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A Time to Speak

Gwyneth Gibson, a senior educational leader of 24 years’ experience, says Black leaders in education must challenge long-standing, negative and racially charged narratives that seriously disadvantage both Black leaders and Black pupils. Only in the brave pursuit of fairness will positive change come about.

In the past year I have been saddened by far too many negative narratives that speak to the Black leader experience. In these ‘woke’ times we can become voiceless in explaining what can be a dark reality of our treatment, and fearful of raising our heads above the pulpit.

Child Q’s case exemplifies the deep-rooted criminalisation of Black people. The fact that at no point did anyone step forward and stop the horrendous act of the strip search of a 15-year-old school child is a recognised experience of too many Black leaders.

In a quest to ruin the reputation of Black leaders, false accusations are often the preferred method of attack. Not satisfied with the old adage that tarnishes Black leaders as bullies and aggressors, we now add to this mix criminality, ranging from child abuse to financial fraud.

Black leaders are being shunned and subjected to ridicule and gossip, which ‘grow legs’ when the listener accepts these stereotypical notions because somewhere in the depth of their psyche they make sense. The image of the Black person as someone not to be trusted; not capable, too often rears its ugly head.

As practitioners we encourage pupils to come forward if they are victims of bullying. We encourage our pupils to recognise that being silent often gives the bully power; that the truth and exposure of what they are experiencing will enable us to stop it and protect them. This same encouragement is not often extended to Black leaders to whom I have spoken. The metaphorical lynching is strengthened by the unwillingness of so many bystanders to stand up for what is right. Instead, they succumb to the fear of suffering the same treatment. So, rather than be part of change, they often falsely contribute.

As Black leaders when we challenge and hold colleagues to account, the deep-seated aversion to our position of power rears its head and often we are referred to as ‘bullies’, ‘rude’ and ‘unkind’. These accusations against us, seated in the aversion of us as leaders, is enough to render us as abhorrent. I have never witnessed a Black leader, shout, use foul language and be unkind. Does this mean it hasn’t happened? No, it means I did not see it, just as others may not have witnessed white leaders do the same. Yet persons who describe us as such, even when they never witnessed such behaviour, are believed without question. This racially charged narrative is rarely questioned.

If we are to see positive changes, people need to have uncomfortable conversations with themselves. Think about any accusations you are making about people and how damning they may be. And when people spread rumours or discuss Black leaders negatively, ask them exactly what was said or done then make your own mind up based on whether what you have heard fits with what you have seen. Better still, what have you seen and how much have you just heard?

It is unlikely that a negative pattern of behaviour is common among Black leaders as we have always been told we must be ‘twice as good,’ ‘twice as careful’ about what we say and do. Being starkly aware of our minority status and the fragility of our position, this is not a risk I see many taking.

Often our difference as Black people, our strength of voice, our passion, our cultural expression, our difference is judged, not the words coming out of our mouth just that we are different. What is damning here is the confidence with which people will attack you, gossip about you and judge you without even meeting you.

Our experience can be weakened further by the BAME definition of Black, Asian and minority ethnic, and the failure to recognise that within that grouping are some who may be prejudiced against Black people. It also includes people who are willing to play the part of identifying with our struggle as far as it propels their own. And those who are prepared to work as colonial ‘overseers’ for ‘masa’ and not only strengthen the whip but also polish it, and hand it over, gleaming with pride. The unspoken truth is that for some leaders it is the supposed ‘us’ that have served ‘us’ up on a plate. Malcolm X explains this perfectly in his speech ‘The House Negro and the Field Negro.’ The unfortunate reality is we still live among those who are willing to ensure ‘…we OK masa…’

As Black leaders we must be relentless in our pursuit of fairness and brave in telling our stories. The time for silence is over. Our narrative too often removed from us is constructed to support an agenda that serves to belittle. Our silence contributes to the writing of history which lends credibility and confidence to limiting, inaccurate and damning reports such as the 2021 Sewell report from the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities.

Our silence leads to one BAME person being herald as the voice of us all. The most damning outcome is for our children, for as long as we continue to be persecuted, falsely accused and stereotypically judged, our children will never be seen as worthy or capable and will continue to be at risk of being subjected to the horrors of Child Q.

Black pupils remain the most often excluded, the most likely to academically digress from primary to secondary and the most likely to underachieve.

During the height of the George Floyd killing when everyone was expressing their sorrow and holding up their fist for Black Lives Matter, I spoke of this not being a fashion. Far too often there will be a raising of ‘solidarity’ and collective outrage, but like a fashion, it dies out and the status quote resumes.

