Is it important to have teachers from the same ethnic background as the pupils?

Is it important to have teachers from the same background as the pupils?

Following the recent decision to throw out the Trojan Horse case, I posted a link, on Facebook, to an article I had published on responsive education (for Pakistani children). In the article I wrote about the importance of employing a diverse teaching workforce; one that reflects the ethnic make up of the pupils. Upon reading the article one of my ‘Friends’ responded with the following comment:
I’ve never bought into this idea that in order for our children to be successful in education, we need teachers, headteachers from our own background. In many ways it can be counter-productive.

The comment triggered the response that follows.

To have or not to have ethnically representative teaching workforce?

Over the past six years, and many more years before that, I have thought about this question. As well as reading everything I came across I decided to undertake my own research. So I explored the question with folks I interviewed and who completed my questionnaire. This young people (especially from the Pakistani community), their parents and teachers.

The vast array of previously published literature was supportive of the idea that schools should indeed employ a teaching workforce that reflects the ethnicity of their pupils. The overarching argument is that a workforce that is representative of the people it serves is more likely to help ensure that the interests of all groups are considered in the decision-making and the policy making process becomes more inclusive. This is based on the theory of ‘representative bureaucracy’ (Bradbury & Kellough, 2011). Such bureaucracies are said to be beneficial to ethnic minorities (Eckhard, 2014), racial minorities (Selden 1997; Sowa & Selden, 2003) and in educational contexts (Pitts 2005). Based on Spivak’s work (1988), there is also the question of whether the minority people (such as Pakistanis) have a right to be represented as teachers and decision makers.

Within the field of education, researchers and policymakers have accepted that the workforce should be diverse and should reflect the ethnic diversity of society. Minority teachers are said to provide role models (Quiocho & Rios, 2000), act as cultural brokers (Irvine, 1989), cultural experts (Ross, 2001; Basit & Santoro, 2012). For Howard (2010), minority teachers fulfilled the role of advocate for minority students. They are able to act as a ‘bridge’ between, and ‘translators’ of, minority and dominant cultures (Irvine (1989), a function which had been identified by Abbas (2004). In his Birmingham-based research he had found working class Asian parents particularly in favour of having Asian teachers.

Minority teachers are said to have the potential to bridge the ever-widening divide between minority pupils and their mainly white teachers (Magaldi et al. 2016). They can, if given the space and opportunity, bring a more authentic perspective based on their own lived experience and firsthand knowledge. Through their counterstorying they can interrupt (white) majoritarian narratives, “defined as a mindset of positions, perceived wisdoms, and shared cultural understandings brought to the discussion of race” (Fránquiz et al. 2011, p282).

For Kohli and Pizarro (2016) minority teachers are likely to have a heightened awareness of educational injustice and racism while Ross (2001) pointed out that they are better at challenging racism; given they might have been its victim, they are more likely to understand some of its subtleties and nuances. He and Howard (2010) supported the concept of ‘inclusive diversity’, where it is not so much important for, say, Pakistani students to be taught directly by Pakistani or Muslim teachers but more an indirect benefit; by having them on the staff, to see them around the school and have occasional contact with them. Teachers are said to do much more than teach content; they also personify content (Howard, 2010). They provide a model of what it is like to be an educated person; something for the young people to aspire to:

If we want students to believe that they themselves might one day be … mentors, guides and educated people, then we need them to see diverse examples of such people, including at least one who looks like they, the students, look (Kennedy, 1991, p2).

Stewart et al. (1989) also supported the ‘role model’ argument. “Black teachers can have a special impact on Black students simply by being in the classroom. A Black teacher serves as a role model for Black students, thereby exposing Black students to other Black individuals who have been successful” (p143). For Steele and Aronson (1995), the presence of same-race teachers may reduce “stereotype threats” and boost minority students’ confidence, esteem, and enthusiasm. Such a threat is said to occur when a student perceives that s/he could be viewed through the lens of a negative stereotype and lowers academic engagement and performance as a result.

Roch and Pitts (2012) pointed out that where schools’ workforce was representative of their communities there was a positive influence on minority students’ performance. Eckhard (2014) pointed out that where there is a bureaucratic drift i.e. there is a lack of bureaucratic representation, policies are not effective. The problem here can be even more profound where the majority-background bureaucrats are prejudiced against minorities. Arshad et al. (2004) reported that minority students appreciated having teachers from their own ethnic group, expecting them to better understand the students and assist them to feel more comfortable. Warikoo (2004) pointed to there being a better connection between teachers and pupils from the same ethnic background arising out of their common cultural background and the teachers’ heightened understanding of the students’ family and cultural context as well as parental interactions with the school.

The attainment level of minority students is said to be helped by the presence of teachers from their own background (Weiher, 2000). Egalite et al. (2015) asserted that an absence of teachers from their own ethnic group can lead to a lack of shared values, dispositions, and symbols which might undermine classroom learning and teacher-student interactions. They also supported the idea of ethnic minority teachers serving as role models and being uniquely positioned to act as advocates and cultural translators for ethnic minority students. They concluded that same-race teachers made a particular difference for their students’ attainment. Their findings confirmed Dee’s (2005) research who had found that same-race teachers made a difference to students’ attainment. He spoke of ‘passive’ teacher effects which were triggered by a teacher’s identity, not by explicit teacher behaviours.

