Being a headteacher as a BME woman

Jan. 6, 2016
Nicole Haynes

Nicole Haynes

Principal, Mount Carmel Catholic College for Girls

Courage is an essential personal quality for those who aspire to outstanding leadership; especially so for BME women who may face the additional challenges of sexism and racism. Next week, I lead a workshop on how we can overcome these challenges.

I am in my second year of headship in a community with high levels of deprivation, poor mental health, child obesity, child poverty and youth violence. I am committed to providing a first-class education for all the students in my care, and it’s a responsibility which I love. But, as many women, and particularly BME women, have found, my ambitions for headship have not always felt as attainable as they should have.

Tackling gender and racial bias

In 2016, there is still a gender bias against women in secondary school headships. Often, interview panels and governing bodies are not ethnically or gender balanced, enabling sexism and racism to come into play (sometimes) unconsciously and unchallenged. While 6.9% of the teaching workforce are BME, only 2.4% of headteachers are from a BME background.  This is nonsensical in a city like London, where I work, in which 67% of pupils are from BME backgrounds. I believe it is crucial that students from ethnic minorities see leaders who look like them to encourage aspiration and self-belief. 

Meanwhile, of the minority of female headteachers in the UK, only 3.3% are from a BME background; with secondary heads from BME backgrounds being very rare indeed.

"While 6.9% of the teaching workforce are BME, only 2.4% of headteachers are from a BME background. This is nonsensical in a city like London, where I work, in which 67% of pupils are from BME backgrounds. "

I lead a Catholic girls’ secondary school with a high proportion of BME students which makes me part of an even scarcer breed - fewer than 1% of Catholic headteachers are female and from BME backgrounds. I believe that a key part of my role is to be a role model for them: to show them that leadership can belong to them as much as the white, male majority we still see dominating our society. 

The National College of Teaching and Leadership has funded a range of positive action programmes to address the under-representation of school leaders from BME backgrounds, and this needs extending if we are to create any real impact. 

Given the stark gap between BME and non-BME teachers and school leaders, it seems to me that we need a high-profile recruitment campaign – similar to the current drive to recruit STEM teachers - specifically to target candidates from minority backgrounds to join the teaching profession. It is essential that we recruit the best teachers to inspire all children – no matter what their ethnicity or gender – to aspire, achieve and thrive in our society. 

Supporting women in leadership

Fear of failure and, indeed, fear of success can hold women back from career success. We need to equip women with a powerful set of tools to counter any negative thinking or self-sabotaging behaviour. 

Over the last year, myself and two other black women headteachers – Diana Osagie and Chinye Jibounoh – have been working with the National College and The Education Partnership to spearhead ‘Courageous Leadership’: a leadership development programme for women from BME backgrounds who aspire to senior school leadership. The programme represents a unique opportunity for those from traditionally under-represented groups to network with the like-minded, create life-long peer support groups, develop their leadership skills and explore a range of leadership challenges and issues for women from BME backgrounds.

I have benefited from the support and professional development afforded by the Future Leaders programme and the network of outstanding senior school leaders that it offers. I want to ensure that as many female middle and senior leaders as possible are able to affirm their own talent and set them firmly on the road to headship.

Leading Women to Headship

I will be discussing this and other tools to enable women leaders to successfully reach headship at Leading Women to Headship – The Summit, a conference organised by an alliance of leadership and academic organisations and schools. The Summit will provide practical tips for women seeking to secure headships and consider the changes we need to make in the wider educational landscape to enable their progression. I hope to see many of you dynamic, inspirational women school leaders there.  


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. 

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