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How can BAME leaders break through the “concrete ceiling”?

New and aspiring black and ethnic minority head teachers say “eldership” is a vital part of their CPD and survival in leadership roles.

Under four per cent of school leaders are from BAME backgrounds: they describe their journey to headship as “hard,” “chaotic,” and “challenging,” says new research, despite being better-prepared than other candidates.

Christine Callender of the UCL Institute of Education, who presented her paper at the BELMAS academic leadership conference in July, said: “Although it is quite depressing, the sheer resilience and sheer determination these people have is amazing. For a lot of people, this is not something they would put themselves through.

“Many say they came into this job because they wanted to work with communities like them: working class, black, mixed. They say they want to be a head because they can have so much impact – that word comes up a lot - not only on the teachers but on the children and their communities as well. But it is incredibly tough, and they can’t see it getting better.”

What helped was “eldership” – existing leaders from BAME backgrounds who acted as coaches, mentors, allies, confidantes, sounding-board and experts. They also created groups of BAME leaders (often met at CPD events) and undertook independent coaching.

Christine, who interviewed aspiring, existing and veteran BAME leaders for her research, found a common theme that they were promoted to a senior role, often deputy headship, and then hit the “concrete ceiling”. Some said their aspirations were thwarted by “politics” – the ways in which the actions of school leaders or governing bodies combined to prevent opportunities for developmental experience.

They were not optimistic that things would improve, feeling that schools which traditionally appointed BAME leaders wouldn’t do so now either because of marketisation or changing demographics. They also felt that there was a “mirror-tocracy” – that governing bodies were appointing people who looked like them.

“When governing bodies are looking for a head, they are not necessarily conceptualising that person being from a BAME group. It’s about getting governors to recognise the additionality the difference would bring. BAME leaders tend to go into those challenging schools – it’s more difficult for them to get a job in an outstanding school than one requiring improvement.”

Christine tells the story of one candidate who had left a headship post and was trying to get another one later: each time she was rejected for a job, she researched the successful applicant and found without fail that they had less experience.

“A bit of me thinks that with all the recruitment drives to get more BAME leaders we need to find out what’s happening to those in post, and think about how to create spaces for them to do the good work they do without having to do twice as much as everyone else, and constantly self-check when they know they’re being checked anyway.”


How can aspiring BAME school leaders help themselves?

Christine says her research suggests several tactics:

  • Be smart about CPD – not all of it is going to lead to school leadership and BAME people need to choose types which will assist them in developing leadership capabilities to do the job. You are not going to become a head if you don’t understand finance.
  • BAME aspirant leaders are disproportionately in pastoral roles, but you don’t develop knowledge of the curriculum there, and you don’t become a deputy head unless you’ve led on a core curriculum area. If you can’t get those experiences in your school, get them elsewhere.
  • Join and create networks. Reach out to more established and new heads, develop relationships with them, let them be your sounding board. You can also meet people at CPD events and stay in touch.
  • Make sure you’ve got a good few years’ experience – the unwritten story is that you need more than other candidates.


How can school leaders support BAME teachers aspiring to headship?

  • “Recognise and take on board that the requirements of BAME leaders are different than for others. You cannot look at your experience through a white racialised lens. You won’t get the same result as other colleagues.”
  • Acknowledge and accept the road BAME leaders have to travel is a different one, and helping them to think about the obstacles, detours and one-way streets they will have to navigate.
  • Give them opportunities to develop the rounded experience they need to be a head teacher – any chink in the armour will be the reason they don’t get the job.


BELMAS is an educational leadership research association open to school and college leaders at all levels as well as academics. It encourages members to generate and share ideas and good practice. BELMAS is an independent voice supporting quality education from effective leadership and management. Find out more at www.BELMAS.org.uk

First published 24 September 2018