Leadership Identity in Ethnically Diverse Schools in South Africa and England Opening a dialogue about diversity



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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.



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