Race, Identity and Leadership in Two South African and uk and Schools



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Leadership Identity in Ethnically Diverse Schools in South Africa and England

Opening a dialogue about diversity
Though few countries have ever had homogeneous ethnic and cultural populations, the degree of variousness is increasing internationally, accompanied by intense international interest in the changing demographics of nations (Scholte, 2000). Though the history and context of demographic shifts in school student profiles is different in each country, region or city, in all locations schools are a crucible in which future society is melded (Chisholm & Sujee, 2006). The premise of this article is that schools provide cases where not only issues of ethnicity can arise, but also class, language and religion. A second premise is that while the historic and current contexts of different nations may vary, hegemonic assumptions about the superiority of white and middle-class values may be embedded and potentially socially destructive in similar ways, whatever the geography. For example, how children in Ireland experience ‘the largely negative attitudes to minority ethnic groups’ (Devine, 2005) may have parallels with the experience of children in many other parts of the world (Nkomo, McKinney and Chisholm, 2004). Devine (2005, p. 53) suggests that the attitude of teachers and school leaders to incoming children is likely to reflect ‘the world of the dominant’.
Education is viewed by many as a primary means of facilitating the harmonious development of a diverse society. The leadership of schools which experience sudden and significant demographic shifts is therefore a phenomenon not only of internal readjustment, but also relevant to external audiences who may consider how the school models adjustments in relationships between community members and leadership within a diverse community. The United Nations (United Nations, n.d.) anticipates a continuation of intensifying diversity amongst nations. How schools are led to work through a response to the intersections of ethnicity, class, religion and language of staff and students at times of considerable demographic change therefore is, and will remain, a major developmental focus for education.
The article focuses on South Africa (SA) and England, in both of which some schools have experienced dramatic demographic change, that is, change which is both speedy and large scale (Sekete et al., 2001). Many schools which previously had learners of only one ethnic heritage, class and language now support students with a different or more diverse demography. In some cases school leaders have also changed and reflect the characteristics of learners. In others, they have remained relatively stable and consequently are not as diverse as their pupils. The latter scenario results in a context where diversity, and particularly ethnicity, may be a potent issue. The purpose of the article is to report a small scale study in which leaders in two such schools, one primary school in South Africa and one in England, were asked to consider their beliefs and practice in relation to diversity and leadership. Brooks and Gaetane (2007) and Devine (2005) suggest that such issues remain some of the most significant about which educators rarely speak. In focusing closely on two primary schools, we follow on Walker (2005) and Layder (1993) in seeing the research necessarily framed by an understanding of four elements:


  • The macro – the history, economics and power structures of a country or region

  • The setting – the immediate context factors in the school itself

  • Individuals in interaction – the influences and limitations created by social and professional relations

  • The individual – the unique biography and identity of each leader.

The close focus consideration of these elements aims to understand better the position of leaders in changing school environments and developing societies. The article first discusses the macro context of South Africa and England and the purpose of considering an instance of practice in countries so different in history and culture. It reviews how we might define and understand diversity, and how conceptualisation might relate to the identity of individuals and their leadership role in a school. The setting of each school and the research methods are then described, and finally the evidence from leaders on their individual beliefs and practice is given. The article concludes by suggesting that there is evidence that the changes in each society have had little impact on how leaders think of themselves and on exclusionary practice. There may consequently be a need to adjust school leadership development programmes to encourage self-reflection on identity and the implications of minority and majority status amongst school leaders.


The macro context

Diversity in the population is pushing to the fore globally as a social and educational issue of the first importance. Each organisation, community and nation state will wish to understand in depth its specific experience and the issues of in/equality which arise. Simultaneously, while there is necessity for deep understanding of the context, as tides of people and culture swirl across the world, avoidance of an ethnocentric perspective is also axiomatic. An international stance is defined here as one which attempts to transcend the local and to analyse environment and action where one’s own position is ‘merely one tale in a meta story’ (Lumby et al., 2009: 159). Comprehension of both the tale and the larger picture are needed to develop policy and practice.