Basit and Santoro (2012) also supported the employment of minority teachers in schools serving multi-cultural populations. They found these teachers fulfilled important roles related to the heritage of the minority ethnic students. Many of them were appointed because of their ethnicity and knowledge about languages and their potential to develop sound home–school relationships. The teachers found that their particular expertise was often drawn upon by their colleagues who lacked the necessary cultural understanding. The minority teachers were able to foster home–school relationships for minority parents who otherwise had little contact with their children’s schools. The researchers concluded that minority ethnic teachers had significant contributions to make to the schooling of minority ethnic students because of their knowledge about their students’ cultural practices, religions and home lives.

The likelihood of discontinuity between minority children and their schools is lessened where the school employs teachers from minority background (Klopfenstein, 2005). These teachers are more able to provide the ‘cultural congruence’ for the students and match their home and school environments. For Howard (2010), minority teachers helped minority students to adjust to the lack of synchrony between home and school culture and made “connections between their own backgrounds and school systems, which are commonly founded on the values and norms of the dominant culture” (p4).

For Delpit (1995) the argument was not so much that teachers must be of the students’ ethnic group but that efforts should be made for the teaching workforce to be diverse. Carrington (2002) had described this as an inclusive form of representation: “for teachers who share the ethnic and cultural backgrounds of our increasingly diverse student bodies may serve, along with parents and other community members, to provide insights that might otherwise remain hidden” (p181).

A word of caution needs to be stated here, so to not present minority teachers as the perfect solution. They may have the potential to make a certain specialist contribution but their limitations need to be acknowledged, one of which refers to the concept ‘internalised racism’ (Padilla, 2001). This is where minorities adopt majority White perspectives and come to accept their own communities as inferior. For Speight (2007), such a process “refers to the acceptance, by marginalized racial populations, of the negative societal beliefs and stereotypes about themselves” (p129). Having lived in the UK since childhood, I have some understanding and experience of internalised racism. Kohli (2014) has suggested that there should be opportunities, through ITT and CPD, for minority teachers to unpack their internalised racism.

Local teachers can also play an important role in schools. Most schools have a small number of such teachers and support staff who are from the local community. Even if they no longer live there, they will have been raised there and will maintain contact with friends, former neighbours, and relatives in the area. They may have a unique understanding of the school’s cultural and social context and may be able to act as a bridge between the school and its wider community. Such staff usually share common ethnic, religious and cultural identities which provide a foundation on which school-community partnerships can be constructed (Reed, 2009). Reed also spoke of “commuter teachers”, who only come into the neighbourhood to work and as soon as they finish, they get into their cars and leave the area. They maybe at the school for many years but may never go outside its gate. They, therefore, maybe unlikely to understand what it is like to live in the locality, let alone understand the community’s resources. Local teachers may be better equipped for the task of delivering, what Flynn et al. (2009) defined as ‘place-based’ education. For them, “using the place as content is a viable means for increasing student achievement, increasing community involvement…” (p137).

See also: ‘National and local responses to teacher diversity’ and ‘Birmingham research on the importance of teacher diversity’

The article has drawn extensively on the PhD thesis: British Pakistani boys in Birmingham schools: education and the role of religion by Karamat Iqbal (2017

Dr Karamat Iqbal

Abbas, T. (2004). The education of British South Asians. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Arshad, R.., Diniz, F., Kelly, E., O’Hara, P., Sharp, S. and Syed, R. (2004). Minority ethnic pupils’ experiences of school in Scotland. Scottish Executive: Education Department.

Basit, T. & Santoro, N. (2012). Playing the role of ‘cultural expert’: teachers of ethnic difference in Britain and Australia. Oxford Review of Education 37(1) 37-52.

Bradbury, M. & Kellough, J. (2011). Representative bureaucracy: assessing the evidence on active representation. The American Review of Public Administration 4(2), 157-167.

Carrington, B. (2002). Ethnicity, ‘Role Models’ and Teaching. Journal of Research in Education 12(1) 40-49.

Dee, T. (2005). A Teacher like me: Does race, ethnicity, or gender matter? The American Economic Review; 95(2) 158- 165.

Delpit, Lisa. Other people’s children: Cultural conflict in the classroom. New York: The New Press. 1995.

Eckhard, S. (2014). Bureaucratic representation and ethnic bureaucratic drift: A case study of United Nations minority policy implementation in Kosovo. American Review of Public Administration 44(5) 600–621.

Egalite, A., Kisida, B. and Winters, M. (2015). Representation in the classroom: The effect of own-race teachers on student achievement. Economics of Education Review 45: 44-52.

Flynn, J., Kemp, A., & Perez, D. (2009). You can’t teach where you don’t know. Curriculum and Teaching Dialogue 12(1&2) 137-151.

Howard, J. (2010). The value of ethnic diversity in the teaching profession: A New Zealand case study. International Journal of Education 2(1) 1-22.

Irvine, J. (1989). Beyond role models: An examination of cultural influences on the pedagogical perspectives of Black teachers. Peabody Journal of Education, 66(4) 51-63

Kennedy, M. (1991). Policy issues in teacher education. Phi Delta Kappan 72(9) 1-12.

