I decided to go out on a Tuesday night in the middle of exam season. Before you get carried away with a largely inappropriate vision of me out on the proverbial, my days of wearing purple wigs and sashaying the night away to trance music are long behind me. My idea of a night out these days involves some sort of teaching event that carries the promise of a glass of wine or two and sure enough, one came along last week in the form of a panel event organised by Teach First on ‘Women in Leadership: Education, Business and Beyond’. I was happy to accept their invite to be a panel member, alongside Hannah Wilson, one of the co-founders of the WomenEd movement and Henrietta Baldock- Chairman of European Financial Institutions at Bank of America Merrill Lynch – one of Teach First’s partner organisations. We were ably chaired by Fiona Rawes, the Director of Community Impact at Teach First, who ensured that as many voices were heard as possible at this important event.
We dealt with two official questions on the night, as well as a raft of well-thought out and provoking ones from an audience that was made up of about 100 women in teaching and business and precisely 2 men. Hannah and I wryly noted that had the event been entitled: ‘Leadership: Education, Business and Beyond’, there may have been a greater balance between male and female delegates. I do wonder whether taking out the gendered title at these events is the right thing to do. We were due to talk about the lack of female headteachers and how to raise aspirations in the girls we teach. To me and many of the women in the room, this isn’t an exclusively female issue. As the night progressed, the ideas became more and more central: for more women to enter into positions of responsibility in schools, in businesses and in politics, support from male colleagues is essential.
When I left, I realised we had covered so much in the time given to us as panellists that it would be hard to capture all the ideas and questions in one place. What I can do is provide a run-down of my points in response to the main questions. And possibly leave with you with more questions to consider.
Recent figures, released by the Future Leaders Trust, show that the overall proportion of women taking on headteacher positions is not reflected by the number of women in the workforce. A government report on the school workforce in England, issued in 2014, showed that the state education sector is 74% female, yet only 65% of headteachers are women. If these percentages were equal, there would over 1,500 more female headteachers in the UK – a number that the Future Leaders Trust believes could potentially fill many long-standing headship vacancies.
Recent research by the Guardian showed there are more men called John running FTSE 100 companies than all the female bosses put together. Among chief executives and chairs of FTSE 100 companies, there were 17 men called John (or Jean) – and seven women.
What in your view is the most important way we could influence a change with leadership positions?
In a groundbreaking study in 1975, Don Zimmerman and Candace West tracked the interruption rates in conversations between men and women. The study can be read in its entirety at the link provided but the findings can be summarised succinctly in these tables:
Source: Zimmerman/West, 1975
Interruptions are interesting interaction mechanisms. They serve to assert dominance and control in a conversation. Ask a Year 10 student how Lady Macbeth asserts her dominance over her husband in Macbeth and she will tell you that she interrupts and questions. It is ironic that she is seen as a manifestation of a witch for doing so and ‘corrected’ at the end of the play for her foolish attempt to control her husband and usurp the Elizabethan natural order. The rota fortunae turns. Exit Lady Macbeth. And yet we have a study here that shows that mixed gender conversations are rife with interruption.
How does this contribute to our understanding of where all the female headteachers are? I explained that the results of this study, and all of the subsequent studies that proved the same phenomenon, are still being played out in education institutions and businesses today. Women make up the majority of the teaching workforce and disappear as you climb the ranks into senior leadership, headship and governance – a fact reinforced by Warwick Mansell in The Guardian here. If the daily experience of leadership in schools for women is working in environments not only physically, but verbally dominated by male colleagues, then why would anyone want to do it? It is exhausting and demoralising. And we might not even be aware of the issue and the reason why.
Rather than just pose the problem and pondered, I spoke about solutions. The solution doesn’t involve flinging down your meeting agenda and storming out of the room, neither does it involve shouting louder than your interruptor. It is the rain that grows flowers, not the thunder (thanks Rumi). Women have to train themselves to deal with interruption so they can be heard.
If this was the only problem then we’d be fine because women would just do this and make progress. I talked about ‘Askers and Guessers’ at the WomenEd Unconference in last year and I came back to the topic on Tuesday night. I read Oliver Burkeman’s article in The Guardian a long time ago and was citing the concept of Askers vs Guessers as his idea. Only on re-reading the article last week did I notice that the original idea came from Andrea Donderi, a woman, on a discussion forum. Irony klaxon.
The idea is simple. And it resonates with me as a female leader so completely because I am a Guesser. I have waited for promotion and hoped someone would notice my work and assumed that if I just worked harder, longer, better, then I would be promoted. And I stalled. This wasn’t a result of male oppression. This was me, not realising I could move into being an Asker.
If we want more women in headships, or being CEOs of MATs and global banking institutions, we have to coach and mentor them to be confident Askers.