South Africa and England have experienced both inflows and outflows of people and political shifts. While they have very different histories and societies, there are also parallels in the dramatic change in the profile of school learners in some schools. In South Africa, a large influx of black learners previously excluded from schools designated as white, Indian and coloured pre-1994, has changed significantly the learner composition of some (Chisholm and Sujee, 2006; Vandeyar, 2008). Chisholm and Sujee (2006) map the extent to which the segregation of schools in relation to racial classifications has been modified. They conclude that schools previously open only to students designated as white have to some extent opened their doors to those previously designated as Indian and coloured and, to a proportionately lesser extent, those previously designated as African. Schools in townships and informal settlements in metropolitan areas and those in rural areas have served and still serve predominantly black learners, reflecting many languages and ethnic groups. The learner profile has been stable. The change in the profile of learners in the former white, Indian and Coloured schools is in many cases dramatic. Chisholm and Sujee (2006) stress the complexity of the patterns of movement amongst schools and the uneven integration. Moletsane, Crispin and Muthukrishna (2004) suggest that many teachers and schools are not willing or able to make the changes of integration envisaged in national policy.
In England, inflows of immigrants, particularly from Commonwealth and Eastern European countries, as well as geographic clustering of second and third generation children of immigrants, has led to schools where there is a majority of learners who are from ethnic groups which are in a minority in the population as a whole. There are no official statistics of the number of children whose first language is not English, but the National Literacy Trust estimates that approximately a quarter of children in primary schools do not fit the ‘white British’ categorisation and that ‘children with English as their first language are a minority in over 1,300 schools in England’ (n.p.n.).
In both countries, the profile of staff, and particularly of leaders, has not changed to the same degree, resulting in many schools where the teaching staff and leadership are homogeneous, of different ethnic origin, and/or speak a different home language and/or have a different religion to the majority of learners. Leaders therefore may form a minority group within the school. While much research has considered the implications for teaching and learning of ever more diverse learners, there is very little research illuminating the experience of staff leaders in such contexts, and particularly the impact of their minority status. Milliken and Martins (1996: 5), suggest that ‘the proportion of representation is likely to be an important variable in predicting the outcomes of diversity’. The context of both countries offers a research environment with multiple variables in the minority and majority status of learners and leaders in schools and in the dimensions of difference between staff and learners. Similarities and differences in the two countries may allow consideration of how issues relate to contexts which are different, but share some similar development challenges. The value base for the study is a belief that as education is a fundamental vehicle for the reproduction of, or challenge to, inequity in society (McMahon, 2007), schools urgently need to address diversity issues as they appear in new guises. The article offers a contribution to understanding school leaders’ experience in the circumstance of speedy pupil demographic change.
The purpose
This article adopts a cross-cultural stance, defined as the comparison of two or more cultures, attempting to distinguish what is different in each but also to discern ‘patterns of interconnectedness’ (Paige and Mestenhauser, 1999: 502). The intention is to recognise both the differences and interconnectedness of the world and to challenge acculturated limitations (Adler, 1997), that is, an inability to see things differently and afresh due to the defining ways of seeing brought about by a lifetime of immersion in one culture. Such a stance:
entails viewing values and practice in locations across the world, including one’s own, with sufficient openness to reach insights about similarities, differences and their scale and translating such insights into renewed commitment to and ideas for developing one’s own practice. (Crossley and Watson, 2003: 12)
The article then is not primarily a travelogue designed to inform readers about practice in South Africa and England. In focusing on just two primary schools such an aim would in any case be unachievable. Rather, it seeks to stimulate and to challenge thinking about diversity and leadership, and to support deeper reflection on the issues of a demographically changing society wherever in the world the reader may be located (Nkomo et al., 2004).
Identity and diversity
Researching and writing about diversity and particularly ethnicity is trammelled by the slipperiness of language. We have used a number of terms so far whose meaning is variously understood. We have chosen to use the concept of diversity as a term which potentially encompasses not only the infinite variation of human beings, but the socially and psychologically constructed meanings, attributes and value which are taken by the self and imposed by others on individuals and groups. The significance of attributed meaning and value is the consequent acquisition or absence of privilege which is unjustifiably differential (DiTomaso and Hooijberg, 1996). Diversity, then, signals a range of socially constructed and understood ‘differences’ between people, which do not reflect immutable characteristics, but rather a mosaic of privilege and advantage (Litvin, 1997).
As prejudice and disadvantage are differentially experienced by those deemed ‘other’ in any context, and particularly by those who are visibly different in terms of their physical characteristics, it may be necessary to focus on those with particular attributes or origins in order to resist injustice. In this context, Chisholm and Sujee (2006) reflect on the debate in South Africa between those who believe race remains a potent term and those who see it as unhelpful. Vandeyar (2008: 10) for example, insists that the term has been questioned since the early twentieth century and depends on ‘discredited 18th century ideas that human beings are biologically divided into races’. In the UK the term ‘race’ is still embedded in legislation, but the more commonly used concept in education is ethnicity, indicating a less rigid classification of people. In this article the terms ethnicity and ethnic minority are used to avoid any suggestion of biological ‘race’ and to refer to groupings of people merely as a strategy to better understand their position of privilege or the contrary, not to suggest homogeneity within each group. Minority ethnicity has been shown repeatedly to relate to oppressive reactions from others (Allard and Santoro, 2006; Gillborn, 2005; King, 2004; Rusch, 2004).
A further concept which underpins the article is that of identity. Our focus on leadership impels a consideration of individuals and the identity of particular school leaders. The concept of identity is explored within a very large body of literature and is highly contested (Bauman, 2004; Goffman, 1959). We understand it as:
a system of negotiated, fluid choices which are in part controlled by the individual and in part imposed. Identity is a performance where what is constructed is part of the battery to create, maintain, defend and enhance self-worth and status in the eyes of others …. It is intimately related to notions of power.