We, however, must be resolute in fighting for fairness and justice. Our trajectory is always steeped in a perceived lack of capability or ‘blackness’ that may see all your fashionable allies run for the hills. Because although white counterparts may make the same mistakes, the perceived natural propensity for Black leaders to fail renders us as having only one shot. We must not fear making mistakes, it is perfectly fine to do so, all great leaders do.

It would be interesting to see the trajectory of white leaders who have experienced failure, set against their Black counterparts. We must take strength from the high-profile cases of Chief Inspector Leroy Logan, Inspector Charles Ehikioya, Patricia Gallan, Dr Victor Olisa, Novlett Robyn Williams, Anne Giwa-Amu. As well as this we must not ignore headlines: ‘Black and minority teachers face “inherent racism” in UK schools, report warns’ (Independent 2017); ‘Black teachers face increasing levels of racism, says union’ (Voice 2020); ‘ “Systemic racism”: teachers speak out about discrimination in UK schools’ (Guardian 2020), ‘Black pupils face trebled exclusion rate in some areas of England’ (BBC 2020). Google these similar headlines in different years and you will see nothing has changed. We have one ot two high-profile BAME leaders wheeled out and we can fall into a false sense of security, but this is not the experience of the vast majority.

We have some impressive Black leaders doing some impressive things and getting some recognition. Positive profiling is important, but this does not cloud the fact that in 2022 less than 1% of senior leaders in education are Black. It would be interesting to find out how many of that paltry figure have or are the subject of disciplinary procedures that include criminal charges and how many lead to a non-disclosure agreement. More Black leaders are leaving the profession, and just under half of UK schools (46%) have no teachers that are BAME, none.

Black professionals should not be alone in feeling the discomfort of racism. All leaders should feel the distaste and injustice, especially if they claim to value the profession they are in. Leaders need to look within and around, and be prepared to have uncomfortable conversations with themselves about their own leadership choices.

When I have spoken of this previously it has been interesting to see that some white leaders are offended and resent my opinion. It would appear, then, at least to me, that they are comfortable with the victims of racial injustice being uncomfortable. After all, it is our problem. I find this baffling.

Mayo Angelou says it exquisitely: ‘A Black person grows up in this country - and in many places - knowing that racism will be as familiar as salt to the tongue. Also, it can be as dangerous as too much salt.’ This means sometimes we suppress our ‘Blackness’ we speak in a foreign tongue, we try to fit in.

In Sujata Bhatt’s poem ‘Search for My Tongue’ there is a perfect line that encapsulates our silence and the obstacles we face in demonstrating strong leadership. To lead fearlessly means to be able to accept that we will make mistakes but behind that choice rests the creeping fear of what will happen, the vilification, the destruction of people not just professionally but personally, often through the horror of derogatory comments on our mental state and/or questionable accusations of crime. You ask me what I mean by saying I have lost my tongue. It means we say nothing, we have families to feed. So we internalise the accusations, we silently cry and, worse still, we feel shame.

I applaud the bravery of Black leaders across all industries no longer prepared to do that but instead prepared to go through tribunals and have their stories exposed publicly. Such exposure shows up the bullying and fear tactics used and law how unfounded they are.

The research being carried out and the conversations being had are exposing more, and we must support each other in being fearless. I would advise Black leaders to ensure they extend their network and include organisations that support their voice, not being fearful of honest conversations. We must recognise that unless we raise our heads, bullying will continue, and you may well experience this. Remember it is OK to feel pain, to be vulnerable, to hurt, and be angry. This is where the support of networks is integral. Do your research and trust yourself and your integrity. Be fearless – at stake here is more than just an individual’s reputation.

As I close it is ironic that in the background is Lenny Henry presenting a programme celebrating the progress since Windrush and the impact this generation has made on the cultural fabric of Britain. As first generation to be born here, I recall the struggles we had and as I sing along to Janet Kay (rather badly), shake a leg to some Soca, laugh with our comedians and listen to the poetry of Linton Kwesi Johnson and Benjamin Zephaniah, my heart hurts for my generation, our parents and grandparents who were so badly treated, in the work place, in the street, by police and in every institution they entered.

Despite this, still we rise, stirred by that passion and the resilience that runs in our blood to fight for justice, standing on the shoulders of our ancestors. It is imperative we never forget where we came from and what has already been taken. But also, we must continue to forge our way as influencers and decisions makers, united in challenging the status quo.

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