June Sarpong OBE blazed a trail for a whole generation when she fronted the Channel 4 entertainment show T4 back in the late 1990s. Now, the diversity campaigner wants schools to lead the way in identifying and nurturing the game-changers of the future. She talks to Julie Nightingale.
It now seems quite quaint that the presence of a young black woman as a TV presenter should be seen as something exceptional.
June Sarpong is, however, completely at home with the pressure of being a pioneer from a black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) background who is expected to promote the cause of the disenfranchised... while being good at her job.
“I don’t actually see it as a pressure but as a responsibility, something humbling,” June says.
“I’ve always felt that there aren’t many women like me in the rooms that I’m in and it’s not necessarily about how I show up in those rooms. The issue is me being in the room and what that means for someone else, for them to believe it’s possible for them.
“The Marian Wright Edelman quote that you can’t be it unless you can see it is absolutely true. It brings about a mind shift so people think it’s possible for them. The biggest battle is believing it’s possible for you if you’ve never seen it before.”
June continues to work as a broadcaster and campaigner – including a leadership role as The Director of Creative Diversity – and delivered a keynote speech at ASCL’s Annual Conference in 2021.
Period of reflection
Like many, she has spent lockdown at home while continuing to work virtually, recognising that the pandemic has created a unique period of reflection and introspection.
“We’ve all been thinking about what we want our lives to be and any area of your life that, perhaps, isn’t in balance is exacerbated by the situation. You’ve been run off your feet at home – particularly women – and you’ve been doing too much of the childcare, housework and all those other things as well as working; a sense of imbalance has come to the fore.”
There is now, she adds, the opportunity for a radical rethink of how we do so many things, including tackling those fundamentals on the lack of diversity and inclusivity that have proven resistant to real change.
Leadership over the next few years, she believes, will be a crucial factor in whether society can seize those opportunities and act on them.
“The most important thing for those already in leadership positions is to understand the jeopardy in terms of not being inclusive. That’s true at a micro-level, whether that be your own organisation or institution, but also at a macro-level in terms of how the world itself is changing,” she says.
“We have competition from all over the world and we have to ensure that we are utilising the talents of everybody and nurturing their potential. I always say, think of what we’ve missed out on – the technologies, innovations, creativity, ideas that we have not experienced because the person who had them wasn’t developed and given the chance to show or express them.
“The earlier the talent is unleashed, the better we know it is for the individual in terms of becoming an expert,” she says. “Schools have such an important role to play here.”
June looks back on her own years at Connaught School for Girls in London with delight and as a place where the staff were inspiring.
“I went to a girls’ school. Though I’m not an advocate of single-sex education as such, it worked for me. I was taught by a group of wonderful feminists. Our headteacher, Mrs Dougan, was another real trailblazer and she’d been a teacher when my sister was there and possibly my mother, too.
“She was a fiery Welsh woman who didn’t take any rubbish and we all admired her. She taught us to be strong and to have a voice.”
For women aspiring to leadership in education today – and the number of female leaders remains disproportionately lower than the number of women in the teaching workforce – organisations need to think hard about how they create a climate in which women feel confident in putting themselves forward to lead, she adds.
Redesigning the workplace
Boosting the numbers of women aspiring to leadership requires organisations to do more to encourage and develop them while redesigning the traditional workplace model.
“The first thing is to accept that childbirth and child-rearing is a part of life that the majority of the population participates in so that needs to be baked into the world of work. Think about it – we’re still using a model that was designed for men who had wives who didn’t work. Life has changed.
“More women are becoming the primary breadwinners so we need to reconfigure that model and Covid has shown us that we can. We no longer need to be in the office five days a week or work nine-to-five.
“Young people need routine and consistency and being around other young people is crucial for their development so remote learning isn’t as conducive as it is for adults. However, I do think there is a way to have a balance and if ever there was a place that could look at reconfiguring that, it’s probably our schools.
“Women in education should look at what makes them more effective in the job and at home and propose that. Once we have a model of what it could be, it makes it easier for everyone else to emulate.”
The importance of teachers in shaping young lives cannot be overstated, she adds.
“A teacher believing in a kid can mean that child could go on to do something for the betterment of humanity, so I salute our teachers for the work they do. It’s wonderful to see the celebration of our NHS workers but we also need that for our teachers who have managed, somehow, to cope in this crazy environment.”
"Women in education should look at what makes them more effective in the job and at home and propose that. Once we have a model of what it could be, it makes it easier for everyone else to emulate.”
Freelance Education Writer