(Lumby, 2008: 29-30)


We also note Walker’s definition of identity as ‘an interlocking personal and social project under particular discursive conditions of possibility’ (2005: 42), as this reflects her work in South Africa and emphasises the necessity to explore not only the understandings of identity of self and colleagues, but also the influence of possibilities and limitations in the specific context. In both South Africa and in England the leaders we spoke to negotiate a path through multiple identities within shifting social parameters (Gaganakis, 2006).
Conceptualising diversity
There are numerous frameworks which might allow analysis of how leaders in the two schools conceptualise diversity. The most widely used distinctions are between observable (such as gender) and non-observable (such as educational background) characteristics (Simons and Pelled, 1999). You-Ta et al. (2004) describe the same distinction as ‘readily detectable or underlying’. The second binary is between broad and narrow conceptualisations (Wentling et al., 2000: 36). Narrow conceptualisations focus primarily on those characteristics seen as particularly likely to incur socially constructed disadvantage, that is, ethnicity and gender (Kossek and Lobel, 1996). Broad definitions incorporate a much wider range of characteristics which may distinguish individuals and groups, including age, disability, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, values, ethnic culture, education, lifestyle, beliefs, physical appearance, social class, language and economic status (Norton and Fox, 1997).
Milliken and Martins (1996) hypothesise that the strength of emotional reaction to another gains intensity in proportion to the degree of 'minoritiness' and sense of 'otherness'. The degree of visibility of difference and the proportion of representation may therefore affect orientations to diverse others. Lorbiecki and Jack (2000) suggest that leadership for and with diversity is not about relating to all the characteristics which individualise staff, but rather how to include those whose difference is visible, in a minority and potentially stigmatised by the majority. One might expect that those in the South African context, where visible differences have historically led to extreme legislated disadvantage, might be particularly aware of the implications of visible differences. The concept of majority is also complex in schools similar to those researched here. The white staff in the South African school form the majority of staff in the school, but a minority of the internal school community and a minority of the population of the country. In the English school, white staff form the majority of staff in the school and of the population of the country, but a minority of the whole school community. Hence, white staff members are caught in differing dichotomies of identity.
Research methods
The research focused on the leaders of a primary school in an urban context in South Africa and in England. The schools were purposively selected as in both cases the learner profile had changed dramatically in a relatively short period of time, and now comprises a large majority of African or Asian heritage children. In both cases, a relatively stable majority of white teachers remains. The similarity in the micro level change was important in providing a comparative context. The senior team in both schools faces challenges which are not only similar to each other, but evident in many other schools internationally.
One school is located in the Western Cape province. The population is majority white, Afrikaans-speaking, with the largest number of Afrikaans-speaking ‘coloured’ people (as defined pre-1994 and still in use as a defining term1) of any province in South Africa. There are fewer black people than in any other province. The primary school is in a former white urban area, located near a former coloured township area. The community around the school can be classified as disadvantaged socio-economically, with 33 per cent of families depending on welfare money and a large percentage of single parents.
The school learners and educators were exclusively white until 1995. In 2007, when the research was undertaken, the learner population had increased by 43 per cent and now comprises approximately 75 per cent children coloured, approximately a tenth white and a tenth black, and one per cent Indian, using the classifications that would have been use in 1994 before majority rule was achieved. Figures are given approximately to protect anonymity. The main home language of coloured and white children is predominantly Afrikaans, while the black children speak Xhosa at home. Overall in Western Cape, formerly white schools ‘comprised 38% white, 41% ‘Other’, 3% African and 17% coloured’ (Chisholm and Sujee, 2006, p. 147). The case school is therefore not typical. The 10 per cent of white students is lower than in comparable schools, and the percentage of coloured and African students higher. It is therefore an example of dramatic change, as defined earlier, and its experience may be not necessarily typical of South African schools, but may be close to that of those schools in any nation which experience dramatic change. The school management team (SMT) consists of the principal, two deputy principals and four heads of departments (HoD). About a quarter of staff are coloured (as defined per 1994), but only one coloured member of staff has held a formal leadership role as head of department, when she acts as replacement for an absent HoD. All the members of the SA school management team (SMT) were interviewed and the additional staff member, as she has been an acting head of department for numerous periods.
Details about the school in England are given in general terms to protect its anonymity. It is in a city where over 90 per cent of the population is white. However the profile is changing rapidly with nearly 20 per cent of school entrants black or minority ethnic, reflecting among other groups a large influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe. The city is in the top quartile of deprivation in England and the school is one of the most socially deprived districts in the city. It has experienced a considerable decrease in the proportion of white learners. The majority (over 90 per cent) is now of Asian heritage and there are also a number of students who are of African heritage and Europeans with a range of home languages. Within the school are children who speak eleven home languages. Only 15 per cent speak English as a home language. Exact percentages indicating the ethnic profile of learners who are not of Asian origin were not available in the school. In England, some cities have seen large immigrant populations from Central and Eastern European countries as part of the largest single inflow of immigration ever experienced (Office for National Statistics, 2007). The clustering of families of Asian heritage is also evident in a small number of cities. The case school is therefore not typical of the majority of schools, but reflects the challenges faced by a significant minority. The support staff, such as teaching assistants, language support staff, dinner supervisors and cleaners, are primarily minority ethnic. However, only one teacher is minority ethnic. The rest are white. The SMT consists of the principal and four heads of year, that is, responsible for a particular age group. However, other teachers hold leadership roles, such as responsibility for a particular curriculum area. The English school suggested that all teachers had a leadership role. Therefore those formally in the SMT and a purposive sample of further teachers were interviewed. The range of respondents is indicated in Table 1.

