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. 

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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