Klopfenstein, K. (2005). Beyond test scores: The impact of Black teacher role models on rigorous math taking. Contemporary Economic Policy, 23(3) 416-428.

Kohli, R. (2014). Unpacking internalized racism: teachers of colour striving for racially just classrooms. Race Ethnicity and Education 17(3) 367-387.

Kohli, R. and Pizarro, M. Fighting to educate our own: teachers of color, relational accountability, and the struggle for social justice. Equity & Excellence in Education 49(1) 72-84.

Magaldi, D., Conway, T. & Trub, L. (2016). “I’m here for a reason”: minority teachers bridging many divides in urban education. Race Ethnicity and Education.

Padilla, L. (2001). “But you’re not a dirty Mexican: internalized oppression, Latinos & law”. Texas Hispanic Journal of Law and Policy 7: 59-133.

Pitts, D. 2005). Diversity, representation, and performance: evidence about race and ethnicity in public organizations. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory 15: 615-631.

Quiocho, A. & Rios, F. (2000). The power of their presence: minority group teachers and schooling. Review of Educational Research 70(4) 485-528.

Reed, W. (2009). The bridge is built: the role of local teachers in an urban elementary school. The School Community Journal, 19(1)59-75.

Roch, C. & Pitts, D. (2012). Differing effects of representative bureaucracy in Charter Schools and traditional public schools. The American Review of Public Administration 42(3) 282–302.

Ross, A. (2001). Towards a representative profession: teachers from the ethnic minorities – conference paper. London Metropolitan University.

Selden, S. (1997). Representative bureaucracy – examining the linkage between passive and active representation in the farmers home administration. American Review of Public Administration 27(1) 22-42.

Sowa, J. & Selden, S. (2003). Administrative discretion and active representation: an expansion of the theory of representative bureaucracy. Public Administration Review 63(6) 700-710.

Speight, S. (2007). Internalized racism. The Counseling Psychologist 35(1) 126-134.

Spivak, G. (1988). Can the subaltern speak? In Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (eds) Marxism and the interpretation of culture. London: Macmillan.

Stewart, J., Meier, K. and England, R. (1989). In quest of role models: Change in Black teacher representation in urban school districts, 1968-1986. The Journal of Negro Education, 58(2) 140-152

Warikoo, N. (2004). Race and the teacher-student relationship: interpersonal connections between West Indian students and their teachers in a New York City high school. Race Ethnicity and Education 7(2) 135-147.

Weiher, G. (2000). Minority student achievement: passive representation and social context in schools. The Journal of Politics 62(3) 886-895.

Pakistani boys’ education in Birmingham schools

Pakistani children make-up a quarter of Birmingham’s age 5-16? school population and will soon become its largest ethnic group. A large number of these students leave the local schools each year without achieving the benchmark qualifications of 5 or more GCSE grades A*-C or equivalent. You are fudging the issue here. You need to grasp the nettle that proportionately Pakistani pupils do not appear to underachieve greatly, quote ther %5AC for them and for White British, but say your the concern is because of the large numbers of students.

The issue of ethnic minority underachievement in England has been acknowledged since the 1970s (Swann 1985). However, much of the focus has been on Black Caribbean children (Gillborn 2008; Strand, 2012). Consequently, information about the particular achievement of Pakistani pupils continues to be sparse (Gillborn and Gipps 1996, Hamashita 2007). Not strictly true, all national data is broken down by full ethnic group – maybe the focus on their attainment has been less though.

Using a mixed-methods approach, my research was conducted in three diverse Birmingham state secondary schools called community, academy and grammar (NB you need to state this to link with the figure onteachers you quote later). The study explored Pakistani student and parental attitudes to education. Also investigated were importance of religion and meaning of education. Data were gathered about teacher understanding of the heritage of Pakistani boys as well as the make-up of the teaching workforce.

Findings showed that education was highly valued by parents and the boys. Amongst the 40 boys and their parents interviewed, there were over one hundred references to the word ‘respect’; respect for education and school teachers. Religion was equally considered as important. To be educated meant achieving good grades in national qualifications and to have become a fully rounded human being, based on the multi-dimensional concept of education within Islam, which includes knowledge (ilm), development (tarbiyya) and Islamic ethics (tadib) (Yasin and Jani, 2013). The teachers interviewed were found to have ‘tabloid knowledge’ (Bloom, 2011) of Pakistani heritage and the pupils’ religion. Consequently, the boys’ school and home lives could be considered ‘separate worlds’ (Coles, 2004). A related issue was the serious shortage of Pakistani teachers in the schools investigated – Community, 8%; Academy, 3.8% and Grammar 0.6% respectively.

The boys spent much of their time after school learning the Quran and about Islam, something many had done throughout their school lives. This took them away from completing their homework and participation in extra-curricular activities. The latter also meant the boys were not able to spend informal time in the company of their non-Pakistani peers, with clear implications for community cohesion. Many of the boys, especially those from poorer families, also reported not having anyone to turn to for help with their homework.