As the focus of interest was how leaders experience and perceive their identities and how this relates to their leadership in ethnically diverse schools, interviews were chosen as the means to probe people’s self perceptions and their perceptions of others. There is no assumption that a single reality could be discerned by such a method; rather, identity is conceived as a performance captured during its ongoing and fluid construction and perceived through the prism of language. Understanding is mutually created by the respondent and researcher. Scheurich (1995) argues that wresting unambiguous meaning from interviews ‘borders on a kind of violence’ (p. 242). The researchers therefore accept that there is an ambiguity at the heart of communication by language, both between interviewer and interviewee and between writer and reader. Nevertheless, we attempt to achieve some sense of the possible meaning and implications for leaders by a mutually constructed exploration of how people see their identity, their orientation to diversity and the implications for practice.


Individual interviews were conducted by one of two researchers. Both researchers carried out interviews in each of the two schools. The schedule which guided the semi structured interview consisted of questions to explore the respondents’ understanding of their own position as a leader in the school, their conception of their own identity and how they conceived diversity and its impact on the staff. Each interview lasted for about a half hour. English was used with the exception of four South African interviews which were conducted in Afrikaans and then translated into English. The interviews were recorded and transcribed.
In South Africa all but one respondent was white, with Afrikaans as their first language; one had English as a first language and indicated her identity as ‘coloured’. In England the respondents were all but one white, apart from a teacher who was not a member of the senior management team (SMT). English was the first language of all. The data was analysed to identify themes within the main foci of diversity and leadership in schools and the differences and similarities in concepts and experience drawn from the thematic analyses. The two researchers were a white English-speaking woman from the UK and a white Afrikaans-speaking man from South Africa. They therefore bring an insider and an outsider perspective to the data from each country. Both will be positioned by a particular history and identity and it is acknowledged that this will inevitably influence how they see and how they interpret.
The individuals
Staff identity
Staff were asked to describe their identity. The resulting data was analysed to discern the implicit conceptualisations of diversity. One respondent did not see any connection between characteristics and identity:


  • I do not think any personal characteristics has (sic) anything to do with my identity

In contrast, in the majority of cases, self-description implied a wide conceptualisation, foregrounding particularly non-visible attributes, noting beliefs and professional orientation. For example, in England, the responses included:




  • I am fair and that is important for me. I like to think I prefer to listen more than I talk or do.




