Black and ethnic minority teachers face 'invisible glass ceiling' in schools, report warns

Teachers report problems including casual racism, lack of role models for BME children, and being forced to deal with ‘microaggressions’ from other staff

Rachael Pells
Education Correspondent
Friday 14 April 2017 08:27 BST
Just 7 per cent of primary classroom teachers are of BME origin
Just 7 per cent of primary classroom teachers are of BME origin

Teachers from black, Asian and ethnic minority backgrounds (BME) face an “invisible glass ceiling” that limits them from being taken seriously for senior staff jobs, new figures suggest.

A questionnaire sent out to more than 1,000 BME teachers revealed concerns they were being given projects rooted in stereotypes rather than encouraged to take part in wider teaching roles.

Some also claimed bosses relied on stereotypes as an excuse to hand BME teachers classes with the “most challenging behaviour”.

The survey, for the National Union of Teachers (NUT) by race equality think tank Runnymede Trust, found a third (32 per cent) of male and 27 per cent of female teachers did not feel staff were comfortable talking about race or sexism.

Respondents said structural barriers such as racism – including assumptions about capability based on racial and ethnic stereotypes – were everyday experiences for BME teachers.

In particular, BME teachers spoke about an invisible glass ceiling and a widespread perception among senior leadership teams that BME teachers “have a certain level and don’t go beyond it”.

One primary school teacher of Caribbean origin said: “You can bring experiences of your own culture, get children to ask questions about culture, to lead on faith and Black History month.

“[But] having to deal with difficult conversations, you become the mentor for BME, given classes with the most challenging behaviour. It’s the result of stereotypical assumptions.“

A total of 1,027 respondents completed the questionnaire – the majority working at secondary school level (51 per cent).

Just more than a third (35 per cent) worked in primary schools and the remaining numbers worked in nursery, post-16 colleges and pupil referral units.

In their report, the Runnymede Trust noted that only 10 per cent of secondary school classroom teachers are of BME origin compared to more than a quarter of pupils in secondary schools being from BME backgrounds.

Similarly, only 7 per cent of primary classroom teachers are of BME origin compared to just under a third (30 per cent) of pupils being from BME backgrounds.

Less than 4 per cent of head teachers in both primary and secondary schools are of BME origin.

“[Schools] don’t realise that ethnic minority children need role models from their own group,” one black secondary school teacher said, giving evidence for the report.

“If the children see SMT [the senior management team] as being all white and the cleaning staff from ethnic minorities, that is all they aspire to be. Especially if they do not see people around them or members of their families in senior positions.”

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Most of those responding to the survey agreed that role models for children were desirable, but many argued it was a necessity to protect students from being stereotyped or misunderstood.

The predominant view among BME teachers was that they found the school environment challenging in that they had been forced to deal with “microaggression” from other teachers and students. Microaggression means the casual degradation of any marginalised group.

“Some staff are disappointingly ignorant and do not realise they carry implicitly racist views which are usually ill thought through,” one teacher said.

“There is casual racism without intention to harm, but lack of intent to harm doesn’t do much if harm is caused.”

Others feared they would be labelled as potentially “challenging” or “aggressive” if they intervened in racist disputes.

While many teachers reported incidences of racism – direct and indirect – within their schools, several teachers from Muslim backgrounds raised issues around Islamophobia and “existing misconceptions” about them.

On the one hand, Muslim teachers argued that it was important to have Muslims among the staff to “counter and control an Islamophobic narrative about schools being taken over by fundamentalist Muslims” and to protect Muslim students who were “trying to keep their head down during the Trojan Horse scandal”.

But others said the emphasis on the Government’s controversial Prevent anti-terror strategy undermined their abilities as a teacher, or left them feeling “conflicted” about their roles as teachers, and as members of Muslim communities.

“Prevent is so strong that teachers feel that disagreeing with them is seen as condoning extremism and there is pressure to ‘watch’ Muslim students and their work,” one black secondary school teacher said.

Commenting on the findings, Kevin Courtney, NUT general secretary, said racism was an issue that needed wider discussion within schools.

“It is a defining feature of BME teachers’ lives and deeply affects the experience of young black people,” he said. “It is urgent we open up conversations about racism in staff rooms, in classrooms and in the curriculum.

“Children come to school in a world that is not equal. BME teachers and pupils face racism in the streets, in popular culture and in employment.

“Strategies to better use the potential of schools and colleges to reduce racism are urgently needed. The NUT will be using the good practice identified in schools via this research to develop practical tools for schools to challenge the effects of racism.”

Dr Zubaida Haque, research associate at the Runnymede Trust, said: “Government and school leaders should be concerned that over 60 per cent of black and ethnic minority teachers are thinking of leaving the teaching profession.

“Our survey found that BME teachers were not only overwhelmed with the mountain of paperwork but they are also beaten down by the everyday ‘microaggressions’ in the staff room and the low expectations and support by senior staff in their schools.

“This has led to BME teachers feeling undervalued, isolated and disillusioned with their careers.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “There is no place for any form of harassment or bullying in the workplace and the law prevents any employer from discriminating against an employee on the basis of characteristics such as race, gender or disability.

“We provide a range of support to teachers from black and ethnic minority backgrounds such as the Leadership Targeted Support Fund and Equality and Diversity Fund. These fund support networks for BME teachers as well as coaching and mentoring for BME teachers in senior leadership roles”

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