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Representation matters: How do we increase diversity in our school staff body?

Written by: Sally Tattersfield
9 min read

Following the worldwide reactions to the death of George Floyd in May 2020 in the USA, the crucial need to tackle racism in the UK has been highlighted, including through movements such as Black Lives Matter (BLM). Organisations such as my own are looking at the make-up of our workforce, at how well people of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) origin are represented at senior levels and the barriers to progression that they may face. Developing such a strategy is not a sprint; it is a long-distance race, and should be a considered, iterative process (Miller, 2020a). With that in mind, this article specifically focuses on one aspect of what would be a much wider strategy. This article blends diversity and inclusion information from within and outside the education sphere from an organisational perspective – ideas and strategies that a single-academy, large secondary school like mine can consider in relation to career progression for BAME education professionals.

This matters for our students, who need to see that people who look like them can succeed as inspiring education professionals and leaders; this matters for our school and staff, who will benefit from a more diverse and inclusive organisation; this matters for society and for the future. Our aim is to create an inclusive environment where a rich diversity of people feel able to be themselves, working within and leading the organisation, having equality of access to opportunities to progress their careers.

Many schools in the UK will identify with where my school finds itself, at the starting line or thereabouts, in a situation where, more likely than not, senior leadership is not ethnically diverse. ‘The more I listen to the concerns arising from the BAME community, the more it is clear that a lack of black people in senior positions is a key source of the systemic disadvantages faced by black people. We simply are not there when the strategic decisions are being made and our voices are not heard.’ (Iferenta, 2020) Are schools truly able to call themselves inclusive allies if their leadership teams do not reflect the staff and students that they lead and represent (Bibi, 2020)?

Barriers to progression

Multiple factors have contributed to us being here, on the path towards figuring out how, among many other associated aims, we achieve greater progression for BAME teachers into leadership roles – not least the influence of society as a whole, where educational institutions and educational leaders are by-products and microcosms of the overarching context of systemic racism in the UK, a context where inequity and inequality are endemic (Miller, 2020b).

Not seeing ‘people like me’ in senior positions is one of the key barriers to progression for employees. Of the approximately 20,000 qualified teachers from black and minority ethnic heritage, just over 1,200 are in a formal leadership position (Miller, 2020b). More widely in UK employment, BAME employees are significantly more likely than those from any other ethnic background to say that career progression is an important factor in their working life and that their career has not met their expectations (CIPD, 2017). Other key barriers to progression for teachers of BAME heritage include direct and indirect racial discrimination via unfair policy treatment and institutional practices, and lack of access to group membership or affiliation (Miller, 2020b).

Every organisation is unique and so, of course, is every individual. Organisations need to come to an understanding of their own structural and cultural barriers that are helping to maintain workplace inequalities.

Trust and transparency

In starting to address these issues, trust is vital to engaging people. Trust expert Rachel Botsman (2017) refers to three questions that are central to gaining trust in a new idea: ‘What is it? What do I gain? Who else is doing it?’ Addressing these questions from the start can turn an idea once dismissed as risky and even frightening into something normal and rewarding, and schools may be able to use this to introduce the concept of improving diversity and inclusion.

Communication within the school community that this issue is high up on the agenda and actively being worked on is a powerful tool to raise awareness, build trust and engage people. At my school we have created a working group to develop a Charter for Action. There is much work to do but we now have a statement of intent on our website that we will approach from a strategic level to actively engage with issues of inequality in all its forms. This is set out as a long-term commitment with an open invitation for anyone in the community, including other schools, to join us in this work.

Part of building trust is being transparent about the starting point: the current data. A school or trust could calculate the ethnicity mix of the staffing in the organisation and compare this data to the working-age population in the locality (McGregor-Smith, 2017). This can provide a useful benchmark to prompt the discussion about setting any kind of target. One issue with gathering this kind of data is the confidence that what is captured is an accurate picture of the make-up of employee ethnicity. Lloyds Banking Group tackled this through a series of regular communications, sponsored by senior leaders, linking the data request to their organisational goal of better representing the customers and communities that they serve (McGregor-Smith, 2017). Schools need to think through how to engage with their staff to encourage participation in data-collection. Highlighting the benefits of having a more diverse organisation, how the data will be used and how the organisation will be held accountable for progress against agreed targets can be a good starting point to encourage people to participate.

Data-driven promotion

Elsewhere, consulting firm EY tackled the issue of lack of diversity in senior management via a data-driven approach. At managerial level, 20 per cent of the workforce were from BAME backgrounds and so this was the target set for promotions to senior management level. If a division failed to achieve this target, the situation was reviewed and support put in place, such as ensuring an equal allocation of experience on stretching projects, which would help provide the evidence needed for progression (McGregor-Smith, 2017).