  • Generally someone who does all the background work and passes it on and that’s it.




  • Competent and calm

Another listed a large number of personal skills such as being a good listener. In South Africa, the responses also included personal qualities:




  • I am a lover of mankind. I love people. It does not matter who it is.




  • I want people to see me as a person with justice and who can be objective.




  • I like to think of as many options as possible. I never believe there is one way, a right way of doing things.



  • I am perfectly designed to teach. I never get mad. I never lose control. I love kids.

Others gave narratives of their life or opinions, in one case a career history and in another an account of the demographic profile of the school. Another, while he acknowledged that skin colour was part of his identity, emphasised more his sense of humour as a really important aspect of his professionalism. His explanation of humour was lengthy and seemed invested with more significance for him than other characteristics. It was explained to be the quality that was most relevant to relating successfully to learners:


Identity is about background and culture. Your identity is also about your skin colour. It can also be about the political group you belong to…. I am professional and diligent and I can also make jokes in the class. You must not always be serious in the class. The children must be able to see that you can make jokes. You must be approachable for the children.
A minority in both countries noted their ethnicity, gender, religion, language or socio-economic background:



  • I am going to answer this out of a Christian perspective. I believe I have a role to play and I have been put on this planet by my creator to do so; that I think was my destiny and I was designed for that. I am one of a kind. By that I mean that I have been perfectly designed to teach.




  • I am a white male and I may be the only white male these children see. I am also a Christian.




  • I am a South African, Suid Afrikaner, which talk (sic) Afrikaans and loves the language.




  • I am from a large family... I come from a very humble background

Three cited their religion as an important aspect of their identity, two their language and two their socioeconomic background. One might anticipate that South Africans would see their ethnicity as a critical aspect of their identity, given the history of racial segregation, but only one referred to himself as white in describing his identity. In England, again, a single respondent referred to himself as white; other staff did not refer to their ethnicity. Within the sample across both countries, the two who included skin colour within their description of their identity placed it as of less importance than other characteristics. The English leader stressed his religion more. The South African, asked the most significant of his characteristics, ordered them as first religion, second language (Afrikaans) and third belonging to a high income group. He explicitly rejected ethnicity as important.


