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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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.