Sunday 16th January, 2022

I have been attending a monthly Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion leadership programme with Diverse Educators since April 2021.  It is led by @Ethical_Leader and @Angela_Browne, and it has uplifted, educated, and inspired me every month.

Hannah and Angie are clear and correct that DEI work is safeguarding work, that well embedded DEI makes school communities safer places.  The aim of their programme is not to rush into anything in a knee-jerk way, but to listen, reflect, learn, and then start to put together a 3-to-5-year plan that works for each school: carefully planning sustained change over time.

At the start of this week’s session, mention was made of an excellent candidate for headship who so far has not been appointed and there was a feeling that this may at least in part be connected to his race and from that perhaps also in part to his strong accent.  This anecdote stayed with me after the session, conscious as I am that over 96% of male and female headteachers in England are white, and with my own awareness of how frequently my accent was referenced when I was applying to be a Headteacher.

I have decided to share a couple of anecdotes relating to my applications for the post of Head at independent schools when my accent was considered a relevant factor. 

I once applied for a Headteacher post where afterwards I was told by the head-hunters, “You were the preferred candidate, the first choice, but the Board have decided not to appoint.  They were quite vague and evasive with us about why this was, and they could only give reasons such as ‘His handshake wasn’t strong enough’, whatever that means.  I think you can draw your own conclusions from this, Kevin.”  A few months later, the Bursar at that particular school later told me straight that the Chair of Governors didn’t wish for somebody from my background as Head of ‘his’ school. 

On another occasion I attended a training session with one of the head-hunter firms, as part of a course for half a dozen applicants who they felt were close to headship.  Afterwards, the course leader told me, “We agreed that you were the strongest candidate from the process we saw today.  You are 100% ready to be a headteacher, but we think that you should seriously consider booking yourself in for elocution lessons because your accent will be the reason that you are not going to be appointed.”  As an English teacher I know enough about language, culture, and identity to be able to reply that if a school didn’t wish to take me as I am then they weren’t the right school for me and I wouldn’t wish to be their headteacher. 

For those who do not know me, as my About Me section says, I grew up in Huyton, Liverpool, a working-class area that is in the second most deprived borough in England, and I have quite a strong Liverpudlian accent.  The Chair of Governors at my then current school did make a decision to directly address my accent in his reference, raising it as a potential consideration before clarifying why this shouldn’t be a factor in a Board’s thinking, pre-emptively calling this out as it were.

I am a straight, white, male headteacher of an independent school.  I have a 1st class degree, and an M.Phil. from Trinity College, Cambridge – there is a whole bunch of privilege there.  At the time of the anecdotes above I was also Interim Head of The Grammar School at Leeds, a large, diamond model school.  I had quite a strong CV on paper, and to be honest I suspect that in a comparable way to my accent wrongly being deemed relevant at interview, it is also not inconceivable that my educational background helped get me to the interview stage.  Some Boards like this kind of thing, taking it to signify far more than it should.

I want to be clear that this is not a post about bias and class in the independent sector.  I have worked in four independent schools, valued them all, and have found them all to be far more egalitarian workplaces than some might imagine.  Very many people working in the independent sector desire to do social good and to help to create a more inclusive and sustainable world.  More specifically, in RMS, I have found a values-led school with a strong ethos that is prepared to think differently about all aspects of education.  I feel appreciated there for who I am, and my accent or social background aren’t referenced in relation to the job that I do because nobody feels they are relevant.

But I have shared a few of my experiences here, (and each of these are only from six years ago), as anecdotal evidence that bias is still out there in appointing Heads.  The education system would be a better place if this were not the case, and we all need to consider the ways in which we can demonstrate commitment to a diverse, equitable, and inclusive staff community in our schools.  For me, it was bias in relation to attitudes to social class, and a little bit of auditory bias.  The government figures from 2019 indicate the extent to which this is a far greater issue in relation to race and ethnicity.

A few final thoughts on this topic for now from me:

  • I hope and want to believe this bias and prejudice is receding, gradually diminishing.  I believe in the transformative power of education as a force for social change that makes a positive difference.  Interestingly, the Foundation that found my background not the right fit for them and that blamed it on my limp handshake have changed their entire Board since then, and there are now seven women and three people of colour on a more diverse Board there.  You would like to think this would not happen again.
  • @jillberry102 was a great source of advice and support throughout my applications for headship.  She always said that in the end you find the right school for you, the right fit for you.  I do think there is something in this. I can now view my earlier experiences as lucky escapes.
  • There is a great deal I have taken from the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion leadership course, both from the leaders and from the brilliant colleagues that are attending with me from both sectors, and from the UK and overseas.  I am sure I will write about this learning again, including about how we strive to apply it at RMS.  We have just appointed two DEI leads at RMS – they are brilliant colleagues who will do a great deal of good in this role.  My first show of support for them was to sign them up for Hannah and Angie’s training course with Diverse Educators.

One thought on “Sunday 16th January, 2022

  1. Great to read this, Kevin. You are a superb leader, and the schools which have recognised your potential and appointed you to key positions deserve to have someone of your calibre in senior roles.

    Like

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