Intersectionality theory suggests that consideration of any single dimension of diversity risks oversimplification of the individual and the socially constructed response to their characteristics (Valentine, 2007). It is therefore comprehensible that each leader might mention numerous dimensions of their identity, including both those characteristics which are the focus of narrow conceptions of diversity, particularly ethnicity and gender, as well as those which are part of wider conceptions, language, background, religion, professional attributes. However, what demands greater consideration is the weighting of elements within each self-created depiction of identity. The visible characteristics which might be most apparent and arguably most significant to the school community, particularly whiteness, were given relatively little consideration and explicitly rejected as relevant by some: ‘Race does not matter.’ More attention was given to professional characteristics.
One might understand in numerous ways why the majority of staff chose to foreground their non-visible characteristics, professional attributes and beliefs, rather than their ethnicity or other detectable characteristic. Gurin and Nagda (2006) draw on social psychological theories to present strategies by which people attempt to minimise the stigma of low status identities such as minority ethnicity or gender. The first is de-categorisation, where members of a stigmatised group personalise relations with the majority or dominant group so that they are perceived as just that individual, rather than as a member of a group, thereby avoiding the stereotypes attached to out-groups. The teacher is perceived as ‘Mary’ rather than as of Indian origin or, in the case of SA, the teachers emphasised their Christian identity rather than their whiteness. In contrast, re-categorisation draws out-group members into the in-group, through common tasks and symbols. Difference is set aside in order to create one single group, rather than an in-group and out-groups. The teacher is viewed as a member of the senior management team rather than as a coloured person.
The two strategies were evident in the leaders’ descriptions of their identity. Through foregrounding their personal qualities and skills they stressed their membership of a professional group. They were re-categorising into a more prestigious group, that of educational leaders. De-categorisation was also evident in the insistence that skin colour did not matter. The single member of the SMT in SA who was not white believes that ‘I do not recognise colour any more’. Speaking of her, another leader believes that staff do not ‘think there is a non-white person’. Yet, in the South African responses, the Afrikaans word ‘anderskleurig’, meaning ‘other colour’, was used more than once. The concept of ‘anderskleuriges’ was common before 1994, used by whites to refer to people who are not officially white. Although the word ‘anderskleurig’ was employed only a few times, related terms like ‘the other’ or ‘we differ’ or ‘they are different’ were used many times alongside assertions of colour blindness:
One of the ladies here is anderskleurig….. We have one non-white lady who is very dynamic …….. She functions very well. I do not think that people think there is a non-white person with us……I do not think our people see any colour.
Another SA respondent reflected on the fact that the staff had recently had a discussion about the concept of anderskleurig:
We talk about others, who are not whites, as anderskleurig. Who said that we are not the right colour? Particularly in this new political environment and the situation, it is for me the reason why people wonder nowadays which word to use. We are not really the right colour. Why do we call people anderskleurig?
There is, of course, irony in the assertion that people do not see colour when the interview transcripts are shot through with acute awareness of it, generally in others. As in the title of Walker’s article (2005), race is nowhere and race is everywhere. The staff discussion centres on the illogic of continuing to use a word which means ‘other’ when the group using it has become ‘other’. The previously dominant white Afrikaans population had the political, social and cultural power to perceive those who were not white as belonging to a homogenised mass of other ethnicities. Now, the previously dominant group is not only a minority in terms of ethnicity, but has lost political power. And yet it continues to adopt an anderskleurig perspective within the changing context of school and country, asking the critical question about the view ‘Who said we are not the right colour?’ and appears to have a wakening realisation that it is not the only group labelling people according to their own perspective on skin colour. Becoming a minority in the school community as well as the national population has not removed a sense of the majority as ‘other’.
The colour blindness in both countries is striking. On the one hand whiteness is presented as salient by only one member of staff in each, and yet whiteness:
has been a historically privileged category insofar as people with white or light skin have benefited from historic legal, social, and economic advantages that shape a common history and have resulted in long-term inequities (Simpson, 2008: 141).
It is, of course, complex. Some white people are advantaged or disadvantaged in particular ways and their ethnicity may intersect with other characteristics such as gender or disability which can also lead to dis/advantage (Valentine, 2007). Nevertheless, despite the changes that followed majority rule in South Africa in 1994 and the increasing diversity of British and SA society, whiteness has continued to confer privilege on many. As Simpson (2008) argues, whites think of themselves as neutral, normative. Awareness of their ethnicity is an optional extra. Consequently, the absence of explicit self colour consciousness in all but two of the respondents may be rooted in differing imperatives. The white respondents may be genuinely unconscious of their ethnicity as a salient feature of their identity: It is the norm. For the two minority ethnic respondents, avoidance of ethnicity may relate to de- or re-categorisation: One group has no need to escape; the other has a persisting impetus to do so. It is a collusion of those who see themselves as the norm with those who know that the experience of difference matters, to feign that difference is irrelevant (Cochrane-Smith, 1995; Mabokela and Madsen, 2003).
How can discussion about difference take place if there is a denial of difference? Simpson (2008) constructs a range of criteria for assessing if dialogue is genuine, that is allowing people to ‘think together’ (p. 140). Colour blindness is suggested to prevent such dialogue, because it:


  • is hypothetical and acontextual insofar as it imagines a race-neutral social context.

  • is reproductive of the lived experience of dominant groups over subordinated ones.

  • passively accepts the status quo and resists challenges to it.

  • demeans and devalues the experience of racism as irrelevant or inaccurate.

  • is ‘politically correct’ in its avoidance of difficult or challenging explorations of race.

Certainly, in relation to the first criterion, there was somewhat more awareness of ethnicity issues in society in the South African school, where staff discussed ‘anderskleurig’ and considered the issue of diversity in relation to nationhood and the history of the country.




  • Mr Mandela said, one nation. It’s everybody together, no matter who you are, where you come from, we all have to take hands and stand together. Let this country grow financially, politically, all aspects. We must take hands and stand together. That’s how I see it and if you look at any situation, any problem, don’t keep the past in mind, especially in our country.




