Biggest academy trust turns to NFL for inspiration in diversity drive

Trusts are hiring diversity specialists and challenging “Eurocentric" history, revamping their policies, curriculum and "overwhelmingly white" leadership teams.

Trusts are hiring diversity specialists and challenging “Eurocentric" history, revamping their policies, curriculum and "overwhelmingly white" leadership teams.

7 Jan 2022, 15:26

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Leading academy trusts United Learning and Oasis are among those pushing through diversity reforms.

The country’s largest academy trust has begun using anti-racist recruitment policies borrowed from the US, ensuring that at least one ethnic minority candidate is shortlisted for many senior posts.

Trusts are also hiring diversity specialists, challenging “Eurocentric” history and urging staff to declare their ethnicities to monitor progress.

Johan Jensen, director of All-in Education, said diversity and inclusion advisers like him had been “inundated” by schools since George Floyd’s murder – with demand still high 19 months later.

Newly published accounts reveal that United Learning, England’s biggest trust, has quietly overhauled its curriculum, culture and recruitment. It has applied the “Rooney rule” for certain vacancies, named after former National Football League diversity chair Dan Rooney.

Echoing similar rules introduced in the NFL in 2003, it guarantees at least one shortlist spot for ethnic minority candidates provided they meet the minimum requirements.

‘We’ve got great staff, but they don’t look like our students’

Chief executive Sir Jon Coles said its HR processes were already fair, but the rule marked a “strong signal” to potential applicants.

It is one of multiple changes since 2019, reflecting Coles’ growing sense that the “overwhelmingly white” faces at leadership meetings meant “something was going wrong. We had great people, appointed on merit, but they didn’t look like our students.”

Jon Coles, United Learning CEO.

Schools Week’s annual diversity audit last year found just two of the 117 trusts with 15 or more schools had non-white leaders.

Other United Learning reforms include reverse mentoring, with 40 junior ethnic minority staff mentoring senior leaders. The aim is to facilitate “dialogue between people from different backgrounds” and support career progression, accounts say.

“It’s very easy to have a Eurocentric approach to history, but not very accurate,” he added.

BAME forums spark change

Both Coles and John Murphy, his counterpart at Oasis Community Learning, said they had learnt from new forums for ethnic minority staff to share their views. Coles found some staff felt well-supported into leadership roles, but others felt they “weren’t encouraged” and were deterred by the lack of diversity above.

Murphy said that listening in at new anti-racism and LGBTQ+ staff network meetings was “one of the most powerful things I’ve done as CEO”.

Oasis is also hiring dedicated staff to promote workforce equality and diversity, and a “lead practitioner for curriculum development around global heritage”.

Both organisations have increased staff training. Oasis will survey staff this month and benchmark responses against other organisations, while Coles has urged staff to disclose ethnic data to boost monitoring.

Current data is too “poor” to clearly track progress so far, Coles said, but senior leaders, heads and those on track for headship were now “visibly more diverse”.

Murphy said that around 10 per cent of leaders were of “global heritage”, but he expected a more diverse leadership pipeline to almost double this.

‘Modish catchphrases aren’t helpful’

Ethan Bernard, co-founder of black leadership programme Aspiring Heads, said he saluted United Learning for “bold steps to try new or radical approaches”. But he cautioned that the Rooney rule should not be a “tickbox activity” or “performative”.

In the NFL, it is widely seen to have succeeded initially, but then progress reversed.

Allana Gay, co-founder of BAMEed, said explicit references to the Rooney rule by trusts were rare, but more schools were only shortlisting if longlists included diverse candidates.

Allana Gay.

She warned that reverse mentoring also places the onus on junior staff to educate, and power dynamics can limit openness. Having paid, in-house diversity specialists is also rare, she said.

Jensen said that education was “a decade or two behind” other sectors on diversity efforts, adding: “Nervousness often leads to inaction.”

Among heads, 92.7 per cent are white British, compared with 84.9 per cent of all teachers, official figures show.

Some schools fear offending those they want to help, while others fear a backlash “on the conservative side”, Jensen added.

Coles said he was not worried about sparking “ridiculous headlines”, but added: “Decolonising the curriculum and other modish catchphrases I don’t think are useful – it’s polarising and put’s people’s backs up.”

Introducing diverse voices has not meant “casting out important things written by white people”, he added.

Coles and Murphy said that Floyd’s death last May galvanised existing efforts, but Jensen said it changed “everything” in the sector.

Gay said that, even without significant DfE encouragement, “all schools are looking to make their curriculum more inclusive”.

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