Decades on from the sex discrimination act, women teachers are struggling to make it to the top positions. Photo: Getty.
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The invisible prejudice that’s holding female teachers back

Even when you account for all other factors, female teachers are less likely than their male counterparts to become head of their school. Would all-women shortlists help counterbalance the casual sexism of school recruitment boards?

As director of headship at the Future Leaders Trust, a charity that coaches and supports teachers so  that they can become more effective leaders and make a difference in challenging schools, I know the challenges our women teachers face when seeking to become school heads, particularly in secondary school. The under-representation of women in leadership generally is sadly a well-known issue. And it is not a new issue in education. But I have been surprised by the too-frequent stories of “casual” sexism among headship recruiters – almost 40 years after the Sex Discrimination Act.

For example, one teacher on our Future Leaders programme recently got down to the last two candidates for a headship in the north-east but was rejected because the governing body wanted a man who could “deal better with the local ex-mining community”. Another participant in London was rejected for being a woman and too young – despite the man who was appointed in her place being a year younger.

The statistics behind the anecdotes suggest the scale of the issue: of our 450-odd Future Leader participants, who are all teachers in senior leadership positions, 54 per cent are female and when it comes to our Headship Now! programme, which is for teachers ready to apply for their first headship position, 48 per cent are female. But fewer than a third of the 69 graduates of our Future Leaders programme who have been appointed heads of school are women, and women are more likely than men to be in interim or acting posts.

This is broadly in line with national figures showing that in 2012 36 per cent of secondary heads were female (compared to 71 per cent of primary heads – which looks encouraging until you realise 88 per cent of primary teachers are female).

We are in the midst of peak headship recruitment season, and all ten of the Future Leaders who have got to the second stage of interview (often more than once) since September without yet securing a post are women.  Some of them lost out to other women, but in many cases a man got the job or no appointment was made.

So, what is to be done?

We know that there are a range of issues that can (but don’t have to) hold women back – including confidence and trying to balance career and family – and we work with our participants to address them. But as the figures show, the problem isn’t simply that women aren’t applying. And, trust me, the female Future Leaders who are applying don’t lack confidence, capability or impressive track-records in senior leadership.

When I tweeted about this, the tentative suggestion came back that the answer could be all-female shortlists. No one argued very strongly for it but the problem is the lack of alternatives. There’s certainly no silver bullet.

Getting governing bodies and other recruiters to “do the right thing” (by which I mean appoint the best person for the job, irrespective of gender, ethnicity, age etc.) would be the optimal solution of course. But how do you influence such a diffuse group of volunteers who will probably need to recruit a head once in their governorship, if at all?

When maintained schools appoint a new head, the local authority has the right to an advisory place on the selection panel. I am unaware of any evidence that this “advisory” role contributes significantly to fairer decision-making, and of course it doesn’t apply to the growing number of academies. (It is interesting, if unsurprising, that of the major academy chains, only one – Ark – is led by a woman.)

Changing the way that recruitment process works could help. Traditional panel interviews tend to reveal little about real leadership skills, which is why we don’t use them to select participant for the Future Leaders programme. This could be one reason why 54 per cent of our participants are female. But again, the problem is how to implement better selection practice when schools’ governing bodies have the freedom to design their own processes. On top of this, no process can be better than the people who run it.

The legal route has its attractions, but none of our participants has so far expressed a willingness to take on the ordeal of trying to legally prove they’ve been discriminated against, especially when the most damning feedback (“it’s your gender, luv”) is always informal. It’s also doubtful that a successful legal case would achieve anything other than more creativity when composing the formal reasons given for not appointing an otherwise suitable woman. (None of which is to say individuals shouldn’t legally challenge something which is, after all, against the law.)

All of this brings us back to all-women shortlists. Perhaps these could be applied to new headship appointments in academy chains or local authorities where a disproportionate number of existing heads are male. (Ark, incidentally, would be exempt as 57% of their current heads are female.)

Now, which of our great education or political leaders should I pitch the idea to? The man at No 10 or the man in charge of education?

Kate Chhatwal is Director of Headship at The Future Leaders Trust. The Future Leaders Trust is an independent education charity with the mission to raise the achievement of children, regardless of background, and to provide them with equal choices and opportunities in life. By developing a network of school leaders, it is transforming challenging schools and working to eradicate educational disadvantage. 

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What Charles Windsor’s garden reveals about the future of the British monarchy

As an open-minded republican, two things struck me. 