The policy implications of the research are clear (well they are not actually “clear”N they are very arguable and contested – many would say it is not the duty of a secular education system to provide religious instruction for any faith group), especially for areas such as Birmingham. There was considerable support amongst the boys for what they learnt at the mosques to be taught at school. Parents similarly supported this idea and suggested that one way to accommodate this would be through an extended school day (Cummings, 2007). This could also be a way also to provide the boys with appropriately supervised opportunities for completing their homework, with time to spare for ‘downtime’ activities.

There is a need to reduce the time the boys devoted to Islamic religious instruction, by delivering the content more effectively and efficiently and through increased accommodation of Pakistani and Muslim heritage within the school curriculum. The time thus freed could be used for completing homework and participating in extracurricular activities. The schools need to employ more Pakistani teachers and to equip their staff with knowledge of Pakistani and Islamic heritage in order to help bridge the school and home lives of the boys.

Bloom, A. 2011. The teachers with a tabloid grasp of Islam. Times Educational Supplement. 16 September.
Coles, M. 2004. Education and Islam: a new strategic approach. Race Equality Teaching.
Cummings, C. et al. 2007. Evaluation of the full Service extended Schools Initiative. London. DCSF.
Gillborn, D. & Gipps, C. 1996. Recent research on the achievements of ethnic minority pupils London. Ofsted.
Gillborn, D. 2008. Racism and education – coincidence or conspiracy? London. Routledge.
Hamashita, M. 2007. Ethnic Minorities in Britain: The Educational Performance of Pakistani Muslims Journal of History for the Public (4) 77-94
Strand, S. (2012). The White British-Black Caribbean achievement gap: Tests, tiers and teacher expectations. British Educational Research Journal, 38, (1), 75-101.
Swann Report. 1985. Education for all. London. HMSO.
Yasin, R.F, Jani, M.S.2013. Islamic Education: The philosophy, aim and main features. International Journal of Education and Research. 1 (10)

DEAR BIRMINGHAM – Launch events and press and media coverage

  1. Unity FM: pre-publication phone interview, 12 March 2013
  2. BBC Asian Network, Massala Show: pre-publication interview 17 March 2013
  3. Unity FM – post publication studio interview and discussion 30 March 2013


  1. Radio WM, The Carl Chin Show: studio interview 2 June 2013 
  2. Faithful Neighbourhoods Centre: launch 11 June 2013
  3. Jericho Foundation: launch 26 June 2013
  4. GEM magazine: ‘Little GEMs’ June 2013
  5.  GEM magazine: full feature July 2013
  6. House of Commons: Seminar September 2013

To be confirmed

  1. Newman University: Seminar
  2. North Birmingham school: Seminar
  3. Sunday Mercury feature
  4. Birmingham Hospital Radio Network

Improving from WithIn: A Rationale for a New Approach to School Improvement

Today I had the privilege of visiting a new headteacher, 5 weeks into headship. I observed his joy and excitement in anticipating the challenge of what lies ahead. We got into a conversation about how to get under the skin of a school and community, its complexity and richness. How do you change a culture and take the school on to where it now needs to go? We acknowledged that there is no one model or process that provides the answers and that leadership and school improvement is multi-faceted. Consequently each leader needs to skilfully choose the right tools, processes and initiatives as they respond to the particular dynamics they face.

So with all the rich resources at the disposal of the 21st Century Head with the plethora of guidance, research papers, programmes, NLE’s, SIP’s available, how does this new headteacher  steer his course and find where to start?

As an educationalist I too have wondered if there is too much out there, do we get lost in the depth and breadth and complexity of it. Or can we draw together the strands of wisdom from existing practice and thinking and produce a simple model that combines these strands in a logical format. Improving from WithIn is a model for school improvement that seeks to do just that; present a logical model which is flexible enough to tailor to different contexts but that contains key dimensions and an underpinning philosophy to guide the leader.

Improving from WithIn came about from considering the new Ofsted framework and the challenge of producing learning experiences that are both motivating and engaging and during which progress is made. What support do teachers need to do that consistently and how do leaders invest in developing that same motivation and engagement for the teachers? Teachers who are motivated and engaged are far more likely to be able to motivate and engage their pupils.

Underpinning Philosophies

I believe the journey begins with identifying your philosophy of education. I have noticed that there are 2 prevailing underpinning philosophies of education, the first that children are empty vessels and as educators we pour in knowledge and fill them up, the second that children come with huge potential and existing strengths and preferences, here our job is to draw out of them those unique gifts and facilitate their learning and development. They are, of course, not mutually exclusive but if, like me you favour the second this will have implications about the job of a teacher.

The next fundamental consideration relates to what do we know and believe about how adults learn and improve their performance. Here, there are two key theorists that have shaped my thinking. Firstly Richard Boyatzis work on Intentional Change Theory. Boyatzis argues that for adults to make change that is sustained they need to be motivated and that motivation is created by a pull towards an ideal. His model provides a series of discoveries that support the individual in achieving change.

The second is Daniel Pink. In his book Drive, Pink argues that when you take basic human needs out of the equation, there are 3 key drivers that motivate us; autonomy, mastery and purpose.  These motivators are intrinsic and more effective than extrinsic ones such as money or negative forces, the threat of punishment.

