Be seen, be heard

This article originally appeared in Leader magazine
Issue 115 | Autumn Term 1 2020

Headteacher Evelyn Forde says the death of George Floyd and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement has, once again, put the spotlight on racism in society. Here she talks about her own journey through to headship and the need for more role models like her in schools and colleges.

At a time when all eyes are on the education system, not just in terms of how schools and colleges reacted to the Covid-19 crisis but also how they reacted to the tragic death of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter movement, I find myself – after the most extraordinary past few months – with some time to reflect on my journey to headship; on how I think education leaders can use this renewed focus to make substantial changes; and how ASCL can play a critical part in making a difference.

My Journey

In 1981, when schools were very different places and the ability to hop over a school gate to ride the No. 8 bus up and down Oxford Street was so easy, I did just that. I left school with no qualifications and extremely disillusioned with a system that just didn’t seem to care enough to encourage me to stay. Fast forward to 1994, two children later and the realisation that if I wanted to improve my life chances and theirs, then I actually needed an education, and so my journey to teaching and later to headship began. My own experiences were the catalyst for wanting to be part of a system that I felt was broken and needed to change. I wanted my daughters to feel seen and heard. I too wanted to be seen and heard in a system that I felt had ignored me and failed me, but not just me, thousands of other black children, too.

I was successfully placed on the Future Leaders programme in 2008, a programme that was well overdue and very much needed. It gave me and other Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) colleagues the opportunity to move from middle leadership to senior leadership; to work in really challenging schools with young people who may never have seen a black deputy before, let alone a black headteacher.

However, the move from deputy to headship did not come without its challenges and the more times I heard, “It was so close but the other candidate was just slightly ahead of you”, was enough to knock my confidence. Out of the 20 or so deputy interviews I went for, I always got down to the final two candidates, apart from on three occasions. It took a lot of resilience and soul searching to keep going. I often questioned whether it was because of my gender and/or my race that I was so often unsuccessful, and I have no doubt that probably had a lot to do with it. When I did eventually secure a deputy head position, I then found that the senior leadership tables I sat around were often lacking in diversity. I was acutely aware then that the road to headship would be ever more challenging, and it sure was.

My first experience of headship was in a predominately white community and in a school that had fewer than ten non-white staff and students. It was immensely challenging; however, what I learnt during that time – from dealing with the unions to managing a deficit budget – meant that I had the confidence and the skills to secure the headship at Copthall, and I now find myself in this immensely privileged position of leading this amazing all-girls school in Mill Hill, North London. It’s a diverse school but one where I look like a significant majority of my students. Appointing someone who could empathise, understand and relate to our school community was important to the governors, who are also a very diverse board. This, for me, is one of the key issues with BAME headship appointments: too many governing boards do not represent the communities they serve and therefore may overlook outstanding candidates. Nobody gets a free pass – the right person will always be appointed based on a fair process – but at Copthall we have moved to blind shortlisting, and I actively encourage women and those from BAME backgrounds to visit and apply for roles at my school. Even if they’re not successful, sometimes it is the honest feedback and the opportunity to have someone to call upon that is often what is most appreciated, so I am keen to support in any way I can.

Time for change

In 2018, 92% of headteachers were white British and of this figure, 97.1% of them were white male (see https://tinyurl.com/y4x844fm). You just need to look around any school to know these figures do not represent the communities they serve and therefore too many of our children are still seeing leaders that do not look like them. The work ASCL is doing on equality, diversity and inclusion is one of the reasons I decided to put myself forward for ASCL Council. It is an opportunity for me to be seen and heard.

As part of my role on Council, I will be chairing a new network for BAME ASCL members this academic year. This will be an opportunity to bring members together to see how we can reshape the landscape in our schools and colleges, whether it be via recruitment or curriculum. More information on the network and how to join it will be included in ASCL’s email newsletters.

There are approximately 3% BAME headteachers in our schools, with many of them doing amazing things, quietly, intentionally, methodically being positive role models for our children. Many are also having open and honest discussions since the death of George Floyd and are reviewing their curriculum and genuinely wanting change, so I see this as a positive move forward. I also see this as a way for middle leaders to see that there is hope for them on their leadership journey. If ASCL can use its position to highlight and celebrate the work of BAME school and college leaders, it will pave the way for others to follow.

The African proverb “It takes a village to raise a child” is needed now more than ever and it’s important that school and college leaders and organisations work together. I have much respect for leaders who are quietly doing their thing for the better of their communities and so that their children have hope, aspiration and, above all, are seen and heard. I also think it is time to shine a light on grass root movements like BAMEed, WomenEd and LGBTed who are doing great work to raise awareness to make space for the marginalised and disillusioned staff in education. If we don’t, who will?

In 2018, 92% of headteachers were white British and of this figure, 97.1% were white male.

Equality, Diversity and Inclusion

ASCL is committed to supporting and promoting equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) among school and college leaders, and in our own organisation. Find out more at www.ascl.org.uk/EqualityDiversityInclusion

BAMEed: www.bameednetwork.com
WomenEd: www.womened.org
LGBTed: lgbted.uk

Evelyn Forde
Headteacher of Copthall
School in London
@Copthall_School

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