Educational leadership:

Theoretical approaches to understanding representation, distribution of power and race in Bristol schools.

Claire Stewart-Hall, PhD, 2018-2024

Preface & Glossary

For consistency of communication, I will use categorisation and labels aligned to the research being discussed. The categorisation and classification of racial and ethnic groupings is a highly contested area. Gillborn, (2018) Delgado and Stefancic, (2012), Wojciechowicz, (2013) argue they are biologically deterministic categories without scientific basis. Semantics or classification is not the focus of this research, so I acknowledge these classifications are highly problematic and have been rejected by the Human Genome Project (Foster and Sharp, 2020). Below shows my summary of the variety of terms currently used.

Experience & Career

Most of my teaching career has been spent in Bristol teaching and leading in 11-18 schools with over 80% of its student body from BME backgrounds and 85% entitled to Pupil Premium Funding (PP). This direct experience of training and supporting teachers’ professional learning has given me insight into typical institutional structures that enable promoted progression and develop leadership capacity.

Bristol has a legacy of being fraught and stifled by issues of race. In 2014, a school I worked in was found guilty of institutional racism in a legal case (24/7, 2014). In 2019, Bristol City Council was publicly accused of institutional racism (BBC, 2019) and in 2020 the statue of the architect of the Bristol slave trade was pulled down during a protest about black lives matter (#BLM). These events, as well as my prior experience of teaching in schools in the city with predominantly Black and Asian cohorts, offer me rich perspectives to understand how discourses about race in education are brought to the surface and interpreted in schools.

The Research Area

My research explores why there is one ethnic group that holds leadership positions predominantly in senior management in state schools in Bristol. I am interested in the reasons for a persistent lack of racial diversity in senior leadership in Bristol, a city with 22% from non-white (sic) British backgrounds (Bristol City Council, 2020); the factors affecting it and in evaluating proposed ways of changing it.

It is helpful firstly to understand both national contexts and focus more locally. Overall, 87% of the teaching workforce in state schools in England identifies as white British (DfE, 2018); most senior leadership teams are white British with 93% of Head Teachers and 90% of senior leaders identifying as white British (DfE 2018). The problem is gendered; although two thirds of the teaching workforce is women, 6% of men are Head Teachers, compared with 4% of women; a further 13% of men are senior leaders compared with 10% of women (DfE, 2018).

Table 1 below (Steel 2015:11) outlines the BAME representation in secondary schools compared to students in 2015.

It is problematic that fine data relating to cities is not accurately published nationally or locally and has been camouflaged by the privatisation of schools into geographically-spread Trusts, making tracking localised inequalities challenging. In the South West of England in 2015, 12% of the student cohort (aged 4-19) was recorded as coming from non-white groupings suggesting groups that are viable representative future-teachers in the city. The percentage of BAME trainee teachers was 1.6% (DfE, 2015) That year, this figure was the second lowest percentage of BAME Initial Teacher Trainees (ITT) in the country. Elahi, Finney and Lymperopoulou, 2017 have studied Bristol with regard to race and schools focusing on ethnic inequality and note the lack of diversity in teaching staff and school leadership in Bristol schools.

There has been speculation (Bhopal & Chapman, 2014) about why many school leadership teams nationally, and in Bristol (BBC, 2018), is made up of white leaders. One suggestion (BBC, 2018) is that there are fewer teachers from Minority Ethnic (ME) backgrounds entering the profession in the South West (DfE, 2015), a conclusion that might be drawn from data above. However, without an analysis of attrition by ethnic group (such as in Basit et al, 2006) or tracing where trainee teachers go on to teach following their training, or any collection of data following the range of Qualified Teacher Status courses, this assumption is hard to qualify. Teacher Trainees are not mapped to location, for example, a trainee can train in Bristol but seek employment elsewhere and vice versa. It is unknown how many teachers from ME backgrounds teach in Bristol, or come from abroad, enter via other routes, nor how many are eligible to work as senior leaders or Head Teachers. One conclusion could be drawn is that despite numbers of ME teachers, the majority of senior leadership teams and Head Teachers in England are white. Arguably, without analysis of how many all-white senior teams there are or any questioning why this might be, there remains a sustained proliferation of white leaders nationally and locally.

Methodological Approach​

The ethical challenge of researching in this area is to avoid recreating hierarchies of dominance and to guard against research being counter-productive (Figueroa, 2000). Considering the outlined lack of communication around the issue race, Habermas (1995; 1987), through his theory of Communicative Action, offers perspectives that might vocalise factors influencing patterns that result in a predominance of hegemonic leaders.

Research, as stated above, suggests that a blend of institutionalised racism, hidden criteria (Bhopal, 2019a; 2019b), the way race is positioned in discourse, a lack of understanding of colour conscious leadership in schools as factors that actively prevent more BME people from leading in schools (Miller, 2018; Bhopal, 2019a). However, it is observable that research tends to focus on the views of BME participants to reiterate the issue rather than focusing on institutions.