These theories along with the wisdom gleaned from the discipline of coaching and the emerging field of positive psychology demand that we reconsider how we lead school improvement. School improvement cannot be ‘done to’ but needs to harness the energy of intrinsic motivation within its community and be driven by its members. Leaders need to create the climate within which motivation and engagement are likely outcomes for the adults as well as the children.

The Improving from WithIn Model

The 6 dimensions provide a logical way of approaching school improvement applying this thinking.


Starting with Alignment, the task of clarifying the core mission, developing a vision and identifying the values so that all practice can be aligned is the foundation on which to build.

Climate Creation

The climate is created by consistency of adult behaviours (firstly leadership behaviours) Consistency of behaviour becomes, ‘the way we do things round here’ or the ethos of the school. Members of the school community continually receive unconscious messages about how they should behave from the norms they observe around them. In relation to school improvement, how critical it is that those norms create the ‘pull’ Boyatzis refers to.

Copyright Forward Partnership 2012

Leading Change

How do leaders bring about change so that the community is pulled towards the ideal and not demotivated by external drivers? Leading change is well researched but to do it well requires effective leadership skills and behaviours. Shaping adult behaviours to create that positive climate will demand self-awareness, honesty and an ability to reflect on and adapt one’s own leadership behaviours accordingly. In order to do this well many leaders need a safe sounding board or coach to confide in.


We now come to the ‘outcomes’ side of the model.


Innovation when truly effective arises out of a desire to make things better, to solve problems or to master new skills. It is a creative process which needs to be owned by the innovator. It is often a cycle that requires experimentation, trial and error, revision and refining. Despite the prescription education has experienced teaching remains a creative profession; in an environment where fear of failure or blame is eliminated teachers are free to innovate and take risks.


Encouraging intrinsic motivators or developing the ‘pull’ will mean changing the narrative that drives the school. Do the stories told in staff meetings or on teacher days reinforce the perception of ‘done to’ or do they harness the drives of autonomy and mastery that Pink refers to?  One way companies are doing this is described in Drive, the concept of ‘FedEx Day’s. Developed by the Australian company Atlassian, workers are given a day to work on anything they want to, as long as it is not part of their regular job. The next day they have to report back to their colleagues with what they have created. What would happen if teacher days were like this and what would be achieved?


On such days would teachers lose themselves and become so engaged in their non-commissioned work that they achieved the state of ‘flow’ or ‘completely focussed motivation’ (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi ) Having experienced such engagement, what learning or higher level of performance might result. Just take a look at twitter and see how many teachers are engaged in passionate debate about their work or look to number voluntarily sharing their resources and ideas via the TES. There is evidence of an engaged profession. How well does the school encourage this engagement, or celebrate the climate of meaningful purpose along with behaviours associated by going the extra mile and a generosity of spirit that arise from it.

And finally, what of the new headteacher who inherits a school in crisis, for whom there is so much that has to be done quickly. Pacesetting, authoritative and sometimes coercive leadership styles seem the obvious way to begin? Just a word of caution, how many of the teachers in those schools have been de skilled and lost their professional self-confidence by negative messages and differing advice from external experts? Whilst it might be appealing to believe that the only way to improve the school is to refer to extrinsic drivers, the latest Ofsted framework or targets; it is worth considering the impact of extrinsic drivers on motivation and understanding that compliance is not real and embedded change.

I have come to the conclusion that it is not what we do that needs to change but how we do it. The spirit that lies behind what we do needs challenging. We also need to develop a strong belief in the profession to find its own solutions. Improving from WithIn offers a model for school improvement which requires a different approach and leaders who are brave enough to loose the reins and let the creativity and resourcefulness of their staff flourish.

Sue Iqbal © Improving from WithIn October 2012



Daniel Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, (2009)

Richard Boyatzis, Intentional Change Theory, Richard E. Boyatzis, (2006) “An overview of intentional change from a complexity perspective”, Journal of Management Development,

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, (1990)

 Small acts of kindness or a case of Pay it Forward


It would be fair to say that Islamabad Airport presents a picture of the current state of the country whose capital city it is named after. Actually, in the good old Pakistani tradition, it has been renamed by the current government as the Benazir Bhutto International Airport. If there is a change of government at the next election, it could be renamed as Nawaz Sharif or Imran Khan Airport. Let’s wait and see.

This airport is main entry point for foreign visitors to enter Pakistan and gain their first impressions of the country and its people and where they breathe a sigh of relief when sitting in the departures lounge, having probably decided never to return.


When left the airport in my current home of Birmingham, checking in was the quickest and most orderly I had ever experienced. But, when leaving Pakistan I had decided to arrive in plenty of time; at least three hours recommended on my ticket. I had a bag full of books’ with plans to buy a couple more from the duty free shop. So the more time, the better. Sadly, in the end I was left with little reading time.


There were a number of flights leaving around the same time. Nothing unusual about that, given it’s an airport and an international one. But given it was built many decades ago, the staff and the systems (is there such a thing!) are unable to cope with the demands of today.


Anyway, I entered the airport and joined one queue after another. The place was crowded beyond limits, with passengers but also with staff, with their varying uniforms to, no doubt, denote different roles and status. Perhaps they will downsize when the new airport opens next year or find them real jobs within a proper system.


