Earlier this month, we caught up with CEO of Congleton Multi-Academy Trust (Cmat) David Hermitt, to hear first-hand about his experiences as a black leader in education, and what he thinks the sector could do to improve inclusion and diversity at the top.
Why were you drawn to the education sector?
I think that education is so important. I enjoyed my time at school. My secondary school provided me with lots of opportunities. I was encouraged to develop academic skills alongside other pursuits such as sport and music. I learned lessons there that have stayed with me for life. What young people learn and experience during their time at school can have a big impact on their future. Helping children to secure a great education is one of the most valuable contributions we can make.
When I went to university, I wanted to become an engineering lecturer. My plans changed after I volunteered at a school, supporting a friend who was a teacher. I was inspired by the work that they were doing. The experience showed me that I could really make a difference working with teenagers and young people. I became a physics teacher at a secondary school and never looked back. I’ve now been teaching for over 32 years.
What has your experience as one of the only black MAT CEOs in the country been like?
From the perspective of being a CEO - I’d say it’s been quite positive. I’ve been working hard to ensure that the schools I’m responsible for are very successful.
For example, in 2018 Congleton High School was the highest performing school in Cheshire for Progress 8, with a score of 0.37. In addition, Castle Primary school was one of the best primary schools in the country with brilliant maths results while Black Firs primary school is widely recognised for its innovative curriculum and sporting success. Successfully leading such a diverse group of schools with hardworking staff has been immensely rewarding.
However, there just aren’t enough BME staff at my level in the sector. Around 3% of secondary headteachers are from any non-white background, and it’s been like this for about 20 years. CEOs of educational trusts tend to be recruited from the existing pool of headteachers, making the chances of coming across any black MAT leaders very slim. That’s why I’m one of a very small handful of black MAT CEOs. It would be great if we could increase the pipeline of potential senior leaders so that in 20 years time, schools will be more representative of the children that they serve. I’ve encountered a lot of obstacles in my journey to senior leadership. In some cases, I’ve needed a bulldozer to break down barriers. It would be great if future generations of BME leaders just needed a sweeping brush to clear the path ahead of them.
Why do you think there is still such a problem with diversity in education?
Young black people who are gifted at sport or music can see themselves reflected in those industries. The talent of BME people in these areas is recognised and celebrated. Ambitious, academically gifted young black people are more likely to be drawn to more diverse public sector roles as doctors, dentists or lawyers.
There are very few people from BME backgrounds teaching in schools. Children need to see an ethnically diverse workforce at all levels in education. This will encourage more BME children to consider teaching as a potential career. The fact that so few school leaders are from ethnically diverse backgrounds makes it more difficult for black children to see education as a potential career choice. If we want the brightest black children to aspire to become teachers, they need to know that they can go on to become headteachers and CEOs as well.
As an agent for social justice, education should be leading the way in tackling injustice and discrimination, and having a representative workforce. Yet sadly, it is way behind other professions. Global businesses have recognised that investing in diversity pays dividends. They know that the ability to reach everyone helps them make a profit. Schools must learn from this. They can connect better with their stakeholders and secure improvements for children from all backgrounds by promoting diversity. Schools with a diverse workforce are moving ahead, while those who only recruit people who look like themselves are not able to move forward. These schools simply do not have the right teachers and support staff who can engage and inspire children from different backgrounds.
What can academy trusts do to recruit more BME staff?
All educational employers need to champion the benefits of a diverse workforce and promote this in their recruitment practices. Schools and trusts want to attract the best talent available. To find the best talent, you need to recruit from the widest pool possible. Sometimes it’s just a case of advertising roles in places where you are more likely to recruit people from diverse backgrounds. That’s just one of the many things the sector can do to make teaching more attractive to people.
Sadly, there’s a lot of bias in the recruitment process. Unconscious bias sometimes means that people don’t get a fair hearing at interviews. I’d encourage all MATs to train their interviewers in unconscious bias, and to put structures in place that minimise bias through the recruitment process. Cmat has adopted policies and practices to reduce the bias that inherently exists in all recruitment practices. We have provided training to decision-makers about how to deal with their own unconscious bias. We centralise the recruitment process so that we can monitor any bias and ensure that all candidates get the best opportunity to work for us. Our aim is to make the process as fair as possible.
What can academy trusts do to retain more BME staff, particularly at middle and senior leadership levels?
Once they join the profession, many young BME teachers are saying that they feel like there are obstacles to making progress in their careers. BME staff tell me that they find it challenging to progress to middle and senior leadership. NASUWT, the teachers’ union has recognised that many of its members from minority backgrounds have been unfairly treated in the workplace. A 2017 survey of members showed that BME teachers felt isolated and unsupported by their managers when dealing with incidences of racism and career progression. BME teachers are more likely to leave the profession early because they don’t feel valued, and they don’t feel that the workplace is an environment conducive to their progress.
To combat this, we need to provide appropriate training and career opportunities for employees. I’ve organised a number of training programmes over recent years designed to do this. For example, I organised for a group of BME leaders in the north west to meet with a senior leader from Ofsted. This provided them with valuable training and insights. Some have now gone on to work for Ofsted, others have gained promotions at their existing schools by applying the lessons learned. BME teachers need support and encouragement to take their careers to the next level.
What advice would you offer to a black teacher at the beginning of their career with ambitions of senior leadership?
My best advice is to work hard. Working hard brings out the most of your talents. Our work as senior leaders is very rewarding in terms of job satisfaction. However, most teachers and senior leaders are working for more than 60 hours per week. Most people don’t realise just how intense the work is. In the long term we need to improve teacher workload and well being, but in the meantime it’s about being resilient.
I’d also tell them to find a good mentor. The education sector doesn’t have a great track record of mentoring practises, but there are some opportunities out there, such as the Academy Ambassadors CEO mentoring scheme which helps people find a mentor to support them in the next stage of their career. If you can find someone from a similar background, even better.
Why do you think it’s important that we celebrate Black History Month?
I welcome any chance to celebrate diversity, however, part of me disagrees with the concept of Black History Month and it being constrained to just one month. Children of black heritage are made to feel as if they’re in the minority, whereas they actually make up the global majority. When you start to take the broader worldview of human history as opposed to just British history, a month to look at all of black history simply isn’t enough. It should be an all year round activity that allows for the heritage of all the world’s ethnic populations to be brought into the history we study in our schools, encouraging respect for all the different cultures that have contributed to the world as we know it.