Without discourse around whiteness, power and institutions, and with dominant meritocratic and colour-blind narratives in the background, there is little opportunity to understand what individual school issues are and why there is lack of diversity in leadership positions. Mabokela and Madsen, (2005) identify an unconscious practice of white leaders to lean on racial identity groups for solutions to institutional racism thereby abdicating responsibility to connect with communities and leadership around the impact of race in schools. However, it is incumbent upon those in the hegemony to evaluate their own participation in current trends, the advantages current trends lend, the risks they pose and thereby how situations might be transformed.

Theoretical Lens

In his theory of Communicative Action, Habermas (1987) proposed that language and communication hold ways of reaching agreements among people and may provide opportunity for ‘intersubjective consensus’ (Callinicos, 2007, p. 290). The public sphere, institutional structures, bourgeois society, Habermas argues, have historically created a dialogic arena to engage in critical reason (Elliot, 2010). Habermas (1995; 1987) proposes that every act of speech raises diverse validity claims, in which he notes the performativity and sincerity of speech can create rational agreement and communicative dialogue which can be reciprocally recognised between people. He argues that the purpose of speech is to rationalise ideas, arguing for free and equal participants to seek validity claims to interlock perspectives in order to develop shared practice. It ought to include criticality and interpretations of language and together there can emerge a ‘we-perspective’ (Habermas, 1995, p. 118).

Opening up discourse portals in and about the public sphere might enable rich professional discourse about how leaders might understand issues of race in education or develop a ‘we-perspective’ about their problems in individual schools. Whilst there might be ethical concerns to consider in acknowledging and bringing together different professional groups to explore such issues, Mezirow (2000) argues that critical reflection triggers transformative learning through shifting ‘meaning perspectives’. Likewise, Kolb (1984) argues learning is experiential and in developing the means of discourse, this theoretical approach offers opportunity for experiential learning to take place. Group coaching, as described by Clutterbuck (2018), acts to democratize hierarchical structures, offering more controlled platforms from which to invite discourse, which can lead to organisational development. Together with Kolb (1984) and Knowles (1978), Habermas’ (1984) theory of Communicative Action could offer ways that problems might be handed back to those with institutional power to rethink and evolve them. Group coaching, as described by Clutterbuck (2018) might offer processes of stimulating reflection by white senior leadership teams to understand their own whiteness and its power and thus become more conscious of how their enactment of policy and institutional processes and systems privilege hegemonic groups.

My prior position of being a senior leader and Head Teacher in mostly white senior teams means I benefit from insider familiarity with systems and processes at this level of management in schools. It also positions me as someone who has experienced how race is typically positioned in narratives in schools, which is predominantly associated with outside of the school walls, through data collection, complaints, conflict and behaviour systems. This research will seek to reposition discourse around race at senior levels in a proactive way and at a strategic level with intent to provide structured opportunities to develop approaches to acknowledging and understanding whiteness and power in senior teams.

Research Design

My research design is to use group coaching as a methodological approach to engage with three to four majority white senior leadership teams in Bristol schools as research participants over an academic year to gather data on the impact of using group coaching to develop discourse to reposition discourse about race in schools. Before reaching this stage, I hope to collect Bristol specific, geographically situated counter-stories (Solorzano & Yosso 2002) from current Bristol teachers from BME backgrounds to use as a stimulus within the group coaching to update and interrupt common inaccurate narratives about Bristol’s current teachers and leaders.

Bristol Counter Stories

As a way of thickening description (Geertz, 1975) and avoiding an overreliance on anecdote, using counter stories (Solorzano & Yosso 2002) has long been a methodological approach that avoids stories of marginalized people being stolen (Tuhiwai-Smith, 2012), repurposed or reframed by the hegemony, enabling representation in people’s own voice. The vacuum of research into experiences of Black teachers contrasted with the on-going pipeline of white teachers into leadership positions offers opportunity for counter stories to deepen understanding of and build solidarity in understanding the issues of race in education (Tate, 1995) and specifically in a localized context. There are a multitude of ethical considerations to collecting the stories which I will need to address. At the moment, I plan to collect these stories via biographical narrative interview method (though this might change). I hope to use critical discourse analysis of the counter stories to deepen contextual factors affecting leadership progression in schools.

As well as creating a communicative space (Habermas, 1987) for white senior teams to reflect on race and education, counter stories positioned in group coaching might further support hegemonic leaders to ‘analyse, expose and challenge majoritarian stories of racial privilege.’ (Solorzano & Yosso 2002, p.32) and notice and counter narratives of colour-blindness, which might challenge and interrupt the ‘reproduction of past legacies.’ (Omi and Winant 1994: 159).

Conclusion

I propose that it is by communicating with hegemony that greater understanding of the levers that continue to enable so many white people to become school leaders could be generated. Furthermore, this will enable leaders, arguably the gate-keepers, a deeper understanding of the factors affecting how such continued organisational power has enabled a sustained lack of racial diversity in state school leadership in Bristol. By taking an intersectional approach and supporting discourse that acknowledges the significance of overlaps between and across class, race, gender, dis/ability, identity I might thereby provide recommendations, models and mechanisms for other white senior teams to reflect on how they might deepen understanding of their own positions and enactment of policy in institutions.

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