Why does the teaching workforce lack ethnic diversity and what can we do?

Katherine Aston

Wednesday 31 January 2024

NFER Research Manager Katherine Aston shares the findings from our latest evidence review

In two-thirds of English primary schools and almost a fifth of secondary schools, pupils do not get the opportunity to be taught by a teacher of colour*, because there are none.

While graduates of colour are more likely to apply to teacher training than their white peers, they are less likely to be accepted for teacher training, or to become a qualified teacher. These disparities are most stark at career entry but are compounded at later stages of a teaching career. We need to promote four times as many teachers of colour to headteacher positions – about 2,500 more – for the role to become representative of the ethnic makeup among people of the same age in the wider population.

This inequity is not new. But to change the story, we need to understand why and take appropriate action. That’s why we partnered with Mission 44 to undertake an evidence review, to understand the barriers faced by teachers of colour and identify promising approaches to increasing ethnic diversity at all career stages. They are using this review to inform their commitments and actions towards the goal of a more inclusive education system led by diverse teaching staff.  

The message from the research was clear. Teachers of colour report being socially excluded, stereotyped, rejected for promotions or professional development, and experience overt racism. For example, teachers of colour may be motivated to introduce diverse content into their teaching only to find this is challenged or disparaged by colleagues.

Teachers of colour commonly report being encouraged to take on pastoral or behavioural responsibilities based on stereotypical perceptions of their ethnicity, only to find that it’s difficult to progress to more senior leadership from these roles. 

They may also experience racist attitudes and barriers to promotion which are not appropriately addressed. Over time, these experiences add up to an extra hidden workload for teachers of colour, in a profession where workload is already the main factor causing teachers to consider leaving.  

We must remove this workload by creating a positive and equitable working environment for teachers and leaders from diverse ethnic backgrounds. From looking at leading-edge work in this area in this country and beyond, we know that our actions can make a difference.  

The small proportion of schools with ethnically diverse senior leadership teams are better at retaining teachers of colour. And school leaders who committed to long-term professional development in anti-racism, supported by opportunities to reflect with others, have developed strong, insightful anti-racist policy and practice in their schools.   

Teach First saw their acceptance gaps narrow after introducing equitable recruitment strategies used in other professions. These include blind applications, where written applications are assessed without knowing a candidate’s name or which university they attended, and contextual recruitment, where a candidate’s grades are assessed in the context of any educational or personal circumstances which are known to negatively affect academic attainment. Their acceptance gap by ethnicity is now lower than for other training routes.  

At system level, the Scottish and Welsh governments have committed to specific targets for the ethnic diversity of teachers and fund anti-racist work across education. For example, Scotland has committed to achieving representative ethnic diversity among teachers by 2030, and all teachers in Wales have access to free diversity and anti-racist professional learning resources.  

We need to learn from these examples and take action. Graduates of colour continue to want to be teachers and are applying in increasing numbers. They have a great deal to offer. It’s up to all of us to ensure that the professional culture that teachers of colour enter will support them to thrive as teachers and leaders for the sake of the profession and the young people they teach. 

*People/teachers of colour is an umbrella term referring to anyone who is not/does not identify as White. Source: The Anti Racist Educator