Why were you drawn to the education sector?
Education has always been something that’s fundamental to black communities and their ability to achieve social mobility. Black people we know have been in these isles for centuries, but those who came to England in the post-war period particularly regarded education as a key that could unlock the best possible opportunities for future generations. My father came from Guyana and my mother from Ireland – both communities that recognise the significance of education as a vehicle for progression. Fortunately, they encouraged my siblings and I to make the most of our education. The direction our lives took made its value clear to us. We were educated alongside black students whose lives took very different trajectories from ours, so we also saw the ways in which education systems and approaches fail to work in favour of black students. I witnessed a lot of black talent being lost due to prevailing attitudes and obstacles that stopped them from reaching anything close to their full potential, so I recognised the power of education to shape young lives in positive and, tragically, negative ways.
Why do you think there is still such a problem with diversity in education?
One can see that there’s been some progress in terms of diversity generally, but that progress hasn’t happened as quickly or been nearly as significant as it should have. I actually think bringing the different issues of BME groups together under the banner of “diversity” has diluted the impact for black communities, particularly Afro-Caribbean communities that were born in Britain. At face value, it may look like these issues are being solved because we can see greater representation of people from various ethnic minority backgrounds. Meanwhile, numbers of black Afro-Caribbean teachers and leaders within the education system haven’t really changed in the last 20 years. The education system may claim to be more diverse, but there remains hardly any black Afro-Caribbean people in leadership positions, fewer still born and educated here.
While Afro-Caribbean teachers and leaders are few and far between, those in post are incredibly high calibre individuals who are clearly there for the right reasons. It’s important that we, as leaders, maintain the highest possible expectations and standards. That is partly because black leaders remain under additional pressure to be not only good at what they do, but the very best at what they do. As they say - a failed white football manager will almost certainly get phone calls about future jobs, while a failed black football manager will not. The same is true in education – the system is still very unforgiving of mistakes made by black people in positions of influence.
What can academy trusts do to recruit more black staff, particularly at middle and senior leadership levels?
It sounds very simplistic to say that academy trusts should just employ more black staff and encourage them. It isn’t always as straightforward as it sounds, because publicly funded organisations are - quite rightly - beholden to regulations around fair recruitment. Positions should be filled through open and transparent processes, based on merit, so that whoever ends up in the role is the right person for the job. I think that it’s really important for black professionals to feel confident that they have achieved their position based on merit, and for this to be the basis of their credibility in the eyes of peers and the public generally. The last thing black communities need – especially Afro-Caribbean communities - is the perception that they are receiving opportunities due to “ethnic favouritism” instead of ability.
Schools and academy trusts need to accept the fact that there is still much work to be done to encourage black staff and leaders. They need to present themselves in a way that will attract black staff and leaders and take steps to recruit from places where they are more likely attract the high calibre black talent that is undoubtedly out there.
What can academy trusts do to support their existing black staff and leaders?
Once high calibre black staff and leaders have been appointed, organisations should work to ensure those people have access to the support they need to thrive. What that support looks like depends on the person, what they need, where they are in their career, what they bring to the role. It could take the form of coaching and mentoring, accredited training and development, status given to that person in terms of how they’re listened to and how their ideas are received within the organisation, and opportunities to network with black leaders and others who are further ahead in their careers. It’s about creating an environment in which black members of staff are pro-actively supported and encouraged to reach their full potential.
What has your experience as one of the only black MAT CEOs been like?
I’m very proud of the fact that I’m a CEO, and I’m proud of the fact that I’m a CEO of Afro-Caribbean descent, born and educated in the UK. My trajectory has been punctuated by a series of significant firsts. I was the first black Principal Educational Psychologist in the country, the first black Director of Children’s Services in the country, and the first black CEO of a MAT, turning it into one of the largest and most successful MATs in the country. Taking up roles at a time when attitudes were very different meant that I had to deal with attitudes that were far removed from the progress we see today.
Black leaders tend to set themselves very high standards because we know we are statistical anomalies in terms of representation. I think we put that pressure on ourselves because we want to set the best possible example; our low numbers mean we are still ‘trailblazers’. We want to encourage other black professionals to pursue leadership, and to show the world that your ethnicity should never determine what you can and can’t do. I think my experience is proving to be a very positive one. The people I work with accept and support me as their leader, and recognise that we as an organisation have to be as open and inclusive as we can be, and we are starting to see black Afro-Caribbean staff joining the organisation and getting the support they need.
What advice would you offer to a black teacher at the beginning of their career with ambitions of senior leadership?
The first thing I would say is - go for it! Secondly, make no assumptions, be prepared to push yourself to be the best you can be. Anyone beginning their journey needs to set out optimistic in the belief that hard work can bring about promotion and the ability to fulfil your ambitions, but there is still progress to be made and attitudes to shift, so people from minority ethnic communities need to be prepared to always work hard, work smart, and showcase their ability.
Why do you think it’s important that we celebrate Black History Month?
Black History Month has an important place in the British calendar. There’s the usual criticism about it being tokenistic, but I think that it serves as an important reminder to celebrate the contributions of black people in Britain. The narrative of Afro-Caribbean’s is Britain is at risk of being diluted. It’s a narrative that was highlighted by the recent Windrush scandal, which tragically reminded the nation that institutional discrimination is still working against Afro-Caribbean communities, and continues to have a traumatic impact on the lives of many who arrived with hopeful dreams, and many born, raised and educated here. Black History Month is a time to shine a light on the success and resilience of past generations, and a time to recognise the potential that current and future generations have; potential that is still not realised all too often. It’s important for us to see examples of black success, to celebrate it, and to acknowledge that there is still so much work to be done.