It’s the end of the academic year and this week children across the country will have received their school reports – but let’s not take them too seriously. Just look at Roald Dahl’s, whose supposed illiteracy led one teacher to liken him to a camel. School dropout Einstein was told that he would “never amount to anything”. John Lennon was “certainly on the road to failure”, according to one of his teachers. The late rapper and producer the Notorious B.I.G was told that he would probably become a garbage collector. Clearly, teachers sometimes get it wrong.
But that’s a huge problem, because teachers play an integral part in a teenager’s developing sense of self. They can be a great source of support, encouragement and inspiration for a child at a time when they might be beleaguered by self-doubt, insecurities or chaos at home. Or they can be the most corrosive of critics, their negative words echoing in our heads whenever we are beset by “failure” even as we grow long in the tooth. Because teachers are authority figures, their words hold meaning to a child.
This is particularly worrisome for Black students, whose almost endemic underachievement has been a problem facing policymakers for years. For too long, Black talent at the grassroots has been told not to aim for the world, let alone the sky or the moon.
As a Black woman, a child of Windrush parents and a recruiter who has dedicated much of her career to improving the employment outcomes of people of colour, I hold this subject very close to my heart. My earliest career aspiration, aside from wanting to be a singer and dancer, was to be a social worker. I loved the idea of helping people get their lives together and giving them the tools to turn helplessness into hope.
At school, however, this kind of aspirational thinking was discouraged. When I was 15, my form tutor said that such a line of work was out of my reach: I had to lower my sights and strive for something more achievable, like getting an office job at the local factory.
Of course, I was fully aware of my own limitations: I was never going to be a mathematician, doctor, nurse or scientist. Nor did I want to be. But I didn’t appreciate being discounted for wanting to be a social worker when I knew I possessed all the fundamental traits needed for such a job.
But the tutor’s feedback didn’t dampen my dreams. It made me only more determined to prove him wrong. I would never allow these detracting words to define who I was or what I was capable of.
But not every child has my mindset or a supportive family to tell them otherwise. And that’s a huge problem.
Perhaps it’s unconscious biases around the abilities of children of a particular colour and class, as well as ignorance about the skillsets and qualifications needed to enter into specific industries, that leads to ill-placed advice.
Indeed Katharine Birbalsingh, the controversial “social mobility tsar”, recently commented that working class students should aim lower than Oxbridge, her main argument being that perceptions of “success” must broaden beyond the anomaly of a caretaker’s daughter brought up on a council estate entering Oxbridge to qualify as a lawyer.
Although more accessible benchmarks of success must be communicated and celebrated, discouraging working class students from aiming for Oxbridge is demeaning, othering and – whether intended or not – smacks of snobbery. The danger is real: aiming lower might mean never fully realising one’s potential. We desperately need more role models and institutions that are relatable to the Black community if we are to show students that glass ceilings can be smashed.
It’s for this very reason that I established the Black Talent Awards, which are happening on 29 September. The initiative has had valuable backing from brands such as Merlin Entertainments, Serco and EDF, and provides a vital platform to champion not just Black talent but also to nominate key organisations that can demonstrate clear accountability for the success of their diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) efforts.
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I remember once sitting in a conference where every single organisation that presented their “pledge” had shown improved success in meeting the majority of their inclusivity targets – except for those relating to race.
There must be a dedicated, concerted effort to understand the determining factors preventing people of colour from applying for jobs, upskilling and progressing if we are to properly engineer an impactful solution to this very real and devestating problem.
Denise Myers is CEO of recruitment firm Evenfields and founder of the inaugural Black Talent Awards, which aim to champion relatable professional role models and tackle employment discrimination