Paul Murphy MP, last week, called Welsh teachers out on their lack of ambition in getting students from state schools into Oxbridge. His statements only serve to put the proverbial icing on the cake in a week when Michael Gove has essentially called teachers lazy. I wonder if government ministers, Conservative or otherwise, will ever run out of negative adjectives to use about teachers. Perhaps they could stagger their verbal assaults – at least then, I’d be able to deal with them in one blog post at a time. I am more than a little disappointed in a former Labour Secretary of State for Wales wading in on the teacher bashing.
Back to the point. The idea that teachers are responsible for poor numbers of state school Oxbridge applicants is fascinating. It is wearying to see this issue crop up time and time again. Numbers of state school students applying to Oxbridge first appeared in 1852 when Royal Commissions for both Oxford and Cambridge showed that poorer students did not attend those venerable institutions. Why are we still having this same debate? And more to the point, why is it – 161 years after the first report on this issue – that we are now saying it is their teachers’ lack of ambition that has prevented students from applying to Oxbridge?
My experience has shown that, if anything, Oxbridge entrance is given top billing in state schools. It is still seen as the gold standard of university admission and teachers who are sixth form tutors are more than willing to encourage students from all backgrounds to apply. With an increasing number of Oxbridge graduates working in schools, there is a renewed focus on raising aspirations, using people who have been through that system themselves.
Many moons ago, when I was a student, there was a real sense of expectation around students who achieved those elusive top grades at A-Level. If you didn’t think it was for you, you were still pushed to place an application to Oxford or Cambridge, especially if, like me, you were from a minority ethnic background. I don’t remember a single teacher ever telling me that I shouldn’t apply or being particularly discouraging. I am conscious now, however, that my teachers saying I should apply for an Oxbridge place was not really about me as an individual, it was about state school statistics on Oxbridge entrance. I do feel quite cynical about it now. But it still does not mean that my teachers were unambitious.
I know that teachers are important to their students’ perceptions of the world they live in, but I am more than aware, too, that my students are not passive receptacles of information given to them in school. I certainly wasn’t, at that age. This is partly why I objected so violently to Boris Johnson’s comments about teachers being the reason that so many students hate Margaret Thatcher – apparently, we have indoctrinated them with our anti-Thatcher views. Students are, more than ever, exposed to political and social comment. They have access to the news in many different formats; they are more likely to communicate with each other via The Student Room, on Twitter and on Facebook. They learn about the world they live in from many different sources. If there is a hesitation on our students’ part to apply for those Oxbridge places, it may be because there is a collective awareness that it is hard to get in and that admission of state school students is lower than admission of students from independent schools.
If state school students are exposed constantly to the idea that Oxbridge is an elitist concept, then surely the barrier to be overleaped is that idea in itself. It is not a teacher’s lack of ambition that prevents a student from applying to one of those universities, it is the students’ own perceptions of them. It is certainly true that teachers I have worked with in the past eleven years have worked tirelessly to raise aspirations and to remind students that the perceived elitism is not a barrier to their ambitions.
As usual, teachers just need to keep powering through the criticism.
To change the record somewhat, it may be worth asking whether, in fact, there is too much focus on Oxbridge entrance. Times, they are a-changing. They have certainly moved on from when Paul Murphy himself went from a Catholic school in Pontypool to Oriel College, Oxford. Now, the Russell Group of universities, made of 24 of the best higher education institutions, has a wealth of excellent teaching facilities. One look at the rankings of universities according to subject makes it clear that if one is to go the ‘best’ university, it may not be Oxbridge for a particular subject. While both Oxford and Cambridge rank highly, they do not always rank at the top of the list. It begs the question, then, whether Paul Murphy’s comments are based on a real desire to see students receive the most cutting-edge, the most developed and most effective teaching at this level, or whether he – like many others, believes that having Oxford or Cambridge on your CV gives you an immediate advantage over anyone else. If that is the case, he is just perpetuating an elitism that teachers have been trying to eliminate for years.
For many students, regardless of their socio-economic background, Oxbridge may not be the right environment for them to flourish. Of course, there is evidence that many do. However, it is also interesting to note that one of key failings of the charter school movement in the US is around college drop-out rates. Charter schools laud their success in getting students from poor backgrounds into college, but are still trying to work out how to keep them there, particularly at Ivy League institutions. Where my own students have visited Oxbridge, some have indeed returned with the absolute belief that they do not want to go there. Why? Because they do not feel like they fit in. I realise that this idea will never change unless more state school students do apply and are admitted to Oxbridge – however, that perception of the institutions is not something that is created by teachers, it exists separately as a real barrier to students, particularly those from poorer backgrounds. We can be as ambitious as you like as teachers, but that doesn’t change the fact that a rarefied environment may be off-putting from students who believe, even in this day and age, that they don’t belong there.
So, it is with a heavy heart that I note Paul Murphy’s comments and that I raise a glass to my Welsh colleagues, who will soon be working with students to fill in UCAS applications to a wide range of universities, which may or may not include Oxbridge. Good luck all – keep your heads up.