Diversifying our workforce can’t be just a numbers game

By Sufian Sadiq, Director of the Teaching School, Chiltern Learning Trust and a member of the advisory group for the ‘Racial Equality in the Teacher Workforce’ report

Monday 30 May 2022

This article was first published in Schools Week on Friday 27 May 2022. 

Teacher recruitment and retention has been an ongoing crisis for a number of years. Yet what is striking about NFER’s latest research is that there is a pool of potential talent that could help fill recruitment gaps, and that is not being tapped. The report into racial equality in the teacher workforce shows that there is significant interest in teaching from black and ethnic minority candidates – but that this is not translating into more teachers from these communities standing in front of classes.

But it isn’t and can’t be all about the pragmatism of filling teacher shortages. It seems to me that addressing the racial disparities that exist within teaching is important on a number of fronts.

First, every child deserves to have a qualified teacher leading their learning. Recruitment and retention rates are worryingly low. The National Education Union’s Statement of Education: The Profession survey warns that 44 per cent of teachers say they plan to leave the profession. For these reason alone, we surely should be reaching out to all those who are passionate about doing the job and being proactive about finding routes for them to train.

It’s heartening that so many black and ethnic minority people want to teach – but why aren’t they making it into the classroom? We must understand and challenge that if our solutions are to be sustained and sustainable.

Second, we have a moral imperative to give children role models with whom they can identify. Seeing themselves in the teachers who guide them, they can only gain confidence and an all-important sense of identity and self-worth. This will help drive aspiration and achievement and break down stereotypes among all students.

Third, greater racial representation helps more than aspiration; It enriches our children’s education. In ‘Cultural Capital as Whiteness’, Derron Wallace makes a powerful argument about the important cultural capital all our children experience when they meet, mix and learn from people from a range of ethnicities and backgrounds. Wallace celebrates the multi-cultural capital, ethnic capital, transnational capital and linguistic capital that people of colour bring.

This must not be under-valued. And indeed, it is a kind of cultural capital many white parents often seek out for their children, to introduce them to the kind of richer experience of the world that will support their life in the future.

This is an acknowledgement that experiencing this diversity will benefit these children when they’re older, especially when entering the world of work. So schools with an all-white workforce risk doing their pupils a disservice in not providing a multi-cultural environment in which they can learn.

And finally, as someone from a minoritised community I believe it is important to focus on racial equity, rather than equality. This is different to a purely numbers game about overall representation in teaching and leadership. It means first and foremost increasing the racial literacy of both white and educators of colour, so that the experiences of black and ethnic minority teachers can be more equitable.

The positive number of applicants from ethnic minority communities shows that the issues and challenges around diversity in teaching are systemic. They are not down to a lack of interest or any other factor that we can shift onto those from under-represented groups themselves. The report highlights to me that the onus is on organisations at all points in the career pipeline to take responsibility and act now.

But it’s clear that if we approach the challenge purely as a pragmatic numbers game to fill gaps in the workforce, our initiatives will quickly fail. It is a recruitment and retention crisis we face, and we can’t afford to fix the first at the expense of the second, with all the potential for hurt that represents for the under-represented communities we set out to bring into our schools.