After at least a couple of hours of just standing around in a noisy environment, I did not know whether I would be finished in time to catch my plane, given all the queue jumping that was going on assisted by the airport’s employees. It was now that I began to get agitated. My friends and family will bear me out that it takes some doing to get me worked up like this. An airport employee, almost in the passing, had told me that I needed at least one, possibly two copies of my passport, duly verified by someone somewhere at the airport. I thought to myself why had I not been told about this before, especially as the practice had been in place for a few years. I thought they could have told me when I booked my ticket on the Internet, when the airline staff phoned me soon after I had booked my ticket or even when I was phoned in the village, twice, to be told the plane had been delayed. Why wait till now when I am three or four people away from being given my boarding pass? So, I said to the staff member that I was not now going to drag my suitcase and hand-luggage, heavily laden with my reading books, across to the other side of the airport so that I can photocopy my passport to satisfy some jobsworth. I said I would take my chance and see what happens when I reach the end of the queue. I thought they can photocopy my passport if they want to.


So the wait continued. A little while later, when I was probably two people from the end, the man behind me said that he also did not have copies of passport. By this time I had come off my the proverbial high horse. I said to him: “how about he keeps and eye on my luggage while I copy my passport and when I return I could watch his stuff so that he can do his copying?” He seemed a trusting sort, a big thing in such a low-trust environment of the airport and country generally. He gave me his passport and said that I could copy it for him and he would pay me. I took his passport and went away for a few minutes and got the job done. When I gave it to him he offered to compensate me for the cost incurred. I said “no worries” and refused to take the money. We didn’t really start up a conversation as happens with me often. We did not find out where we were from, where we were going, even our names. Just as I was about to go forward, I saw the man helping the lady behind him and then, refusing to take her money. Who knows she might have done the same for the person behind her and the little act of generosity -costing me 70 Rupees, 50 pence in English money , just enough to get on the bus for one stop- might have continued forever along the long line of passengers desperate to catch their plane!

An evening of Persian poetry or a case of colonialism lives on!

Venue: Barber Institute, on the campus of Birmingham University.

A room full of people; about 50 in all. Out for an unusual cultural experience. So good to be surrouneed by such people. 


Two poets, both female. The third poet, male, could not get a visa.


First poet on stage, with the translator, from the organisation that arranged the event; the Poetry Translation Centre. The poet could not see in the poor light so decided to stay in the corner. The translator stood in the middle of the stage. For some reason it was decided that the English translation would be read first. So the translator would read from her position, centre stage, and then the poet would read in her own language from the sidelines. Surely it should be the other way round!


Thankfully, the second poet read her poetry first and then the translator read the English. This worked. You could see who the main act was and who the translator.


Both the poets were wearing quite Western clothes. I wondered whether it would have worked if they had just come from Iran or Afghanistan with their heads covered or in full burqa!


The first translator/organiser made two references to Afghanistan; both negative. First she referred to it as the worst country in the world. I thought to myself; how would I feel if I came from there. We have quite a few in our city who do. But then this evening was not for them as the audience or the poets amongst them. She then said, when about to translate a love poem, “this is quite surprising given what has gone on in that country”. Does this mean people in Afghanistan don’t or can’t write poetry? Is poetry only written in nice peaceful places like in the west? Don’t we have the War Poets? What gives her the right to stand here and damn a whole country. I am sure awful things are going on there. I am equally sure that there is beauty, poetry and birdsong; something they tried to ban many years ago. I wrote about it at the time.


Then we came to ask questions. I had no plans to say anything. A few comments and questions later, I put my hand up to suggest that in future they should always have the poet ‘centre stage’ and the translator on the side. I am afraid this did not go down well. The organising lady/first translator said she didn’t like being criticised and would have preferred it if I had had a quiet word with her on her own. 

 I felt bad about making her feel uncomfortable. 


The evening ended. One person came to me and said she had agreed with what I had said. She could see the organiser had been defensive and didn’t really want to hear any critical feedback.  We also had an interesting conversation about the need for white Brits to learn minority languages especially Urdu in places like Birmingham; local education as she had worked in Birmingham schools teaching English as a second language; her visit to Pakistan /Kashmir …. We exchanged cards so might be getting together for a coffee given we live near each other.


How about an evening of Urdu poetry and literature from Birmingham Pakistani community! But the audience would have to change their expectations as the local Pakistanis are just that; local! Equal citizens instead of exotic outsiders.


I had better get back to reading some more of Orientalism or should it be Everyday Racism. Maybe I should read something safer!

Venue: Barber Institute, on the campus of Birmingham University.


A room full of people; about 50 in all. Out for a bit of exotica? Maybe I shouldn’t judge or prejudge.




Two poets, both female. The third poet, male, could not get a visa.




First poet on stage, with the translator, a white woman. I think she is someone big in the organisation that arranged the event; the Poetry Translation Centre. The poet could not see in the poor light so decided to stay in the corner. The translator stood in the middle of the stage. For some reason it was decided that the English translation would be read first. So the translator would read from her position, centre stage, and then the poet would read in her own language from the sidelines. Surely it should be the other way round!




Thankfully, the second poet read her poetry first and then the translator read the English. This worked. You could see who the main act was and who the translator.




