Leadership of school leadership is a white male preserve

The new board of the Foundation for Leadership in Education is all white and nearly all male – a fact which in no way reflects the reality of the sector it claims to represent, argues Dr Kate Chhatwal

If the role of a board of trustees is to set the tone at the top, I’m a little perplexed at the note the Foundation for Leadership in Education (FLE) wants to strike. Years in the making, it went live last week, but of the nine trustees on its new website, eight are men, only one is a woman – and all of them are white.

The cause of this problem doesn’t lie entirely with the Foundation itself. The founding trustees represent the organisations behind the FLE, and all of these except NGA are run by white men (though I’m not sure why the serving female presidents of both ASCL and NAHT appear to have been overlooked).

News of the board’s line-up reached us the same week that NAHT confirmed the appointment of the aptly named Paul Whiteman as its new general secretary, whose predecessor, Russell Hobby, is to replace Brett Wigdortz as chief executive of Teach First. Earlier this year ASCL also replaced one white man with another as general secretary after an election contested by two – you guessed it – white men.

Can it really be possible that only white men are up to these jobs?

Now, I’m not saying that any of these men aren’t up to the job, nor that appointments shouldn’t be made on merit. I have been fortunate to work with Russell Hobby and Malcolm Trobe – both FLE board members – and consider them giants of educational leadership. They also acknowledge the need for greater diversity in headship and signed up to the Leading Women’s Alliance pledge. I’m simply asking whether it can really be possible that only white men are up to these jobs.

Elsewhere in the education landscape women are shaping the agenda. Becky Allen at Education Datalab, Becky Francis at IOE, Natalie Perera at EPI, Dame Alison Peacock at the Chartered College of Teaching, Amanda Spielman at Ofsted, and, soon, Leora Cruddas at FASNA, are all in commanding roles, and both School Week’s own Laura McInerney and TES’s Ann Mroz are strong female voices for the sector.

Yet despite these causes for optimism, the leadership of school leadership still feels like a distinctly white male preserve. In many ways, the problem is simply a magnification of the problem within schools themselves. But in secondary headship, where just one third are women and less than 7 per cent aren’t white British, the Foundation’s board has some way to go to reflect even that limited diversity.

The FLE’s constitution does allow additional trustees to be appointed and, used wisely, this provision could bring better balance (and more serving school leaders) to the board. It represents a real opportunity to show leadership on the issue of diversity in school leadership.

In every programme and workshop I run, aspiring leaders at all levels tell me about the importance of role models in inspiring them to take the next step. How powerful would it be for the three-quarters of the combined primary and secondary teaching workforce who are women and the 14 per cent who aren’t white British to see the body committed to “excellence in educational leadership” steered by a board which looked more like them? How compelling if we could rely not just on movements like the Leading Women’s Alliance, WomenEd and BAMEed, but on mainstream leadership associations to champion diversity by raising the bar on what is expected in their own organisations, truly leading by example?

It is possible. Twelve of the Chartered College of Teaching’s 19 trustees are women (though there’s more to do on other measures of diversity). This was achieved through open recruitment – targeting serving teachers and heads – to both its founding and additional trustee roles. Perhaps the Foundation for Leadership in Education could adopt a similar approach.

There is plenty of leadership talent out there to draw on, which both reflects the rich vibrancy of the society our schools serve and could help ensure every child goes to a school thriving under great leadership. With the right tone set from the top, there could be even more.


Kate Chhatwal is co-founder of the Leading Women’s Alliance, and director of Southwark Teaching School Alliance

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  1. Kate Mulcahy

    Great to see a focus on this. Has anyone investigated the make up of MAT boards? It’s just that I see a heck of a lot of white, male faces on websites. Nothing wrong with white men, but business and most of the public sector woke up a long time ago to the fact that diversity and proper representation lead to better decision making and more effective organisations. With the amount of public finding flowing through MATs now, it would be a shame if they were a step backwards in terms of leadership diversity.