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Making it seem possible: Supporting improved ethnic diversity in school leadership

Written by: Sarah Seleznyov
7 min read

For the last three years, London South Teaching School Alliance has been running a professional development programme for ethnic minority teachers, to help support them into leadership roles in London schools. Thanks to funding from the Equalities and Diversities Fund and now the Greater London Authority, the Stepping into Leadership programme has so far supported 64 emerging leaders from ethnic minority backgrounds to develop the confidence and skills to progress into leadership roles.

The programme was developed in response to the low representation of ethnic minority staff at senior leadership level in London schools. When I arrived in Southwark and attended my first headteacher meeting, I was surprised to see a sea of white faces: around 45 per cent of Southwark’s residents are from ethnic minority backgrounds, but this diversity is not reflected in school leadership. And this holds for London more generally: whilst 81 per cent of pupils in inner London schools are from an ethnic minority, the figure for headteachers is only 31 per cent. The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, is justifiably proud of London schools’ records of achievement, but is aware that black and other ethnic minority people are underrepresented in teaching, particularly at senior levels, which has led to his financial support for the alliance’s Stepping into Leadership programme.

Representation matters

Research evidence has shown that seeing your community represented in the teaching and school leadership workforce matters to ethnic minority pupils in terms of aspiration as well as academic success. Teachers from minority backgrounds are more likely to develop caring and trusting relationships, have high expectations, enable higher achievement and encourage minority ethnic pupils to remain in education (Gershenson et al., 2017; Villegas and Irvine, 2010). Ethnic minority teachers are also more likely to teach in a culturally sensitive way and to confront issues of racism through teaching (Gershenson et al., 2017).

However, despite the potential for a more representative school workforce to enable success for underperforming groups, Callender and Miller (2018) found that ethnic minority headteachers often faced negative stereotyping and judgements about their capability, experienced unfair treatment and felt ‘exposed yet un-recognised and under-valued’ (p. 7). The headteachers in Callender and Miller’s (2018) studyidentified the support and mentoring that they received as aspirant ethnic minority leaders as being crucial to them in securing and succeeding in headteacher roles, and it was found that if this support came from leaders with similar backgrounds to their own, it was even more powerful.

The professional development programme

The Stepping into Leadership professional development programme enables participants to attend a series of sessions led by an experienced black facilitator and former headteacher, with content specifically designed around their learning and confidence needs, as identified in the pre-programme audits that they complete.

Participants learn to articulate their values and demonstrate authenticity in their leadership practices, building on the outcomes of a 360-degree personal evaluation by colleagues in their own schools. They work towards expressing this vision in job applications and at interview, finding out what a senior leader interview looks like, how to shape a supporting statement for a job application and how to prepare for an interview, and practising answering interview questions. They explore the research evidence on building trust, learn strategies for managing difficult conversations, discuss leaders’ role in securing good teaching and learning and find out what school budgets look like and how to manage them. During the programme they are encouraged to get connected by reading widely and making use of social media, both to remain current and to create networks of colleagues, both peers and more experienced mentors or champions, who can open doors to future career possibilities.

Perhaps one of the most powerful aspects of the programme is the role that more senior ethnic minority colleagues play. A network of supportive ethnic minority headteachers offers shadowing placements and coaching to participants on the programme. These same headteachers speak at sessions, describing the successes and challenges of their own leadership journeys and contextualising the knowledge that participants are gaining through practice examples from their own schools.

What makes the difference?

A full impact evaluation of the programme was carried out in 2018 and 2019, and this enabled us to identify the most powerful features of the programme. Overall, 100 per cent of respondents said that they would recommend the programme to future participants. The aims of the programme were as follows:

  • Ensure high-impact, high-quality, relevant learning for BAME teachers
  • Grow participants’ personal confidence in their leadership capacity
  • Train participants in key areas of school leadership identified as development priorities
  • Empower and support participants to apply for promotion, including through access to coaching and shadowing
  • Connect participants with successful, inspiring BAME leaders
  • Build a local network of BAME leaders that is sustained after completion of the programme.

In response to the degree to which they felt that the programme met these aims, all respondents stated that they ‘agree’ or ‘strongly agree’ that these aims were met.

Comments revealed that participants felt that they had benefited in terms of skills development, aspirations and confidence:

‘The programme has been invaluable in highlighting the need for more BAME leaders in our ever-growing multi-cultural society and the importance of these children seeing BAME teachers in leadership positions. It equipped us with the necessary skills and confidence to apply for leadership positions. The speakers we had were exceptionally inspirational and it was fascinating yet humbling to hear about their leadership journey. This truly inspired me to believe that it was possible to be in a leadership position and have more confidence in myself.’

‘This was an inspiring, valuable programme and I made good progress towards gaining the skills and knowledge needed to be an authentic school leader. As a BAME teacher working in an inner city school, the opportunity to explore and develop these skills was invaluable. I have developed in confidence and also identified areas for professional development.’

When asked to indicate the most powerful aspects of the programme, the role of the ethnic minority headteachers, their presentations and the shadowing and coaching placements that they offered were identified as particularly powerful:

‘My shadow was a great mentor. [I] had many opportunities to have conversations that guided me in making choices for my own career.’

‘I’ve most enjoyed seeing and hearing from people who have achieved their dreams. Sounds a funny thing to say but I honestly have never seen anyone who looks like me in school leadership and it really makes a difference.’

‘The headteacher’s vision for education was very strong and she had gone through a similar career path to mine. Her coaching enabled me to plan my next steps for promotion and professional development.’

The experience of the facilitators on the programme is that the majority of participants do not lack the skills to secure next-step promotions; they lack the confidence as a result of experiencing career setbacks or failing to succeed at application or interview stage. When analysing participants’ 360-degree feedback, it is often the case that their own ratings fall far below those of their team, peers and line managers. They tell stories of responding to even single failed attempts at promotion by resigning themselves to not being up to the job. Facilitators spend time during sessions discussing participants’ responsibility to the pupils in their community to be seen as a leader, to make that role a viable future possibility for the pupils. They also spend time encouraging participants to apply for new roles and helping them to prepare.

Obviously, the overall goal of the programme is for representation at senior leader level in schools to be more diverse.  The impact evaluation reveals participants’ aspirations and the practical actions that they have taken to secure promotions (see Table 1). For example, in 2018 and 2019, by the end of the year, 22 out of 26 participants felt that they now understood what their next steps were in order to progress as a senior leader and move towards headship, and they felt more motivated to progress in their careers.

Table 1: Numbers of teachers looking to secure promotions pre- and post-programme

Statement: ‘I am planning to seek a next steps promotion in the next’: Responses before programme (n=25) Responses after programme (n=25)
0–12 months 8% 28%
12–24 months 52% 56%
24–36 months 24% 0%
3–5 years 0% 0%
Not sure 16% 16%

Next steps for the project

Despite the success of the programme over the last three years, the Alliance recognises that there are larger systemic issues at play in terms of enabling ethnic minority teachers to become school leaders, not least what one participant described as a ‘system of racism and nepotism… [T]he system and the mindset of school leaders needs to change.’ Our bottom-up approach is making a difference, but we would urge leaders at local authority or MAT level to take a top-down approach to tackling systemic bias. We know that it is leaders who often encourage those behind them to take the next steps in their career. Until we can address bias in recruitment, we will continue to miss out on the vital role that ethnic minority leaders can play for the pupils in our care.


Callender CC and Miller PW (2018) Black leaders matter: Agency, progression and the sustainability of BME school leadership in England. Journal for Multicultural Education 12(2): 183–196.

Gershenson S, Hart C, Lindsay CA et al. (2017) The long-run impacts of same-race teachers. IZA Institute of Labor Economics. Available at: (accessed 30 November 2020).

Villegas AM and Irvine JJ (2010) Diversifying the teaching force: An examination of major arguments. The Urban Review 42(3): 175–192.

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