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Professional development for career progression: Through the lens of ethnic diversity and gender

6 min read
Youlande Harrowell, Assistant Headteacher; Founder, Mindful Equity UK CiC, UK
Aretha Banton, Founder, Mindful Equity UK CiC, UK

It all began with a single tweet in June 2020, which read:

‘I am a member of this 0.1% – I am a black African Assistant Headteacher. Leadership is isolating, black leadership more so. But networks are the best support and cheerleaders. We need more Black SLT. You can’t be what you can’t see!’

The ‘0.1%’ refers to summative data from the Department for Education’s November 2019 school teacher workforce census, which found that ‘0.1% of deputy and assistant headteachers were from the Mixed White and Black African, and Chinese ethnic groups – the lowest percentage out of all ethnic groups in this role.’ Despite the DfE’s policy commitment to diversifying the teaching workforce (DfE, 2018a), a large gap remains between the proportion of students and teachers from minority ethnic backgrounds in England.

While schools in diverse areas such as London may be able to recruit more diverse staff bodies, as these colleagues may be more motivated to work in the hugely ethnically diverse communities in which they serve (Tereshchenko et al., 2020), the limited number of teachers from minority ethnic backgrounds in leadership positions in these schools may be demotivating and could contribute to the high turnover of staff, with these teachers often leaving the profession within five years of qualifying (DfE, 2018b). Gender intersects with this and women are underrepresented at senior leadership level – two-thirds of headteachers are women, yet women account for 75.8 per cent of the teaching workforce (DfE, 2019). We argue that to effectively address these issues around recruitment, retention and progression, we must tackle the lack of diversity in schools nationally by addressing the challenges faced by female teachers from minority ethnic backgrounds.

Mindful Equity UK is a community interest company created in direct response to this issue, led by two Black female full-time senior leaders who are current members of the anomalous group of ethnic minority teachers who have trained and been retained in the profession. We know that collegiately, representation and clarity around progression routes enabled us to survive and thrive in education. Drawing on recent research as well as the experience of our network, we argue that effective professional development, alongside conscious succession planning and connection to role models, will improve the retention and, in turn, the recruitment of high-quality teachers who are from minority ethnic backgrounds.

Diversity in schools: Understanding and addressing the challenges

Teachers from minority ethnic groups can experience unique problems linked to racial inequality and racism in their careers (Haque and Elliott, 2017). Recent research conducted by UCL found that experienced teachers considering promotions into senior leadership felt unfairly passed over for such opportunities, with the majority of interviewees saying that the ‘glass ceiling was not obvious to them at the early stages of their career’ (Tereshchenko et al., 2020, p. 4).

Understanding the challenges faced by Black and Asian women is important to understanding how to develop and support our progression into leadership. Testimonies from women we have worked with highlight that, far too often, Black and Asian women feel they are the lone voice in the room, that they ‘don’t fit in’ or cannot be their ‘authentic selves’. Recognising issues of intersectionality relating to being Black/Asian and being a woman is key to breaking down systemic, cultural and institutional barriers, which for many of these women may mean that routes into middle and senior leadership are prolonged and at times perceived to be ‘out of reach’. As Malveaux (2002, p. 27) states, ‘Intersectionality offers important and necessary nuances to our work around race… They remind us that neither the world, nor our lives, are one-dimensional.’

When we analyse feedback from events, lived experiences and comments shared via our social media, our network reflects on our own range of experience. We find that it is not only about having a seat at the table – it is about feeling as though we belong at the table. While there is absolutely an onus on the individual to forge their own alliances and find their own space, the question persists: how does one ‘fit in’ to a community in which you feel marginalised and isolated, and which does not often represent, consider or acknowledge the contributions of diverse groups? This is why visible diversity matters.

Visible diversity

Representation is hugely important and plays a powerful role in staff retention. Research has shown that schools with more minority ethnic leaders have a higher overall minority ethnic teacher retention rate (Tereshchenko et al., 2020; Bartanen and Grissom, 2019). However, representation is a starting point, not the end point. There needs to be greater emphasis on and consideration into reshaping institutional policies and practices so that these openly and visibly promote equity, opportunity and inclusion. We maintain that demystifying the progression routes into leadership from the beginning of a teacher’s career, and offering support and mentoring, will allow teachers to progress with the end in mind.


High-quality mentoring and coaching can be very effective forms of professional development, underpinning great teaching and supporting students to succeed as well as enabling teachers to thrive and progress in their careers. Callender and Miller (2018) found that mentoring was crucial in facilitating the progression of aspirant teachers from minority ethnic backgrounds into headteacher roles. Mentoring and support from leaders with similar backgrounds who were able to relate to the experiences of their mentees was even more powerful (Callender and Miller, 2018). Mentorship needs to operate within a context that allows for equitable succession planning in order to lead to career progression in the long term.

Recruitment and succession planning

Ensuring that all external and internal recruitment opportunities are advertised and therefore open to interested parties is crucial. Often, recruitment in schools is a closed process. By engaging in closed recruitment practices (e.g. creating ‘acting/associate roles’ for specific individuals), senior leaders miss out on crucial conversations with Black and Asian women who want to progress. These conversations enable employers to gauge the interests, skills and hidden experiences and aspirations of Black and Asian women and provide a space for candidates to outline their why, practise their application and interview technique and set out their career progression aspirations clearly. Creating a legitimate space for these conversations is vital for supporting career development and progression for everyone.

As we acknowledged over a year ago in response to the DfE’s November 2019 school teacher workforce data, we need more Black and Asian women in leadership roles. There is a role and, dare we say it, a responsibility for employers to create environments that ensure that all employees feel as though they are valued, they belong and they matter. Senior leaders have a duty to demonstrate this, particularly when it comes to training, development and recruitment opportunities. Targeted professional development, as well as clear and open routes into leadership, can help to develop an equitable approach to career progression in schools that will enable all teachers to thrive.


Bartanen B and Grissom JA (2019) School principal race and the hiring and retention of racially diverse teachers. Annenberg Institute, Brown University. EdWorkingPaper: 19–59. DOI: 10.26300/ny03-zw18.

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.

Department for Education (DfE) (2018a) Diversity of the teaching workforce: Statement of intent. Available at: (accessed 1 May 2021).

Department for Education (DfE) (2018b) Analysis of teacher supply, retention and mobility. Available at: (accessed 14 July 2021).

Department for Education (DfE) (2019) School teacher workforce. Available at: (accessed 1 June 2019).

Haque Z and Elliott S (2017) Visible and invisible barriers: The impact of racism on BME teachers. The Runnymede Trust and NEU. Available at: (accessed 14 July 2021).

Malveaux J (2002) Intersectionality – big word for small lives. Speaking of education – race, age, ethnicity, and class. Black Issues in Higher Education 19: 27.

Tereshchenko A, Mills M and Bradbury A (2020) Making progress? Employment and retention of BAME teachers in England. UCL Institute of Education. Available at: (accessed 14 July 2021).

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      Author(s): Bill Lucas