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The retention and progression of teachers from minority ethnic groups

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Reviews of the composition of the teacher workforce in England have shown a persistent shortage of black, Asian and other minority ethnic (BAME) teachers (Haque, 2017; Joseph-Salisbury, 2020). Currently, 14.1 per cent of teachers are from minority ethnic groups, while 33.1 per cent of primary school students and 30.3 per cent of secondary students are of minority ethnic origins. This shortage is compounded by the lower retention of BAME teachers (Allen et al., 2018; DfE, 2018a). The reasons why BAME teachers leave in greater numbers than white British teachers are varied, but school demographics, culture and opportunities for career progression into senior leadership positions are particularly important (for example, see Miller, 2019). In this context, this article presents findings from mixed methods research funded by the British Academy on the employment and retention of BAME teachers (see Tereshchenko et al., 2020).

The root of the BAME teacher supply problem

The UK government has sought to address the student–teacher imbalance through its agenda to boost numbers of minority teachers entering the workforce (DfE, 2018b). The UK Education Secretary recently framed the need to attract more minority ethnic teachers in terms of addressing overall teacher shortages (Whittaker, 2019). Despite more minority teachers entering the profession (Lough, 2019), there has been limited success in retaining them. Two decades of research, mainly in the USA, shows that the recruitment of new teachers alone will not solve shortages (Ingersoll et al., 2019). Scholars and commentators often employ a ‘revolving door’ metaphor to emphasise the problem of high turnover and attrition of new teachers. Focusing on understanding the causes of minority teacher staffing problems in relation to the institutional characteristics and culture of workplaces has been a useful approach to studying the phenomenon.

Where BAME teachers are employed

International research and our overview of the employment patterns in England, using 2018 School Workforce Census (UK Government, 2020) and related datasets, indicate that minority ethnic teachers tend to work in urban schools with high-minority and more disadvantaged intakes. Our regression analysis found that around 35 per cent of teachers in Outer London schools and over 40 per cent of teachers in Inner London schools are from non-white British backgrounds, a far greater concentration than any other English region. These teachers were also concentrated in ethnically diverse schools in terms of other staff and pupils, both in London and across England.

Minority ethnic teachers are more open and motivated than white British teachers to remain in teaching in London and in other urban ethnically diverse schools that experience acute teacher supply problems. There was evidence in our interviews with 24 teachers from different ethnic and professional backgrounds that BAME staff express a preference for diverse schools.

Retention factors of BAME teachers

Our interviewees purposefully sought out diverse schools and enjoyed working there. A recently qualified black male teacher told us: ‘I’ve basically said to my fiancé, “I’m probably going to move out of London but I want to work in London, because of the demographics.”’ Staff diversity, alongside that of students, was also important. They linked more diverse school contexts to what Hancock et al. (2020) referred to as reduced ‘racial stress’ in their professional lives, with implications for retention. Given that only 16 per cent of schools in England employ a fifth or more of their teachers from minority ethnic groups, the teaching staff overall is predominantly white British (see Tereshchenko et al., 2020). Yet, in the words of one newly qualified primary teacher, having even a small support network of colleagues ‘that look like me, having the same experiences as me’ was key for her decision to move to a London school.

Interviews indicated that although school demographic characteristics mattered to minority teachers, this was not enough to keep them in schools in the long term. Interestingly, workload was not at the forefront of these teachers’ minds in the conversations about retention, but racism and associated inequalities were. Asked about her departure in relation to high workload, a secondary English teacher said: ‘When you are an ethnic minority, you know that workload is part and parcel of your life. So, the work wasn’t really the issue for me. It was really the toxicity that was geared towards me.’

In alignment with literature examining the impact of school climate and organisational characteristics on minority teacher retention, the leadership team emerged in our study as being the key retention factor for these teachers. Unsurprisingly, as with all teachers, BAME teachers wanted senior leaders to appreciate, respect, value and support them. Yet there were specific retention factors for BAME teachers. Many were dissatisfied and planned to leave because of perceived low expectations or negative attitudes about minority students, lack of support from school leaders for culturally relevant and inclusive teaching, colour-blind approaches to dealing with students and staff, and limited dialogue about race and equity in the school. All interviewees disapproved of the current underrepresentation of BAME educators in school leadership in otherwise diverse schools.

Our interviews suggested that as their tenure progressed, teachers became increasingly concerned about barriers to getting rewards and promotions, making a lack of advancement the key retention factor for experienced BAME teachers. These concerns are valid. In 2018, white British people accounted for 92.9 per cent of headteachers and 89.7 per cent of deputy or assistant headteachers (DfE, 2020).

Although teachers who had been in the school system for a number of years were often successful in obtaining middle leadership roles, they often felt stuck in those posts for years. They believed that their racialised status prevented them from further career progression into all white, and predominantly male, senior leadership circles. This finding reinforces the claim by Wallace (2020) about a ‘diversity trap’, whereby BAME inclusion ‘in entry-level leadership tracks may change perceptions of the power of Whiteness in schools and to wider publics, but does not change the institutional arrangements that preserve White privilege’ (p. 359). Feeling unfulfilled and/or undermined in their effort to advance within schools, some experienced teachers indicated, for example, a desire to retrain as school inspectors, become supply teachers or educational consultants, teach abroad or start a doctorate.

The lack of minority ethnic leaders in schools creates a vicious cycle. It has been demonstrated, for example in the USA, that the presence of black leaders in school decreases black teacher turnover (Bartanen and Grissom, 2019). It would appear that the challenges of progression need to be placed on the policy agenda to mitigate the turnover and attrition of teachers from minority ethnic groups.


There are many good reasons for having a diverse teaching workforce. Teachers from minority ethnic groups are in a position to provide culturally sensitive teaching and to understand, communicate or identify with students from non-dominant cultural and linguistic backgrounds in ways in which non-minority educators are unable to do. Research shows that minority ethnic teachers use their cultural knowledge and own experiences as ‘other’ to develop deeper understandings of minority students and their needs (Gershenson et al., 2016; Santoro, 2015). Exposure to teachers from a similar background thus has the potential to help disadvantaged students from minority groups, in greater danger of school exclusion and drop-out than their white peers, to attain greater educational success (Gershenson et al., 2017).

While schools are important sites of learning, they are workplaces too. If workplaces have practices that deter a significant proportion of the population from entering, or that hinder their career progression or cause them to leave, then as a matter of social justice those workplaces need reform. However, the degree to which this issue applies across the schooling sector requires a more thorough investigation of systemic racism and its impact on the diversity of the teaching profession. We recommend that school leaders in diverse schools are required to demonstrate the experience, training and skills that allow them to develop equitable learning environments that support diverse learners and BAME teachers.

In our view, an approach to addressing the shortage of minority ethnic teachers in England’s schools will require fundamental changes. For example: economic resources need to be allocated towards addressing the issue – symbolic policies will not be enough; there needs to be a recognition that the current low levels of BAME teacher employment, retention and career progression cannot be addressed without confronting the embeddedness of white privilege, not only within the education sector, but in the community more broadly; and space has to be provided for BAME teachers to be heard and consulted on in matters related to their employment and progression in ways that lead to meaningful action. Without such fundamental changes, many excellent and highly motivated teachers currently in the system are likely to follow other colleagues out of the door.

Note, we use the acronym ‘BAME’ with an awareness of the problematic nature of the term and its homogenising effects. For the teacher workforce data, and following the government’s use of the term, we use it to describe all non-white British ethnic groups. 


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      Author(s): Bill Lucas