First we are told that the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, has lost his battle for a “soft” Brexit. In a joint article, he and the International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, the hardest of the ministerial Brexiteers, seem to agree that the UK will leave the European customs union in 2019. Then we get a reverse ferret. Hammond will go for a softish Brexit, after all. A government paper states that the UK will seek a “temporary customs union” in the “transition period” that, it hopes, will follow Brexit.

All this is a taste of things to come. We shall see many more instances of hard and soft Brexiteers celebrating victory or shrieking about betrayal. We shall also see UK and EU leaders storming out of talks, only to return to negotiations a few days later. My advice is to ignore it all until Friday 29 March 2019, when UK and EU leaders will emerge from all-night talks to announce a final, impenetrable fudge.

Lessons not learned

What you should not ignore is the scandal over Learndirect, the country’s largest adult training and apprenticeships provider. An Ofsted report states that a third of its apprentices receive none of the off-the-job training required. In a random sample, it found no evidence of learning plans.

Labour started Learndirect in 2000 as a charitable trust controlled by the Department for Education. It was sold to the private equity arm of Lloyds Bank in 2011 but remains largely reliant on public money (£158m in 2016-17). Since privatisation, 84 per cent of its cash has gone on management fees, interest payments and shareholder dividends. It spent £504,000 on sponsoring the Marussia Formula One team in an attempt to reach “our core customer group… in a new and exciting way”. The apprentices’ success rate fell from 67.5 per cent before privatisation to 57.8 per cent now.

This episode tells us that, however the Brexit process is going, Britain’s problems remain unchanged. Too many services are in the hands of greedy, incompetent private firms, and we are no closer to developing a skilled workforce. We only know about Learndirect’s failure because the company’s attempt to prevent Ofsted publishing its report was, after ten weeks of legal wrangling, overthrown in the courts.

A lot of hot air

Immediately after the Paris climate change accord in 2015, I expressed doubts about how each country’s emissions could be monitored and targets enforced. Now a BBC Radio 4 investigation finds that climate-warming gases emitted into the atmosphere far exceed those declared under the agreement. For example, declarations of methane emissions from livestock in India are subject to 50 per cent uncertainty, and those in Russia to 30-40 per cent uncertainty. One region in northern Italy, according to Swiss scientists, emits at least six times more climate-warming gases than are officially admitted. Remember this when you next hear politicians proclaiming that, after long and arduous negotiations, they have achieved a great victory.

Come rain or come shine

Climate change, scientists insist, is not the same thing as changes in the weather but writing about it brings me naturally to Britain’s wet August and newspaper articles headlined “Whatever happened to the sunny Augusts of our childhood?” and so on. The Daily Mail had one in which the writer recalled not a “single rainy day” from his family holidays in Folkestone. This, as he explained, is the result of what psychologists call “fading affect bias”, which causes our brains to hold positive memories longer than negative ones.

My brain is apparently atypical. I recall constant frustration as attempts to watch or play cricket were interrupted by rain. I remember sheltering indoors on family holidays with card games and books. My life, it seems, began, along with sunshine, when I left home for university at 18. Do psychologists have a name for my condition?

High and dry

Being an open-minded republican, I bought my wife, a keen gardener, an escorted tour of the gardens at Highgrove, the private residence of the man I call Charles Windsor, for her birthday. We went there this month during a break in the Cotswolds. The gardens are in parts too fussy, rather like its owner, but they are varied, colourful and hugely enjoyable. Two things struck me. First, the gardens of the elite were once designed to showcase the owner’s wealth and status, with the eye drawn to the grandeur of the mansion. Highgrove’s garden is designed for privacy, with many features intended to protect royalty from the prying public and particularly the press photographers’ long lenses. Second, our guide, pointing out what the owner had planted and designed, referred throughout to “His Royal Highness”, never “Charles”. I am pondering what these observations mean for the monarchy and its future.

Sympathy for the devil

Before leaving for the Cotswolds, we went to the Almeida Theatre in north London to see Ink, featuring Rupert Murdoch’s relaunch of the Sun in 1969. Many accounts of Murdoch  portray him as a power-crazed monster and his tabloid hacks as amoral reptiles. Ink is far more nuanced. It shows Murdoch as a mixture of diffidence, charm and menace, in love with newspapers and determined to blow apart a complacent,
paternalistic British establishment.

You may think that he and the Sun had a permanently coarsening effect on public life and culture, and I would largely agree. But he was also, in his own way, a 1960s figure and his Sun, with its demonic energy, was as typical a product of that decade as the Beatles’ songs. The play strengthened my hunch that its author, James Graham, who also wrote This House, set in the parliamentary whips’ offices during the 1970s, will eventually be ranked as the century’s first great playwright.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear