Proving You're Right vs Trying to Understand

The first prosecution of UK's 1965 Race Relation Act came in 1967.

We have seen enlightenment illustrated so many times, haven’t we? When Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz steps from the black and white threshold into a technicolour world or a make-over with before and after photos or footage, and in all circumstances that are similar, it is as if the mask has been pulled off and the potential and the beauty are revealed. It is this that excites us and has us wanting more. Buying into the ‘if they can do it, I can do it’ mantra.

I work in primary and secondary school improvement and seeking the potential and pulling off that mask is my aim, not just for the benefit of the children in the school, but for the wider community.  There are no secrets to a school’s success, although the plethora of popular books written about successful formulas would suggest it is easy to replicate, it isn’t, as the thousands of educational establishments, not in an Ofsted good or outstanding category, illustrate.  

British citizens, prior to the industrial revolution, generally did not challenge that there were few opportunities to extricate themselves from the poverty that they were born into, this didn’t prevent many from trying, but a rags to riches story was rare in the 1800 and early 1900’s. Today in the UK we more regularly hear of people extricating themselves from the poverty that they or their parents were born into; often it is the convergence of self-belief, opportunity and a good education that has catapulted them out. I feel privileged to be a part of the education system that enables that to happen, but being part of that system hasn’t come easily for me.

Is Britain a Meritocratic Society for all Ethnicities?

Education in Britain, as already described, is often a vehicle for social mobility, using it to climb up the ladder for an encounter with our vision of enlightenment or our dream job. The meritocratic society dictates that if we work hard, then the opportunity will present itself and we can lull in the vision of success forevermore. The problem with the meritocratic society is that if we believe those that have found a place in their heaven deserve to be there, then we must also accept those at the bottom of society deserve to be there too.  The idea of a meritocratic society doesn’t sound so palatable now if we must accept this. We can more easily accept that those that are at the top of society deserve to be there because of their capability and capacity to seek and manage suitable opportunities.

According to the Hofstede Insights, an index of how countries compare culturally, using data-driven analysis pinpoints the role and scope of culture in your organisation’s success  Country Comparison - Hofstede Insights ( Britain’s Power Distance (PDI) score is low, suggesting that Britain is

'a society that believes that inequalities amongst people should be minimised. Interestingly is that research shows PDI index lower amongst the higher class in Britain than amongst the working classes.' 

Further proposing that those in the higher classes see it as incumbent upon them, and others like them, to actively pursue equality. However, the experiences of many blacks in Britain today would provide a contrary argument that theyor indeed we live in a meritocratic society.

Equalities' data argues the case against Britain being a meritocratic or fair society for those of Black African heritage.  Is it true that those of Black African heritage languish at the bottom of society's echelons because they don't work hard or are not capable enough or is it something else that provides the reason why there are so few black leaders and entrepreneur’s in England?

A year before I was born, in 1965, ethnic minorities were undeniably treated to overt and spiteful racism, which was legal. The well-known ‘No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish’ window signs deepened the rejection and fear that many blacks felt. With no legal recourse to challenge the regimes imposed, such as being refused services, access to specific jobs and bed and  board, blacks in 1965 Britain often lived an impoverished life. Post the 1965 Race Relations Act many of these racist behaviours, designed to keep blacks at the bottom of society’s ladder, remained legal and it wasn’t until 1968 and 1976 that equality laws that were passed made it illegal to refuse board, service or jobs.

Despite these race relations laws very few prosecutions were made. The 1965 Race Relations act’s first prosecution came in 1967. Demonstrating to me that unlawful racist behaviours continued and were accepted by many, including the police and the justice system, as illustrated by few arrests, charges and prosecutions. For years after the race relation acts were made, those who held the seats of power became less overt and more subversive in the way that they manifested their racist behaviours.

Certainly, because of the context of my birth; colour of my skin; white and Jamaican heritage; the period in which I was born, and the fact that my birth mother was a young unmarried teenager without the total support of her family to keep me, I was admitted into the child care system. If Jamaicans were held in high regard and were respected equally as much as white Europeans and not considered a blight upon the British community, perhaps my birth mother would have been proud to say that I was of Jamaican heritage and would have kept me and I would not have looked at my first born son 20 years later and question how could my birth mother have rejected me, when the love I had for my first born was immediate and intense. That rejection still lives in my belly.

Swapping Overt for Covert 

Five decades later, subversive racist practices still triumph in many institutions and some defend their position by citing widely held myths, such as blacks have inherently lower IQ than whites; a mechanism for subjugating blacks in society.  

The number of  teachers of Black African heritage in English schools is not representative of the number of Black African heritage adults. If schools are microcosms of society, then I believe they should at least have an equitable number of black teachers that is comparable to the number of blacks in society. Of the 22,400 primary schools approximately 40 of them or 0.1% are headed by mixed black leaders; I was, for 10 years, one of them until I moved into school improvement where there are even fewer blacks and mixed black advisors. Yet mixed black Caribbean adults are 2% of the adult population. Is the reason why there are so few mixed black African heritage teachers and leaders in schools because they don't work hard or are not capable enough or is it largely because racist systems and structures prevent us sitting at those tables. Moreover is it because there is a lack of opportunities presented to them from secondary school education to leadership promotions? 

Representation matters because it reflects what our society values, and if we are to live in and thrive together in a society that allegedly, through its policies and practices, minimises the inequalities, then we should at least seek to remedy the inequalities that blacks face in the job markets.

Even though we may live in a cultural society that believes that inequalities should be minimised there are still institutions and groups that continue to uphold the beliefs that blacks deserve to be at the bottom of society. I have experienced this many times. The stares, the false arrests, the deliberate agitations, the farewells on the first day of a 2-day interview, the lack of invitations to influencing tables.

I was faced with racist barbed wire wherever I walked through my teaching profession; I wear the scars but also the badges of honour of making it through my failed secondary education, university sifting; the first school placements; the interviews; the appointments and later the promotions. It was a tough journey. A story replicated many times by my friends from the global majority, one of whom is of Indian heritage, explained with this one comment  which many from the global majority feel, when she said, ‘I came into a profession that I really wanted to be in to make a difference to people like me, but the profession won't let me in.’

Just because I have sat round those tables of influence, it has been fought with a sword in one hand and a willingness to learn and bestubbornly humble in the other . At times I have had to negate my values just to get to that seat. I have had to lower my head and keep my mouth closed. The few times it opened to those who didn't want to listen and embrace difference, it got ousted. I learned to navigate the choppy waters to find many allies and it was here together we enjoyed a place of contentment, excitement, enlightenment and much success. I soon learned to take with me those and learn alongside those where we shared values and visions and where trying to understand was on the daily menu, and to leave those repeatedly telling me they were right and I was wrong while shaking their fists at me, behind their doors of shame.

In 2018, after being appointed in a blind recruitment process, my new line manager told me that they had evidence that there were several members in the community that were racist and that I should ‘be careful’. Although I think this advice was designed to be helpful, it wasn’t. Furthermore, if the leaders felt that community members were indeed racist, I questioned why they hadn’t actively addressed this prior to my arrival as opposed to actively joining me and other like me in the fight for justice and equity. Too many have just looked the other way, they lack courage and they lack insight, but prefer to silently, but doggedly perpetuate the shame, the fear and the inequities of life. 

One reason Nazis and Klu Klux Klansmen became acceptable vanguards of racist behaviours was because they enveloped their hatred with scriptures from the Bible. The Bible, the sacred text that millions adopted their beliefs or philosophies from, and which many country’s laws are based was called upon, in their opinions legitimately, to frame hatred and racism. Hiding behind their interpretation of biblical references, allowed racism to thrive for decades.

Legacy of our Behaviours

The legacy of our behaviours and those of our ancestor’s creeps upon us, demanding that we act. I have a belief that when we know better, we do better and if we don't do better when we know better, then we are failing ourselves and our community.

