To celebrate Black History Month, we conducted a series of interviews with black leaders in education to hear first-hand about their experiences, and what they think the sector could do to improve inclusion and diversity at the top. Earlier in the month, we caught up with former cricketer and current deputy head and maths teacher at Da Vinci Academy, Adrian Rollins.
Why were you drawn to the education sector?
Teaching is actually my second career. I started out as a cricketer for Derbyshire and then Northamptonshire, I retired from cricket early due to injury. I knew that I wanted to work with young people, so looked into youth work. My former cricket career actually led me to becoming an unqualified sports co-ordinator for schools in Luton. I went on to study with the Open University for a degree in maths and education, and started teaching maths and P.E. My eventual role as Director of Maths gave me some leadership experience, and the rest is history.
My mother’s background in education also helped to lead me down this path. She was the first black headteacher in Newham and then in Enfield, and went on to receive an OBE for her services to education. I definitely inherited her drive to make a real difference in the lives of her pupils and in the community.
Why do you think there is still such a problem with diversity in education?
Growing up in the 1970s and ‘80s, my experiences and the experiences of my peers put us off education. I grew up in east London which is very diverse - but my school only had a couple of black teachers. Teachers assumed that black boys were good at sport, and that we weren’t academic. While I was good at sport as a child, I was also good at maths, but was only encouraged to develop my talents on the pitch. We were pushed away from academia. That’s how I ended up playing cricket rather than teaching maths in my twenties.
Black maths teachers are still hard to come by. This lack of representation can be disheartening for young people with similar aspirations. I’m the only BME member of my school’s senior leadership team. When I was a school governor there were no other black faces on the board. Black leaders in education must still be prepared to be the first and only person of colour in the room. That can be daunting.
What do you think the sector can do to improve inclusion and diversity in education?
The push to improve diversity and inclusion in education has to come from schools and universities. When addressing students from African and Caribbean backgrounds, institutions should be pushing teaching and academia as viable career options for them.
It’s also about giving individuals the support they need to develop. While teaching in London, I received a great deal of support in my professional development. I also took advantage of the NEU's great range of learning and development programmes. I recently completed my training as an Ofsted Inspector, and am working towards my NPQH (National Professional Qualification for Headship). My current headteacher has been incredibly supportive in my pursuit of this, I’ve had to put myself out there. It may be hard to do so, but that’s the only way you’re going to be able to break barriers, fulfil your potential and make a difference.
BME teachers must also be prepared to move on when they are not receiving adequate support, and should not allow themselves to be pigeonholed. Often, assumptions are made that BME staff will only make good heads of pastoral care in inner-city schools with large numbers of BME children. While this is an admirable role, BME educators can add value in all domains. It takes resilience to challenge these assumptions and go against the grain to pursue whatever direction you want to take.
What has your experience as one of only a few black leaders in education been like? What about your mother’s experiences?
As a real pioneer in her field, my mother certainly experienced challenges throughout her career. I’ve also had some unpleasant experiences, when times are tough, it’s important to focus on why you’re there. I stay focused on achieving the best outcomes I can for the children and young people at my school, and on my own personal development.
What advice would you offer to a black teacher at the beginning of their career with ambitions of senior leadership?
Stay focused on your goal – improve young people’s lives by improving outcomes at your school and developing your talents. You should clarify what you want to achieve, and what you need to do to smash those glass ceilings. Ignore the nay-sayers, remember why you’re there, and do what’s good for you, your pupils and your community. I would also say that when facing adversity, it’s useful to draw on the experiences and achievements of those who have come before you.
Why do you think it’s important that we celebrate Black History Month?
While I don’t agree that there should be just one month dedicated to the celebration and acknowledgement of our achievements, it is so important that it happens. The British values we teach in schools speak of tolerance, but I think it should be about inclusion. I don’t want to be tolerated or ‘put up with’, I want to be a welcome and active participant in society. Black History Month is a good way to raise awareness of the many achievements and countless contributions of black people in Britain and beyond. Too often these contributions are overlooked, and it’s so important that they are recognised, meanwhile, we are inundated with negative stereotypical images of black youth in the media. How often do we get to see youth excellence? It’s out there, it’s just about what gets exposure. I think that Black History Month helps to address this imbalance, it shows that we are part of this society, and we are here to stay.