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.