Both the poets were wearing quite Western clothes. I wondered whether it would have worked if they had just come from Iran or Afghanistan with their heads covered or in full burqa!




The first translator/organiser made two references to Afghanistan; both equally appalling. First she referred to it as the worst country in the world. I thought to myself; how would I feel if I came from there. We have quite a few in our city who do. But then this evening was not for them as the audience or the poets amongst them. She then said, when about to translate a love poem, “this is quite surprising given what has gone on in that country”. Does this mean people in Afghanistan don’t or can’t write poetry? Is poetry only written in nice peaceful places like in the west? Don’t we have the War Poets? What gives her the right to stand here and damn a whole country. I am sure awful things are going on there. I am equally sure that there is beauty, poetry and birdsong; something they tried to ban many years ago. I wrote about it at the time.




Then we came to ask questions. I had no plans to say anything. A few comments and questions later, I put my hand up to suggest that in future they should always have the poet ‘centre stage’ and the translator on the side. I am afraid this did not go down well. The organising lady/first translator said she didn’t like being criticised and would have preferred it if I had had a quiet word with her on her own.




The trouble was that in the environment that had been created it was I who felt the bad guy.

Safeguarding, Muslims and bilingual communication

It was a privilege to be able to use my mother tongue- Pahari- , Urdu as well as English to facilitate a group of Muslim leaders in Dudley. I used to wonder what the point of me improving my non-English languages was. Now I understand. It was for times such as these that I have been reading my weekly Urdu paper and other material.


Surely, there must be more groups from within communities such as the Pakistanis whose preferred language of communication is their mother tongue(s). Presumably, they stay away from situations which are English-speaking.


I wonder whether we will ever move to the same level of provision for minority language communication and interpreting as that for groups who are dependent on British Sign Language.


The purpose of the event was to share information on safeguarding of children in religious organisations as well as to receive feedback from the people who work in such situations. Here are the notes from the Muslim group I facilitated:

1.      Religion is very important to the Muslims of Dudley. They want their children to have proper understanding of Islam and be able to read the Quran. They also value their children being taught Urdu so they can communicate with the older generation and appreciate their cultural heritage.

2.      It is important that the teachers teaching the above are properly qualified and are able to provide authentic education. The community is very keen for Urdu to be taught in mainstream schools but when it comes to Islamic teaching they would like that job to be done in mosques.

3.      It is often the case that mainstream approaches are imposed on minority communities. When subjects such as safeguarding are considered it is important to take proper account of minority perspectives and context instead of expecting minorities to simply fit.

 4.      Language can be a barrier so it is important to have bilingual staff generally and especially in sensitive service areas such as safeguarding

 5.      The group raised the issue of safeguarding in the wider environment. Muslim children often have to put with abuse and taunts on the way to and from the mosques. The Council needs to take appropriate preventative action. Schools also have an educational role.

 6.      Lack of resources is a major problem for the Muslim community. They have to rely on the collections from their members who often come from a community which is disadvantaged. Lack of resources could give rise to safeguarding problems

 7.      It is important not to exaggerate the problems. The Muslim community is fully committed to safeguarding. They need help to develop the infrastructure.  


Improving from Within- A Positive Approach to School Improvement

What can we learn from the emerging science of Positive Psychology, of how human beings thrive and how should this understanding of human well being influence our schools? We are experiencing seismic changes in the educational landscape but how many educationalists are asking the question about what education is really for in a global, technological and competitive world?  

In this world, what is the job of a teacher and how is it changing? How do we co-create a curriculum with our students that is relevant and engaging? What does pedagogy look like in this generation and how can we develop ‘contracting’ relationships between students and teachers? As leaders, how do we take courageous steps to lead our schools in a direction we intuitively know is good but may go against received wisdom?

Improving from Within is a model for school improvement that has developed from 20 years of working with schools and noting what really works as well as observing the impact on the teaching profession of increasing negative extrinsic drivers. It is time to re-address the balance. Improving from Within is our response.

If you would like to be involved contact us:


Is diversity all about differences?

A few years ago as a part of my voluntary community work, I was involved on the management committee of a Birmingham community advice centre. One day I bumped into a fellow Pakistani. When I told him about my involvement, he said “are there other ‘apne log’ (our people) involved there?” When Asians use this Urdu phrase, they almost always refer to not just people of their own ethnicity but also to those who come from the same clan, ethnic community and district.

 The advice centre concerned was run under the auspices of a Church of England church, with a White vicar who had a real heart for the inner city and its people. Much of the congregation of this fairly ordinary church was made up of White or African Caribbean worshippers. Most of the staff of the advice centre were of Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslim background as were its clients who chose the advice centre in preference to their own community’s services because they saw it as more impartial and professional.

The question certainly made me think about who ‘our people’ were in such a situation. For example, for a Pakistani or Bangladeshi in need of advice, was it people from her own ethnic group, clan or fellow Muslims. Or was it the African Caribbean worshippers who donated their hard earned income so that she could access free advice; or perhaps it was the White vicar or the multi-racial management committee whose member I was. It made me wonder whether people emphasise too much their race and ethnicity and should go beyond this and focus on our humanity. We may then realise that we have much more in common than that which divides us.