  • I am a lover of mankind. I love people. It does not matter who it is. Race does not matter. Language does not matter. I think it is very important in our work that you must not hang on to certain groups, although there is drastic culture differences. The things that you were brought up with. Things that you must overlook that are very difficult.

The acknowledgement that difference exists and has mattered is set alongside insistence that it no longer does so. Similarly, in the English school, while staff were acutely aware of the issues of ethnicity and language in relation to learners, they did not generally recognise ethnicity as a dimension of the experience and relationships of leaders.


In relation to the second criterion (is reproductive of the lived experience of dominant groups over subordinated ones), the perspective of the dominant group that there was no issue appears the accepted view, even though the two minority ethnic staff who were interviewed challenged this view. Both felt that the way they were perceived related to their ethnicity and was limiting. They felt perceptions of their identity foregrounded their ethnicity, (this even though everyone, including themselves, asserted its irrelevance), and that consequently their experience was differentiated from white leaders. Ethnicity did matter. The status quo was accepted, as in criterion three. Finally, there is a strong sense that political correctness shaped the dialogue. Staff repeated their positive orientation to diversity, particularly in relation to learners; this, despite their insistence that they did not see colour. Other research in South Africa has similar findings. For example Gaganakis (2006: 368) quotes Pumi, a young woman of colour: ‘We have to put this thing of race behind us… It’s nothing…. It’s just a natural thing. Just a colour. It does not mean anything to me.….. It’s about being equal’. In South Africa and in England leaders appeared to be unwilling to engage with the implications of the minority status of whiteness in the school staff. The assertion that ethnicity was not seen and did not matter may have been meant as a stance, asserting equality, but its effect was to exile discussion of the ways in which ethnicity does matter and may result in inequality.
The non-acknowledgement of whiteness is, of course, in a different context in each country. The minority white school leaders are part of a national majority in the UK, hence it may be more difficult for them to think about their minority status in school when they are part of the dominant majority in the population. In the case of South Africa, the white majority in the school is at the same time a minority of the national population, hence the possible consideration by some of the educators about what it may mean to be other or anderskleurig. Milliken and Martins’ (1996) assertion that the degree of ‘minoritiness’ matters appears to be supported by this data. The white SA staff are constructing identities in a context in which they are a white minority within the school, the province and the nation. While they may assert colour blindness the discussion of anderskleurig and the more frequent assertion that skin colour does not matter suggest that the insecurity of minoritiness may be causing some consideration of the impact of ethnicity. The white English staff are minority in the school but majority in the region and nation. The norm of whiteness in the region and nation may account for the lack of reference to the ethnicity of staff. The insecurity of feeling a minority may heighten both awareness of the minority characteristic and the desire to direct attention away from it. The result in both cases was however similar; a failure to consider one’s own place in the system.
Interaction and leading
Inclusion or exclusion from leadership potentially occurred at two levels at least. First, being appointed to a leadership post appeared problematic for minority ethnic staff. The absence of non-white origin staff from the leadership team of the South African school (with the exception of a periodic temporary acting HoD) was explained in multiple ways. Two respondents asserted that people of colour do not apply; another, that some applied but did not match the appointment criteria. A third explanation was that applicants required Xhosa to be on the curriculum as a specialist subject and the school did not offer this. A further explanation was that the Xhosa-speaking staff who had been appointed as teachers had not performed adequately. All this was within the context of few vacant posts in a long established SMT. As one person said, ‘Somebody must die before a post becomes available’.
A different perspective was discernible in the experience of one white member of staff speaking of a minority ethnic teacher:
One day she talked to me about the whites that have been favoured above her by the management team and the governance body. She felt she is long enough at the school to qualify for a permanent post. She had the right to say that and I agree with her.
The white member of staff recognises at least the possibility that discriminatory practices may be present. Other factors may be at play. The SA minority ethnic respondent pointed out that, although the school uses English as medium of instruction and there is a public commitment to recruit a representative profile of staff, advertisements are in Afrikaans, and in Afrikaans publications which people of colour are unlikely to read. While staff members must be able to speak and understand Afrikaans, because it is one of two media of instruction, the perception was that, nevertheless, language was being used to exclude (Chisholm, 2004). In England, the explanation of the lack of diversity in the leadership team was similar; that minority ethnic people do not apply:
We do not get teachers from the other language groups because people see education as a female profession ….The problem is that many women are less literate.
