Unconscious Bias: I am a white British man in my 50s, so of course I’m the headteacher! (Guest Post from Patrick Ottley-O’Connor @ottleyoconnor)

I guess that sounds pretty arrogant, but it is often the truth in our schools that someone with my profile is the person in charge. Google the word ‘Headteacher’ and you’ll see the majority of images that fit my profile; indeed I counted 200+ images before I saw a BAME leader!  In fact, I guess it is also the case in many organisations outside of education. When I visit other establishments wearing my headteacher uniform of suit, tie, cufflinks etc, I’m often mistaken for a doctor, manager or whatever title is given to the person in charge…at least until I open my mouth and they hear my broad Yorkshire accent!

I was not destined to become a headteacher.  I grew up in a small, predominantly ‘white’ mining village in South Yorkshire and despite not doing particularly well at school became the first in my family to go to university.  Most young people went on to the local college, where boys studied electrical or mechanical engineering for the pits and most girls studied admin or pre-nursing/caring courses.  As a caring 16-year-old lad, I bucked the trend (encouraged by my gorgeous parents) and followed the pre-nursing route.  This turned into PE teacher training on the basis of my early sporting talent and that was the start of my career.
I regard myself as a lucky leader. I’ve often used the following equation with students in assemblies:

Hard Work + Talent + Opportunity = Good Luck

Like many, I have always worked hard and demonstrated some talent, but appear to have benefited from more than my fair share of opportunities.  Why are some leaders luckier than others?  Is it that I have simply been given, created or seized more opportunities than others or could there be an unconscious bias working against non-white, non-male leaders?

There are plenty of hardworking & talented BAME leaders who, quite frankly, simply don’t seem to have the opportunity. Whether it is not offered or taken up, it remains an essential missing ingredient!

So why am I so passionate now about equality, inclusion & diversity? The short answer is – I don’t really know!  All I do know is that I’m now driven by a strong moral purpose to help transform the lives of the children who need it most.  Tapping into the woefully under represented talent pool of BAME leaders is currently a major missed opportunity for our profession. Any MAT, CEO, Governing Body & Headteacher that does not recognise and harness the untapped BAME talent is certainly missing real opportunities. 

I hold the principles of equality, diversity and inclusion at the heart of everything I do and they shape all that I stand for. As a teacher of 30 years, a senior leader of 25 years, and a headteacher of 14 years in schools facing challenging contexts with high levels of disadvantage, I am committed to developing a teaching & leadership community which is representative of the groups that I serve.  To do this I need to recruit the best teachers and leaders. I always aim to make inclusion a reality within education. I Equally important is the need to grow & retain colleagues through enthusing, engaging and empowering them; coupled with nurturing & liberating leadership potential from all, through high quality CPD and appropriate opportunities.  

I welcome the challenge of enabling staff from all backgrounds to develop and excel in their roles. From ITT & NQT to MLT & SLT members, I aim to support every staff member to develop their potential and to promote leadership at every level.  I play my part in addressing underrepresentation of groups at senior levels and always strive to ensure that the school represents our diverse student population now, and into the future.  Does your organisation approach this opportunity with the same gusto?  If not, why not? What are the barriers?  Is it ‘just one of those things’ or could it be the unconscious bias of those in charge?

I suppose the very fact that I am who I am, coming from my own background; I will carry my own unconscious bias.  This alone makes the case for a diverse and inclusive leadership team.  We all come from our own perspective, fully loaded with our unconscious bias.  If I surrounded myself with ‘mini-me’ leaders, then our collective unconscious bias could manifest itself with unchecked bias. Although, as a Headteacher I need good support from my team – without equal challenge we would be in danger of becoming dysfunctional!

Twitter has really helped broaden my perspective and connects me with a diverse range of education professionals. I collaborate with and learn from the best national and international experts on inclusion & diversity.  I engage with programmes and professionals that support the ambition for inclusion & diversity.  I develop leaders and practitioners so they’re empowered to share learning about inclusion & diversity. I set extremely high standards around inclusion when recruiting staff and practitioners, and expect the same from any partner organisations that I collaborate with. I bring challenge to the wider system with regards to leadership for inclusion & diversity and engage with those at the forefront of developing new ways to inspire and bring about sustainable change on inclusion & diversity.

I believe that developing a diverse workforce within our schools is massively important. An increasing proportion of people that work in education are from a Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) background: despite this BAME colleagues are underrepresented, in particular at the highest levels of school leadership. I regularly hear of discrimination and even that many experience shocking levels of bullying and harassment. 

I believe that an explicit emphasis on inclusion & diversity, through leadership, will strengthen the experiences of colleagues and ultimately students, and therefore will help to transform the culture of our schools.

We all need to bring fresh thinking and approaches to inclusion & diversity to have any hope of impacting on leadership practice and behaviours. We should promote the importance of recognising and nurturing difference through a number of ways: including working in partnership to identify & celebrate the work of under-represented groups of BAME. 

The challenge is clear for all MATs, Governing Bodies and Headteachers: to embrace the opportunity by recognising and addressing unconscious bias to ensure that we harness the greatest possible talent and make a real difference for our learners.

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