Overcoming prejudice on the way to headship

Aug. 13, 2015
Evelyn Forde

Evelyn Forde

Principal, Ely College

I wasn’t prepared for the prejudice I would face as a black woman applying for deputy head and headteacher positions – but support from colleagues, my mentor and my children gave me the strength to persevere.

In 2008 I had been a Head of Year for six years and knew I had done a good job. I wanted to do the same for a whole school – that way I would be able to affect real change.

I began applying for deputy head roles, but going into a two-day process with multiple intensive interviews for the first time is pretty daunting.

Once I’d been shortlisted for a role, though, my confidence grew – you don’t reach the second interview day unless they think you can do the job. I knew that, however long it took, I would eventually find the right role for me.

But the number of rejections mounted. I frequently made it to the final two or three candidates – but after nine interviews I still wasn’t a deputy head.

"As a Future Leader I could rely on my coaching group and my Leadership Development Adviser to give me the support I needed to keep going, and to keep improving."

In addition to the always-stressful process of application, tasks and multiple interviews, I faced an additional hurdle. I am a black woman, and I was almost always up against white, male candidates, and being selected by predominantly white, male governors. That came as a surprise; in these inner-London schools, where a large proportion or even the majority of students were not white, the governors didn’t even begin to represent the student body.

As a Future Leader I could rely on my coaching group and my Leadership Development Adviser to give me the support I needed to keep going, and to keep improving. As the process dragged out, one thing that gave me strength was my awareness of myself as a role model, both in my school and for my three children. My children were on my journey with me; giving up isn’t what I want for them, so I mustn’t give up myself.

"Racism is inherent in so many industries where it’s white men that reach the top positions, and the same is often true for schools."

Throughout my many applications for deputy headship and later headship, I suspected that my race and gender were factors in the number of rejections I received at the final stage, but this wasn’t confirmed until years later.

A friend connected to one of the schools I applied for asked one of the governors the reason that I had not been given the role. The governor replied that I was “too similar” to the other Deputy Head. Why? She and I had different experiences, different areas of expertise – our only similarity seemed to be that we were both black women. Racism is inherent in so many industries where it’s white men that reach the top positions, and the same is often true for schools.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

On my tenth interview, I got the job – and from there it was onwards and upwards. After three years I was head-hunted for a senior vice-principal position. Soon, I began applying for headships. Once again, rooms of white, male governors greeted me. Once again, I was not deterred, and I was offered the headship at Ely College.

The school is overwhelmingly white British, with only 6% non-white students across the school and low EAL numbers. Should I take up the role? Could I? I thought of a dear friend of mine – a white man, and the headteacher of a predominantly Asian school. Did he ever worry about his race before taking up that headship? No – he knew he would be a great head, and that was enough.

As a black woman I do still think about my race – but not as a negative. I know that I am a great role model for my community and my students, and now that I am a head I am able to appoint a more diverse staff body.

If you’re applying for headship and you know you can do it, show it. Keep applying, and the right job will come along.


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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