A new report into diversity among school business professionals (SBPs) offers new insights into this under-researched workforce, writes Sandy Tomlinson
Last month, ISBL published its first report on diversity in the school business profession. Penned by Dr Fiona Creaby, its findings are based on a small-scale research project because sadly, a more complete data set is still lacking. The report is no less important for it and, as Creaby notes, it is intended “to serve as a catalyst for important conversations”.
As a Black, female school business professional, I empathise with Creaby’s findings. My lived experiences are similar to those it describes. In fact, I’ve been involved in many attempts to address lack of equality and diversity in the sector and seen similar data published more than once. But while its aim and many of its findings are not new, I am pleased that it provides useful insights into an under-researched workforce.
The findings highlight problems that are unsurprisingly similar to those found in broader society. The reason exposing educational leaders to them matters is because one of the most important of those findings is that education is not immune to them. Sometimes, these behaviours are subtle. Sometimes perhaps even unintended. Either way, they lead to discrimination.
An accent, the way someone chooses to express themselves or dress, hairstyles, food choices, cultural or religious expressions. All of these and more inform decisions about whether or not someone will fit into an existing culture or organisation. They put image over substance, and they shouldn’t.
Sometimes these behaviours are subtle, perhaps even unintended
A telling example from the report is that despite often feeling like a ‘lone voice’ in decision making, ethnic-minority school business professionals (SBPs) felt more likely to be perceived as ‘rude’ for speaking out. Another, that ethnic-minority SBPs were more likely to have pursued and obtained higher-level qualifications simply to attain the same levels as their white peers within organisations.
Leaders of these organisations must reflect on the extent to which they have slipped, consciously or unconsciously, into trying to build teams in their own image. Ethical leaders have a duty to identify and undo such bias, yet the evidence shows this is not always the case.
Bemoaning the data this report reveals is not enough. To get below the surface of the issues, we need to be having very direct conversations with all school leaders, including governors and trustees. These conversations ought to be led by the most authoritative academics and researchers in the field and they ought to encourage participation by those who can share their experiences of the damage caused by discrimination.
Every leader must undertake the often-uncomfortable deep self-reflection that asks to what extent they are complicit in allowing inequity in our profession. But more than that, every leader must accept that silence and inaction are as bad as wilful discrimination. Taking the risk to call it out and to ensure culture and values don’t permit its existence are the work of everyone involved in decision-making. It is also the work of every SBP colleague who is a witness to it.
In my capacity as a trustee at ISBL, I will be encouraging the institute to bring together sector leaders, relevant academics and front-line practitioners to begin a coaching, mentoring and behaviour change programme to support school leaders who are serious about making a change.
Last week’s inauguration of the 46th president of the United States and his ceiling-breaking, Black, female vice-president focused on healing, unity and compassionate leadership. It was a moment of global significance and a new start for the work of inclusivity and equity. The phenomenal oracy of young, Black, female national youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman captured audiences worldwide.
If we are to nurture such talent here, our young, Black men and women must see what they can be. That means there must be more diversity in educational leadership. It also means there must be more diversity at all levels, not least in the school business profession which influences so much of how resources are distributed for young people’s benefit.
And all of that will be helped, of course, by more deliberate and systematic gathering of data about our vital profession.