Allison tells the story of her leadership journey as a black woman.
I knew I wanted to be a teacher from the age of seven. But it’s taken more than ambition to get a black woman from a disadvantaged East End community to headship; particularly when motherhood came into the mix.
I was aware from a young age that there was a ‘postcode lottery’ when it came to education, and the social injustice of it affected my peers: I was one of just 13 students in my school who got five or more A*-C at GCSE. Our community was disadvantaged, but my parents were focused on my education and made sure I understood how my performance in exams could improve my life prospects.
This is what school should do: act as a social leveller so that, as soon as children walk through the doors, they have equal opportunity to achieve – no matter what their background.
Following my teacher training I was an English specialist, teaching the subject at two schools in Tower Hamlets. In between, I left, worked as as peripatetic African Caribbean support teacher, returned and took on a pastoral role with a mentoring focus. Then I joined Haringey Local Authority having oversight for BME students’ attainment across the borough. All of these jobs gave me a fascinating insight into importance of aspirational teaching and leadership in disadvantaged and BME communities.
"School should... act as a social leveller so that, as soon as children walk through the doors, they know they have equal opportunity to succeed."
I joined the Future Leaders programme in 2007, and, having been offered the role of Assistant Headteacher at a high-performing school in a disadvantaged area at the end of my first year, I fell pregnant and had my child. Now I was black, a woman and a mother. This is officially known as ‘intersectionality’; to me it seemed a perfect storm of challenges to my ambitions to be a headteacher.
To be clear, it’s not just external bias which women, and particularly BME women, must contend with. Although during one headship interview a panellist did ask me how I would feel when my child didn’t recognise me for having been too long absent from home (yes, really), typically women have an internal mountain to climb before we even reach the application stage.
Have we really got enough experience to take the next step? Do our weaknesses outweigh our strengths, and will the interview panel see right through us? How will we manage the increased responsibility against our commitment to our families? As women, we think we need to be extraordinary and ‘better than’: putting an immense pressure on ourselves that I have not come across in any men I’ve met.
It was my awareness of these pressures which shaped the kind of leader I wanted to be. I wasn’t going to be a man; I was going to lead by example to show the bright, ambitious girls in my Catholic school that they could aspire to leadership too. Being female, black, aspirational, Catholic, family orientated and a headteacher is not a perfect storm: it’s just part of my identity.
"Being female, black, aspirational, Catholic, family orientated and a headteacher is not a perfect storm: it’s just part of my identity."
This is the confidence and peace of mind that I wanted to give to women attending my workshop at Leading Women in Headship - The Summit, which took place in January. In the session, which I ran with another inspirational black female headteacher, Nicole Haynes, we presented the level of under-representation of female BME headteachers in the UK, discussed the challenges of ‘intersectionality’, shared our initiatives and tips for tackling these - including building resilience and helping other colleagues to succeed, and answered delegates’ questions about their own experiences.
I’ll leave you with my most important piece of advice for aspiring female headteachers. It may sound corny; but be yourself, and have confidence in who you are and what you want to do for a school. Then, crucially, match this to a school and governing body which share your values and vision. Only then will you be able to achieve the impact you want for students.
Details of our other programmes can be found here
This article originally appeared on the website of the Ambition School Leadership. In March 2019 the Institute for Teaching merged with Ambition School Leadership to form Ambition Institute.