It is no surprise that in 2020 we find ourselves amidst an ecological crisis. According to the BBC website  What is climate change? A really simple guide - BBC News  

Since the Industrial Revolution began in about 1750, CO2 levels have risen more than 30%. 

CO2 increases in the atmosphere is likely to see the surge in natural disasters, including droughts, floods and woodland fires. The activism from across the globe to prevent further ecological disasters  is possibly due to a realisation that the sustainability of life is at real risk and we need to act now to minimise this. Our needs and wants must be sacrificed in order to  preserve the earth’s natural resources and human and animal life.  For years man knowingly neglected the needs of the Earth to preserve their own wealth, status and comfort. Similarly, in Britain, defending racist behaviours and not pursuing race equality was designed to preserve the wealth, status and comfort of whites. Further, defending the patriarchy to the demise of women knowingly, was designed to preserve the wealth, status and comfort of men.

Black Lives Matter Agenda

With the Black Lives Matter agenda protested for in over 60 countries and on all 7 continents, such has been the cry for an end to white privilege and the pursuit of equality. People taking to the streets and to paper, during a dangerous worldwide pandemic, drives the end to unknowingly or knowingly protecting systemic racist mechanisms. No longer can people that sit at the tables of power defend doing nothing to shift the balance of inequality or say they do not know what micro aggressions are or that society values all lives equally.  They must try to understand and change their policies and behaviours. 

The argument for understanding and embracing the impact of white privilege is on the horizon and rising. Simply put, white privilege for me does not mean that a white person's life is easier than mine, it is simply that the white skin colour has not been the cause of a white person's challenges. I was separated from my birth family because of the colour of my skin. It was difficult to place me into a foster home in 1966 because of the colour of my skin. My white foster mum was spat at, refused entry to places, shunned by friends and family and called racist names because OF THE COLOUR OF MY SKIN. When we understand white privilege, we can understand why some people’s lives are harder than they should be, and we can become more compassionate or considerate and put in place legislation to promote equality. 

I will be there with my hands outstretched and I will welcome those that want to change, that want to understand, not to prove themselves right but to try to understand; even those that have lay shaking their fists at me behind their doors of shame,  I will listen and I will try to understand and together we will promote equality for all.

As humans we often like and need to feel connected and it is in schools that we have a very important role; ensuring that young people are connected through their similarities, differences, challenges and triumphs, so that they can aspire to carry the torch of equality.  If we employ a diverse range of teachers who have a myriad of stories to sell, we will inspire the next generation and we can swap those horror stories that me and my black colleagues have told for stories of hope.  When we don't challenge the thinking of decision makers; those in universities; local authorities; justice system; leaders in corporations; governors or trustees; etc, then we risk giving licence to not understanding the challenges others face and in these dark crevices, racism can and will thrive. 

We have seen enlightenment illustrated so many times, haven’t we? When Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz steps from the black and white threshold to a technicolour world, it is as if the mask has been pulled off and the potential and the beauty are revealed; let’s run towards that vision of equality for all together, so that the potential and the beauty for all is acknowledged and can thrive. 


Paula is a Standards and Effectiveness Partner for primary schools in Berkshire and in addition to working with both primary and occasionally secondary schools, has overall responsibility for EYFS and NQTs. Having over 27 years of experience in schools, including working as a teacher in England, Cambodia and America, she has also studied curriculums and equality mechanisms in The Netherlands and Canada. These experiences have resulted in her developing a global perspective of education and its leadership models.

Before joining Bracknell Forest Council, she had worked successfully as a primary headteacher in Nottingham, Devon and London and as a children’s centre manager, headteacher and executive headteacher across a range of diverse settings in Bristol.

Benefiting from gaining NPQH and carrying out a range of action research tasks, Paula decided to further develop her knowledge and value-based leadership skills using the living theories methodology; focusing on explaining the influences of her learning and that of others.

Believing that when you know better, you do better, she has an undying thirst for understanding and improving systems in education, often using solution focussed and research-based methods to engage all and transform outcomes.