynham that they cannot leave the school and say that nobody was interested in them, nobody cared for them, and nobody pushed them. They don’t all listen at the time, but when they come back to visit me to tell me what they are doing with their lives they let me know at what point they ‘heard’ me.

“My father died 20 years ago, but I am proud that he lived to see me become a headteacher. He had worked so hard for his children and that was my proudest moment. I took my parents to my Master’s graduation and my mum said ‘didn’t I do well’!”

Future action to increase teacher diversity

Marva offered some suggested actions that could be taken to reduce the teacher diversity gap in those areas of the country where the proportion of BME pupils heavily outweighs that of teachers:

  • Teaching has to become more of an attractive proposition for young people, including young Black people.
  • Successful BME leaders could support professional development opportunities and share their case studies at events for BME teachers, to demonstrate the positive impact they have had on outcomes for children.
  • The media should portray education in a more positive light, to encourage people into the profession.
  • Headteachers must aim to reflect their diverse pupil population among their staff team – with a clear focus on attracting high-quality BME teachers.
  • Headteachers must support the professional development of BME teachers in order to retain their knowledge and skills in the school and identify and develop those who are potential leaders. 

  • Jo Corrigan is the head of primary networks at the SSAT.

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