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JanetJanet Sheriff

Headteacher and WLiEYH Steering Group Chair Janet Sheriff shares her journey on becoming the first ever black and minority ethnic (BME) secondary headteacher in Leeds and the only female headteacher her school had ever appointed.

Leading the way

When I was appointed Headteacher in Leeds in 2009, I really didn’t realise the significance. It was at an event some weeks later, when I received an unexpected round of applause, that I learnt that I was the city’s first ever BME secondary headteacher. What’s more, I was the only female headteacher my school had ever appointed in its 400-year history. Put these facts together and you can understand why there was a bit of a stir.

I’m ashamed to admit that despite being mixed race (my father is Jamaican and my mother English) I hadn’t thought much about diversity in educational leadership up until this point – and I didn’t appreciate the shocking statistics when I did. Consider the facts at that time: Leeds, the UK’s third biggest city, very multicultural (more than 17% non-white) with 38 secondary schools, none of which had ever had a BME headteacher. When I looked at other statistics I discovered that the situation in Leeds was the rule rather than the exception. Across the whole of the Yorkshire and the Humber region, for example, BME individuals made up only 3% of middle leaders, 2% of senior leaders and 1% of headteachers (only three BME secondary heads). Also, at this time, although 67% of all teachers nationally were women, only 36% of headteachers were women. (See https://tinyurl.com/ltk4hqa)

Tangible benefits

Some people may ask, “Why is this a problem? If schools and colleges have good leaders then surely all is well?” In answer, there are tangible benefits to be gained from increasing diversity in school and college leadership:

  • Young people should grow and develop in schools and colleges where there are successful leaders from all types of backgrounds. If students, at this crucial time in their development, see variety in the race, gender and socio-economic backgrounds of the people influencing decision-making, then there may be some chance of breaking down the ‘unconscious bias’ that still exists in our communities.
  • Diversity in leadership will help schools and colleges relate to the diversity of the population that they serve. However, this is not about pigeonholing leaders to work in schools and colleges whose students look like them. I’m not saying that schools with mainly Asian students should have all Asian leaders; it is the diversity that counts. A diverse leadership team can learn from their diversity and be more effective in meeting the needs of all young people growing up in an increasingly multi-cultural society.
  • Research consistently shows that diverse leadership groups outperform homogeneous ones. A blend of race, culture and gender brings a diversity of perspective, opinions and ideas, and is more likely to lead to innovation and improved leadership performance.
  • A recent report stated that England could be facing a shortage of 19,000 senior leaders by 2022 due to increasing pupil numbers and more school leaders retiring or leaving the profession early. This gap could be closed significantly if leaders were recruited from the untapped talent available in unrepresented groups such as women and BME.

Programme for change


Shortly after taking up headship, I decided to try to help to change the situation and joined the Yorkshire and Humber Diversity Steering Group, becoming Chair in 2013. We are a group of educational leaders who volunteer time and energy because we are passionate about creating a diverse education leadership, representative of the population, where female colleagues and colleagues from BME backgrounds are visible in senior leadership positions. Since 2008, we have been successful in securing equality and diversity funding from the National College for Teaching and Leadership (NCTL) to provide targeted school-led CPD programmes and networks to help achieve our vision.

So why are these programmes necessary? To be clear, this is not a ‘deficit’ model. There is no deficiency in the skills and talent within these targeted groups. But the barriers to promotion (which are sometimes self-imposed) have been nurtured by the many and complex factors that can cause a lack of confidence and self-belief. Our programmes and networks are designed to provide valuable professional development while helping individuals understand and overcome some of these potential barriers.

Systematic shift


You may think that because you rarely see active racism and sexism, there is not a problem; in which case, you may need to ‘check your privilege’ – a great phrase I heard that simply means be aware of the perspective that your unique position gives you of the world. At times, we can all forget to check. There is no doubt this is still a problem in some situations, although there are often clear channels to tackle such overt obstacles. Perhaps the trickier challenge is the unconscious bias that more often exists in education and in other professional spheres. The distinct lack of diversity in leadership is evidence that it exists. Understanding the reality of unconscious bias is the first step to reducing it. How do we ensure that members of leadership recruitment panels are not subconsciously looking to fill the ‘male and pale’ stereotype?

This is why members of the Yorkshire and Humber Diversity Steering Group appreciate that targeted programmes alone are not enough. To really make a difference, there needs to be systemic change in the education profession. There is a need to develop ‘cultural dexterity’ in all our education leaders – men, women, BME and non-BME – and at every level, including governance. The celebration of equality and diversity needs to be integrated into all aspects of education. The development of the new ‘gold standard’ NPQs provides a real opportunity to promote this essential aspect of leadership and ensure that all our leaders understand their responsibilities in this area.

The school I lead, Prince Henry’s Grammar School, is a large mixed-gender comprehensive school in a relatively middle-class area. Less than 10% of my students are non-white. But governors and staff at my school appreciate this is even more reason to ensure that we celebrate diversity and promote equality at every opportunity. At Prince Henry’s we have used our Language College Specialism as a vehicle for developing an ethos where all members of the school community are aware of this responsibility as global citizens. After all, the young people we teach today will be the leaders of tomorrow. I am hopeful that the approach we have will help eradicate the unconscious bias that may otherwise perpetuate through more generations.

Diversity in educational leadership is still a very long way from where it needs to be. Figures from the School Workforce in England: November 2015 statistical first release show that although there has been an increase in the overall proportion of female headteachers from 2001 to 2015 (25% to 38.2%), women are likely to remain underrepresented for another 25 years at this rate of change. The statistics for BME leadership have hardly shifted at all – in 2015, only 3.1% of headteachers were from BME groups – and I am still, eight years on, the only BME secondary headteacher in Leeds. But at least we are on the journey. Despite the enormity of the challenge, there is no doubt that increasing diversity in leadership is the right thing to do for the education profession and for our communities. It is an essential component of ethical leadership and the responsibility of all educational leaders, whatever their gender, race or cultural heritage. Are you doing enough?

Across the whole of the Yorkshire and Humber region BME individuals made up only 3% of middle leaders, 2% of senior leaders and 1% of headteachers.

Source: school workforce in England: January 2010

Janet Sheriff is Headteacher of Prince Henry’s Grammar School Specialist Language College in Leeds.

Article written by Janet Sheriff for Leadership Magazine, ASCL.

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