That brings me to diversity. My involvement in it goes back to the 70s except it was called ‘equality’ in those days. It wasn’t until the 90s when ‘diversity’ was coined as a phrase. I believe it was with the publication of the book, in 1992, ‘From Equality to Diversity’ by Rachel Ross and Robin Schneider.  This definition of diversity from the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development best sums it up: “Managing diversity involves valuing people as individuals, as employees, customers and clients- everyone is different.”

The BIG QUESTION for me is: why focus on our differences when we have so much in common?

 We share spaces; we often use exactly the same products and services in exactly the same way. By recognising and ‘celebrating’ diversity, are we in the danger of perpetuating the differences? Perhaps, instead we should focus on our commonalities?

There are many situations where there is a duplication of services. We have neighbourhoods where a service is provided for one ethnic group and down the road an identical service is offered for another ethnic group; both are funded from the same public purse. Surely, our communities have lived together for long enough and are mature enough to use a service alongside others from a different ethnic group. Wouldn’t it be far better to encourage us to go beyond the few differences we may have and focus on what we have in common?

 So where does this leave Diversity?

Some of the orthodoxies have begun be challenged, albeit slowly. Munira Mirza from the Institute of Ideas, talking about diversity training, points out: “On one hand, trainers claim to eliminate stereotypes in the workplace, yet in talking about ‘different cultural perspectives’, they end up generating new and more insidious ones in their stead”. She points out that the “diversity machine is highly expensive, but more worryingly, it can be highly corrosive. It creates divisions within the workforce and generates an unhealthy preoccupation with racial tension in the workplace”. Ms Mirza goes on to offer diversity practitioners and others a challenge: “what has been lost is any sense of universal or common values. Contemporary society finds it difficult to claim that there are values and needs that are shared by everyone, regardless of their particular cultural upbringing, skin colour or ethnic background. Today, there is an absence of vision that can unite different groups.”

Later Ms Mirza makes a similar point in another article: “In our society we attribute much more positive significance to cultural differences, but increasingly lack confidence in people’s ability to transcend them.” She goes onto point out that we assume “that individuals born into a particular ethnicity or culture find it difficult to identify with people different from themselves”

Trevor Phillips, the recently appointed chair of the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights, has pointed out: “My concern is that policies have got to the point where we recognise differences even if it is at the cost of equality,” he said. “Diversity is not damaging to society; what is damaging to society is the recognition of diversity without the recognition of commonality”. Of course, it was not long ago that the Commission for Racal Equality, which Mr Phillips currently heads up, was talking about ‘All Different, All Equal’; don’t times change!

And finally, the words of Shakespeare help to remind us of what we have in common:

If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh…Remember we all feel hurt, we all feel pain

Merchant of Venice

 Note: this blog was previously published a few years ago 


Writing about nothing!

I had the privilege of meeting a group of young people and starting the next ‘Writers of the Future’ group. How fortunate I am; being able to work with such engaging people, surrounded by books (we were in the school library). I so love what I do. I feel a bit of an imposter calling it ‘work’ though. My world today is so far removed from that of my elders. That was WORK. For example, my father used to walk for days with his donkey to different parts of Pakistan, transporting goods for businesses and, later, doing back-breaking shifts in Birmingham factories.

I explained to the students my purpose in being there and then asked them what writers did. Of course they all said: “write”. This was my cue to point out that before writing comes reading. So please would they read, read and read some more. Most of them were used to using their local library.

We talked about how easy it was to write once you get started; how to get inspiration (“from life”, said one) and how to get published using the internet (“make sure you are responsible in what you publish”, I said).

I asked them to do some writing. “Perhaps, you could write about meeting me”, I said.  I told them a little about myself and permission to make up the rest. They were off:

  • Mr Iqbal told us that he wanted to be a writer ever since he was young…
  • The slow and thought out manner in which he spoke showed that … He told us about meeting the man who started Urdu journalism
  • I can tell Mr Iqbal has a passion for writing and loves reading. …He is the first person I have met who has his own blog!
  • He believes that if he wants to achieve his dream of writing, he can do and do it (publish) for himself.

Rather than stare at them while they were absorbed in their activity, I decided to jot down some notes for my blog entry.

I had promised to share with them, each week, some of my favourite books. So, I read an extract of a speech Mr Jinnah had made (from Stanley Wolpert’s ‘Jinnah’):

Organise yourselves, establish your solidarity and complete unity. Equip yourselves as trained and disciplined soldiers. Create the feeling of an esprit de corps (we discussed what this meant with the help of a student who had done French!) and of comradeship amongst yourselves. Work loyally, honestly, and for the cause of your people and your country. No individual or people can achieve anything without industry, suffering and sacrifice

In the process, there was a history lesson- when Pakistan was founded, who ruled the area before, when Bangladesh came about.   

We had time to kill so we talked about bilingualism- one student is doing Urdu GCSE, one spoke Bengali. We then had a group-read of a colleague’s ‘blog’ and learnt about ‘doing foreigners’. I had to explain that this was nothing suspicious but ‘working on the side’. We also talked about ‘eating’ tea. Don’t the English have some strange practices, I thought!

Their homework: to read; to write, if they feel inspired; to look at my blog and, of course, Tim Dowling’s, whose writing gave us the title for my current work.