Black leaders in education: Audrey Pantelis |

Black leaders in education: Audrey Pantelis

Earlier this month, we caught up with education consultant and former Head of School at Pentland Field Special School, Audrey Pantelis to hear first-hand about her experiences as a black leader in education, and what she thinks the sector could do to improve inclusion and diversity at the top.

Why were you drawn to the education sector?

I wasn’t drawn to the education sector to begin with. I saw an advert seeking a full-time classroom assistant at university late in the summer term. I applied for the job as it was based in a school. As a third year undergraduate and Welfare Officer on the Student Union council I ran an on-campus play scheme for the children of mature students at my university, so I knew that I enjoyed working with kids. I applied with very little knowledge of what the role would actually consist of. It was chaotic, but I really enjoyed it. I came into the education sector not knowing what to expect, but once I got involved, I never turned back.


What has your experience as one of only a few black leaders in education been like?

Honestly, it’s been tricky. There are relatively few black teachers and even less in senior leadership positions. When I was in the role of Head of School, as a black female leader, it was even more stark. I know there is a small number of black women who are CEOs - that’s what I’m aspiring to be – but we’re still massively underrepresented. It’s such a shame as we have a lot to offer.

As I get older and more experienced, I’ve become more vociferous about promoting and celebrating strong black leaders in all walks of life, especially education, and teachers who should be thinking about leadership. I want to encourage more talented young people of colour to enter the sector. However, I do understand why there’s a hesitancy there.  


Why do you think there are still so few black teachers in leadership roles?

In my experience, most panels interviewing people for positions are risk averse. When being interviewed for leadership positions, BAME teachers usually need to quieten the ‘imposter syndrome’ voice within and they also have to balance this with the demographics of the school or area, and whether this is the right ‘fit’ for them. There is also the aspect of BAME teachers sometimes being utilised as ‘disciplinarians’. This has been my own experience. This is a misrepresentation. Going for black talent is seen as taking a risk. That shouldn’t still be the case. In terms of hiring practices, it’s all about changing the attitudes of those who appoint leaders in education. There are some amazing people out there who are capable of doing amazing things, but trusts and local authorities need to stop being so timid. The best candidate should get the post regardless of colour – but alongside this there needs to be some vision and risk taking!

Another issue here is that black teachers often lack the confidence needed to step up to the more senior roles due to a feeling of not being good enough. Black teachers can feel the need to be twice as good as their white counterparts to be considered for the same role. This can partly be put down to a lack of encouragement from senior management.


Why do you think there is still such a problem with diversity in education more generally?

BAME people don’t always have great experiences in school for a number of reasons. This could be because of their background, ability, aptitude or attitude. Negative experiences in school can encourage negative attitudes to learning for BAME children and young people. This resistance to learning isn’t always discouraged at school or at home because parents may have had a similar experience during their educational experience either in the UK or from their country of origin. Many BAME children are pushed away from academia to pursue their practical talents, and from the children’s perspective, education can seem like a difficult career path compared to other professions such as music, dance or sport.

Cultural conflicts can also put people off working in education. Many African and Asian parents strongly encourage their children to pursue careers as doctors and lawyers for monetary or status reasons - teaching doesn’t really come into that, although it isn’t considered a backwards career move. There are not many teachers of colour and if BAME children do not see them, then why should they espouse to be in a sector that does not encourage people like them to become teachers?  A combination of these factors can push young BAME students away from the education sector.


What do you think schools and trusts can do to improve inclusion and diversity in education, particularly at middle and senior leadership levels?

NQTs (newly qualified teachers) need to be encouraged through mentoring and coaching. Schools should be capturing their enthusiasm and excitement. NQTs and first year teachers should be given innovative whole school projects to work on. This is a good way to encourage them, highlight any pitfalls, teach them ways of working, and help prepare them for more advanced roles. NQTs should also be encouraged to pursue NPQs (national professional qualifications) to develop their ability and confidence over time.

Meanwhile, linking young teachers with likeminded peers through networks such as BAMEed can help ease feelings of isolation. Within schools, BAME teachers need to be nurtured and encouraged. Teaching is tough enough as it is, but it’s even tougher for black teachers.

What advice would you offer to a black teacher at the beginning of their career with ambitions of senior leadership?

I’d tell them to stay focused on their goals and work hard to develop their craft. They should be confident in the fact that they are bringing a unique, strong, varied voice to the profession. Children aren’t the problem when it comes to issues of diversity. They can spot authenticity a mile off and will respond to it, so it’s important to be yourself at all times. I’d also tell them not to be put off by the low numbers of people of colour in the sector, you’ve just got to get on with it and do the best job you can. In the words of the actress Kerry Washington, “I’m not interested in a world where my race is not part of who I am. I am interested in living in a world where our races, no matter what they are, do not define our trajectory in life.”


Why do you think it’s important that we celebrate Black History Month? 

To be honest, it’s a shame that it’s only a month. Black history should be celebrated all the time. However, as it stands, Black History Month is the one time in the year when we as a nation can all celebrate black innovators and pioneers who paved the way for us, whose footsteps we follow in. It shines a light on their contributions, and on the massive contributions black people have made and continue to make all over the world. It inspires our young people - the leaders of tomorrow - showing them that they have the ability and talent to shape the future. I don’t like the tokenistic aspect of it, but I’m grateful that there’s at least something. It’s better to have something than nothing at all.

Blog topic:
General education