The BBC has just announced that it is to set “meaningful targets” on a range of issues to “embed inclusivity into day-to-day work and management practices”. This initiative – titled: ‘The BBC’s Diversity and Inclusion Plan’ - includes setting targets for recruiting 50% women, 20% black and minority ethnic, 12% disabled and recruiting more ‘non-binary’ and ‘working-class’ employees, asking existing ones to disclose if ‘they attended a private school’, what ‘their parents did for a living’ and whether ‘they were in receipt of free school meals’.
This is not the first time the BBC has attempted to widen representation in its workforce and I imagine, it won’t be the last. In spite of the Orwellian nature of some of their proposals, I actually welcome and applaud any initiative that tackles inequity and disparity. I genuinely wish it well, but – if you are a regular reader of my blogs – you will know I do like to raise ethical and moral questions whenever I get the chance - particularly where it may challenge accepted, even lazy assumptions.
The first thing I think it’s worth saying is that inequity and disparity is the norm. We’d be hard pressed to find any organisation or profession that reflected the demographics of society at large. And then what if it did? Would or should the BBC stop at 50% women, for example, if their best recruits happened to be female? And if they ended up with 70% women, should they fire 20% to get back to parity?
The real question, at least for me, is whether a particular disparity reflects a burning injustice. Clearly society does throw-up some burning injustices about which, on the face of it, we should - ethically and morally speaking - want to do something about, sometimes urgently. Things like (at least for me) the fact that social class – not gender, race or ethnicity - still is (and always been) the most reliable and tenaciously persistent factor in predicting educational outcomes.
Girls might be out-performing boys and and kids of Chinese heritage might be out-performing everyone else - but if they are working-class girls or working-class Chinese kids, then they are likely to be at the opposite end of the achievement scale from their middle-class counterparts.
On the other hand, there are plenty of disparities I really couldn’t care less about, especially if the entry points are fair and reflect equal opportunity for everyone.
Do I care most pharmacists happen to be Asian? No.
Do I care most engineers are men? No.
Do I care most nurses are women? No.
Would I, should I, care if they were not allowed to be? Yes. I'd be storming 10 Downing Street demanding change.
Do I care that there virtually no Asians are currently playing in the Premier League? No.
Do I care that Team GB track and field is dominated by black athletes. No.
Would I care if the England cricket team was all-Asian? No.
Would I care if the England football team was all-black? No.
Would I, should I, care if sports stars and athletes were not selected on merit alone. You bet!
But I can’t deal with too many complex issues in a single 1000-word blog, so let’s just deal with whether the teaching profession should follow the BBC’s lead and set ‘meaningful targets’ for diversity and inclusion and try to redress some areas of disparity.*
What would it mean if the teaching profession achieved the levels of diversity and inclusion that, like the BBC, reflect the national census? Engineering the demographics of a profession to like the demographics of our society arguably achieves a form of ‘social justice’. But how would we feel if that ‘social justice’ can only be achieved by ethically and morally questionable means, like using quotas, financial incentives or even other kinds of disparities?
Currently, about three-quarters of the teaching profession as a whole is female (and much higher than that in primary schools, around 90%). Is that an issue? If it is, then let’s ask ourselves why. As long as teachers are good teachers, does it matter what gender they are? Our desire for ‘social justice’ tells us one thing (that it should be fifty-fifty) but the need to achieve ‘fairness’ (that all people deserve equal treatment when applying for jobs) tells us another.
If we want to achieve parity ‘social justice’ across the board - like the BBC - will we need to have targets, if not quotas. In teaching, that will mean recruiting more men, and that means, if it was blindingly obvious - at the expense of women. In order to achieve that, it would probably mean that we have to offer incentives to men that we don’t offer to women – like differential pay rates or variable education entry and qualification standards. Now we quickly find ourselves landed with a different kind of inequity. We’ve achieved a degree of ‘social justice’ at the cost of ‘truth’ and ‘fairness’ and justice in the original sense of the word.
If you’re wondering what the ‘truth’ is here, surely it’s the ‘truth’ that we recruit the best people for the job. That seems to me – morally – to be a fundamental ‘truth’ about fairness and justice. Why would a woman (or a man for that matter) want to be recruited because they were part of a quota? No right thinking person would.
Would I want my child to go through their entire school life being taught only by females, even if women were the best teachers available? Well, no I wouldn’t actually. I think my desire for my child to experience a different gender as a role model is so compelling that I would be willing to sacrifice – to a degree - the fundamental ‘truth’ of ‘fairness’ and ‘justice’ on the alter of ‘social justice’.
That’s just me. But it’s complicated isn’t it? You might feel differently. You might think that you want your child to have the best teacher available irrespective of gender. That’s fine. But then we shouldn’t be too bothered if the whole of the teaching profession turns out to be female (or male); neither should we be bothered if it turns out to be all black (or Asian, or Chinese, or white…) or if it turns out to be all gay (or all straight, or ‘non-binary’).
Let’s not fool ourselves that setting ‘meaningful targets’ to achieve ‘diversity and inclusion’ will solve our problems. We will soon find that solving one disparity of justice and fairness, usually leads to the creation of another. Let’s not focus on whether disparities exist – they do – everywhere. Let’s focus on which ones have a material, negative effect on the natural justice we all instinctively know to be true and should want to be present in society, not the ‘social justice’ that will come and go with different definitions every generation.
When I was a teacher in Hackney many years ago, I had a boy in my class that was both chronically under-achieving and displayed highly disruptive behaviour. To cut a long story short, my colleagues and I put in place a series of special measures that allowed him regular ‘time-outs’ and exceptional activities where he could ‘blow off steam’ and play in what we called a ‘nurture group’. His behaviour and achievement levels gradually improved. The problem came when we tried to wean him back to mainstream classroom provision. Every time we treated him by the same standards as everyone else - he thought we were being unfair to him.
There’s a moral in that story.
* I have written in other blogs that, in my opinion, there are a number of serious issues about recruitment, retention and representation in the teaching profession that need attention – recruitment of men for one, black teachers for another.
Alan Newland worked as a teacher, teacher-trainer and headteacher in London for over 20 years and then for over a decade with the DfE and the GTC. He now lectures and writes on professional values in teaching and runs the award-winning social media networknewteacherstalk. You can follow him on Twitterat @newteacherstalk.
You may be interested in his course in ‘The Foundations of Professionalism in Teaching’– which deals with issues of diversity, inclusion and equity. It comprises a 3-module course that covers professional ethics and values, with over 4.5 hours of HD quality video presentations, additional course reading and materials, self-assessment exercises and completion certificates – ideal for showing evidence that you have completed cpd on ‘wider professional responsibilities’.