Schools have access to this kind of data within their own trust and could draw out, for example, the ethnicity data from applications to the upper pay scale or a TLR opportunity, and examine whether those who are successfully appointed are representative. If not, it may be necessary to review the support and access to opportunities for those from different ethnic backgrounds. ‘Long standing appraisal and reward systems can often overlook skills, expertise or potential that may be more prevalent among ethnic minority employees.’ (McGregor-Smith, 2017, p. 23)

Effective line management

Organisations should be investing more in the development of line managers, as they are best placed to influence an individual’s career through coaching, training and development. Only half of employees across most ethnic groups feel able to talk to their manager about career aspirations (CIPD, 2017). The line manager plays a key role in understanding the individual needs of each team member, providing coaching to help them to develop professionally and to ensure that they have someone whose key role includes eliciting the brilliance from within them (Bibi, 2020).

Accessible information

For many, the career ladder that is so obvious to some is a complete mystery (McGregor-Smith, 2017). This is about reassessing the clarity of communication about career routes within the organisation, stepping into the shoes of a newly qualified teacher with no reference points from family or friends for career progression within education, and re-evaluating the information available. Storytelling – sharing the personal career history of senior leaders – for example, can be an effective way to build transparency and to inform more junior colleagues about routes to progression. Open discussions about development and aspiration should be available to all.


Linked to this, being mentored by someone in a more senior position can have a positive effect on an individual’s career aspirations and actual progression. BAME employees are more likely than white British employees to say that mentoring has been effective in helping them to achieve their potential (McGregor-Smith, 2017). There are BAMEed regional groups with mentoring schemes already set up, which schools can tap into.

Reverse mentoring – being mentored by a more junior colleague – is another activity that can help senior leaders to appreciate the barriers faced by BAME employees and to help them to reassess the organisation’s processes and culture. Typically, a regular meeting is arranged to cover issues such as respect and inclusion at work and the recruitment and retention of BAME people. Activities like this demonstrate senior leaders and the organisation in listening mode; the lived experiences of black and ethnic minority employees need to be heard, acted on and championed. The process helps to create fresh perspectives and can have a positive and empowering impact on a mentee’s career.

Linked to this, however, schools also need to beware of tokenism – of burdening the small number of people from ethnic minorities within the workplace with being the mouthpiece for diversity and inclusion. All organisations have a responsibility to educate themselves on the issues and be able to advocate for change on behalf of BAME employees – to strike a balance between ensuring that employees have a voice and feel heard and not overburdening them with the task of educating everyone on diversity and inclusion. ‘The fewer employees of colour there are in a company, the more the burden rests on you individually. You unwittingly become the spokesperson for black issues or racism as a whole.’ (Cadogan, 2020)

Organisational culture

Half of BAME employees say that they feel the need to censor what they say about their personal lives while at work, compared to 37 per cent of white British employees (CIPD, 2017). Schools that have been traditionally white-dominated may need to look at whether the organisational culture needs to adapt via an honest appraisal of whether the workplace is truly inclusive. School processes are built around ensuring inclusion for all students from all backgrounds and levels of ability, meaning that there is already a wealth of knowledge within schools and trusts on inclusion. How much positive change could take place if this knowledge and expertise was used in relation to staff, as well as students?

Positive action

Positive action, unlike positive discrimination, is a legal process set out in the Equality Act 2010, in which employers take steps to make opportunities available to marginalised groups via targeted advertising or training. Despite a heavy emphasis on appointing on merit, positive action is not supported by many, regardless of ethnic origin. One unintended consequence can be that a person of BAME heritage can feel perceived as being appointed for the colour of their skin rather than for their skills or experience. Organisations using any kind of positive action need to be very clear in their processes that they are appointing or awarding on merit. Miller (2020) has outlined a range of positive actions that can be implemented in the recruitment, development, retention and progression of staff of black, Asian and minority ethnic heritage. These include, for example, recruiting from ethnic communities through targeted advertising and providing appropriate continuing professional development (CPD) on leadership and secondment opportunities.

Looking ahead

There is cause for schools and trusts to transform into more open, diverse workplaces. The responsibility is now on school governors and leaders to start the conversation and lead the education sector to a more representative, diverse and inclusive future, where students of today have equal opportunity to become inspiring teachers and educational leaders of the future.


Bibi Y (2020) Inclusive allyship. Diverse Educators. Available at: 25 October 2020).

Botsman R (2017) The three steps of building trust in new ideas and businesses. Available at: (accessed 25 October 2020).

Cadogan D (2020) ‘You feel obliged to tell them they’re not racist’ – after George Floyd, black people are hypervisible at work. Gal-dem. Available at: (accessed 25 October 2020).

CIPD (2017) Addressing the barriers to BAME employee career progression to the top. Available at: (accessed 25 October 2020).

Iferenta R (2020) Stamping out racism and inequality in business. Business in the Community. Available at: (accessed 25 October 2020).

McGregor-Smith R (2017) Race in the workplace: The McGregor-Smith Review. Available at: (accessed 25 October 2020).

Miller P (2020a) Courageous conversations about race: School anti-racist strategy. BAMEed. Available at: 27 October 2020).

Miller P (2020b) Tackling race inequality in school leadership: Positive actions on BAME teacher progression – evidence from three English schools. Educational Management Administration & Leadership 48(6): 986–1006.


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      Author(s): Bill Lucas