Numerous structural barriers are evident. Action to attract applicants may target the majority group through the placing of advertisements and the criteria for performance (for example, language ability). There also appears to be some belief in the lesser competence of minority applicants.
At a second level, leadership practice also seems structured to exclude. The majority of those interviewed in both schools believed that the leadership team was inclusive and that all were equally able to suggest ideas, and be listened to. The importance of consistency and support for the view and actions which are formally agreed was also stressed, particularly the importance of consistency in values. The capacity to achieve consistency and mutual support was linked by some to similarity:
There are always people in a team with whom I have more allegiance than others. You think yes they are similar thinking or you know they have a certain agreement with how you think.
Alongside the belief that all were included and that similarity of thinking helped, exclusion and dissimilarity were evident. One leader in England believed that her youth led to low status and ability to influence. A minority ethnic leader argued strongly that her values were different to those of the leadership team; that her culture prioritised not the credentials and performance prized by others, but maintaining family ties and relationships. In the case of another minority ethnic respondent, she persisted in attempting to achieve a permanent leadership post even though she perceived that ‘that there is still an undercurrent of distrust, not distrust but of not really being able to accept that people of colour could also have a good point to make’.
There is much generic research to suggest that, as in the two cases here, despite the stated intentions of leaders, inequality in the opportunities and experience of workers and leaders persists (Dass and Parker, 1999; Prasad and Mills, 1997; Lorbiecki and Jack, 2000). Evans (2003) suggests a three level analysis of policy espoused, policy enacted and policy experienced. The data is shot through with tensions between the stated policy of inclusion and equal opportunity (the espoused policy) against policy enacted, for example the lack of opportunity to become a member of the leadership team for those who first language was not English or Afrikaans, and policy experience, for instance the experience of some where discriminatory attitudes and insistence on consistency of values and action result in the exclusion of those whose values or preferred actions differ.
Learning from the cases
Two cases cannot reflect the experience of educators and learners in English and South African schools. The intention of this article is not to attempt anything of the kind, but to stimulate reflection by a close focus on two cases. The majority of staff in both schools felt that the ethnicity of leaders was not an issue in their school. We find that it appears to be so in both, despite their very different history and context and despite the apparent determination of leaders to be inclusive. What is perhaps more noteworthy is the similarities in thinking which underpin exclusionary practice. The way in which the respondents conceptualised diversity and the way each person’s identity is conceived in two very different nations seem to sustain the invisibility of whiteness and the failure to address the unwarranted privilege it confers, even in contexts where white people are a minority within the school, the local community and, in South Africa, within the nation. The political and policy changes within South Africa as well as the significant change in learner population in England appear to have had limited impact to date on the way these specific leaders think about themselves and ‘other’. A profound compulsion to remain dominant or to compromise with the dominant is decipherable in strategies of re- or de-categorisation. Identities misdirect the self and others into focusing on non visible personal qualities rather than the power of visible characteristics.
Much activity to address exclusion from leadership in the case study schools has focused on recruitment and appointment practices. The analysis presented here suggests that inclusion in leadership requires leaders to engage more deeply with how diversity itself is conceptualised and how leaders conceive their identity. It also suggests that rethinking both how difference matters and what action might be needed to address the unjustified disadvantage that results from difference, is equally an issue for those who are in a minority and disadvantaged or in the majority and advantaged.
A possible means of changing leadership attitudes and perceptions is to address them directly in the leadership training programmes which are of high priority in SA (Heystek, 2007) with an Advanced Certificate in Educational Leadership for aspiring principals introduced in 2007 and, in England, through the programmes offered by the National College for School Leadership (Brundrett and De Cuevas, 2008). Internationally, leadership preparation programmes tend to focus on outward-looking competence rather than on identity and self-reflection (Lumby and English, 2008). They stress creating solidarity in a leadership team based on shared values. Our evidence suggests that the vision of cohesion is but a manifestation of the exclusion of ‘other’. Leadership preparation and practice has not yet begun to address seriously how it will enact, rather than just speak about, inclusion in relation to staff, and so model for wider society how those perceived as different may be included.
Notes
1. As Walker (2005) points out, use of the racial terminology of the Apartheid period is highly sensitive. Nevertheless the terminology is still in use, recognisable and was used by the respondents in South Africa.
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