Danielle Lewis-Egonu is the CEO of Cygnus Academies Trust. Danielle is also a member of SSAT’s primary network steering group. Here are Danielle’s reflections on the theme of women in leadership and education.
What inspired your journey into leadership?
My route to where I am has been unconventional. I never really wanted or planned to be a leader or headteacher. I was quite happy being an early years teacher and then early years lead. I didn’t know all these other roles existed, but the landscape of education changed significantly around me, creating roles which had previously never existed. Growing up, I had no role models of family members who had been teachers. Education is a very middle class profession and I didn’t realise for a long time how many people benefit from having someone in their immediate or extended family who’s been a teacher or in some other educational role.
Teaching wasn’t something I considered when I was at school. I was quite naughty, I was a looked after child, SEN and FSM. My passion was film production and when I left university I worked in media. As part of my job, I enjoyed working with children from similar backgrounds to my own, teaching media, editing and music production. My affinity with and understanding of those hard to reach children and their families was a motivation to teach. I thought I would work in secondary, but ended up on an early years PGCE. When I became a subject lead, I became further interested in inclusion, this led me to a role as assistant head for inclusion in a tough environment.
I started to think about headship when my eldest daughter said to me that she never saw black or brown people and women like me in headship. When the opportunity to be an executive head came up, again, I realised that there very few people who look like me in those roles in the country. Part of my drive and motivation has come from my understanding of the importance of my presence in a leadership role.
What’s stopping more women progressing into leadership?
There are many factors, intersectionality is one for me. I’ve just written a co-authored piece about anti-racism in education which will be part of a book – Outstanding School Leadership, by Peter J. Hughes, CEO of The Mossbourne Federation. The challenge of being a woman of colour in education is being alone, but you get used to being the only person of colour in a room and sometimes the only woman as well. Things are changing and you do encounter a few more women in high leadership positions but CEO-wise, you are still looking at predominantly men.
When you decide you’re going to become and headteacher, if you have children it has to be a family decision, involving a discussion with loved ones. If you want to have children and you want to have the full richness of life, you need an understanding network and the support behind you. Sometimes it won’t be possible to tuck your children in at night. For men, making these decisions and sacrifices are the same, and hard to make. These are some of the discussions I have with my leaders as they progress to headship. People don’t recognise what toll the role can take on aspects of your life. Even if it looks like the role can be flexible or offers part-time working, the level of accountability makes it a 24/7 job.
I’ve always asked my children how they feel and whether I am doing a good job. We hold family meetings. I carve out time that will not be budged to take them on their individual dates. When they were younger they would choose one school event each year and I would move hell or high water to get to that event. They’d make me feel like a celebrity on the rare occasions I arrived in the school playground. I had to understand that quality over quantity is important. That’s how I made peace with myself. As parents we are our own worst critics. It’s OK to ask for help.
I have faced, at the highest levels, overt chauvinism. I’ve been in board meetings as the only woman where there has been complete disregard and humiliation of women and I have had to say “this needs to stop” and “I’m not comfortable with how you are talking about individuals.” This does happen in education. Calling out comments that are made can cost you your career. Sometimes you have to bide your time or pick your battles. Having people to call on for advice helps. I’ve had parents who have just not wanted me to be the head because I am a woman and they have told me that to my face. I’ve had riots outside the building and people trying to prevent me getting into work or trying to spread negativity around my role. This can happen anywhere, in leafy green areas as well as in areas that are considered challenging. Resilience, being brave and speaking out are key. I’ve had hate mail, people threaten my life and people stalk me however I know it’s important that I continue.
Highlights and successes as a leader
Successes as a leader are different to those of a classroom teacher. My successes are rooted in my advocating for children, for marginalised children, for children who don’t have a voice in a system that is completely and utterly broken and which has been cracking for a very long time. As a looked-after child I know this well. One example of a success that stays with me is finding and putting myself in precarious positions by calling out failings, and getting a particular child what they needed because they were being failed in so many areas. I get immense joy from knowing children are in a good place and can go on to lead a positive life. Leading schools out of special measures is also something to be proud of.
Role models, allies and networks
Subconsciously, you seek out your role models, allies and networks. I’ve worked closely with and learnt so much from inspiring female heads from across the education community. I consider these and some of the amazing females I did my PGCE with as friends. They are an important source of reassurance and reflection. These are people who generously give of their time and knowledge. They help you to see what you can be and help you understand better what different leadership roles involve.
I’ve had to be resilient and do a lot of learning on the job. I’ve been fortunate to work alongside some great teams. Working with others, all doing our best, using our common sense, experience and continual professional dialogue to put in place the things children need in some challenging contexts.
A surprising and lovely hidden aspect of education is how many people are willing to give of their time. You just have to be brave, bold, ask questions or seek people out and they will respond with open arms. Surround yourself with people who are aware of the challenges, who will stand with you and help carry you when things are hard.
Why women in education should pursue leadership
Business models look at status, money and power. Leadership in education is not something you do for the money. It’s a tough job, so if you’re doing it for the status, you’re going to disappear quickly. So you do it for the power. Power is having a voice and being in a room where decisions are being made. There is something wonderful and empowering about impacting generational change. It comes from being in a room where you are able to engage in discussions at a high level. I am in spaces where I have the opportunity to speak to secretaries of state and the DfE. I am invited to things even though I am not quiet and my writing can provoke debate. I find myself in spaces that I would not have accessed if I did not have this position. We need to claim space and be confident.
Leaders need to be humble and be aware of the different starting points that people may have had. What we do for children is what we need to do for female colleagues who are aspiring or current leaders. Creating opportunities for aspiring leaders to see what other leaders do is invaluable.
People in leadership roles can help others by supporting with references and encouraging one another to apply for roles whether they are on boards, committees, as volunteers or other school leadership positions. Sometimes you need someone who will say “I am in the room, I will vouch for you, I will be your referee.” Most women don’t believe in themselves enough to put themselves forward. Get your hat in the ring.
- You don’t have to have all the certificates and qualifications before you step forward for a leadership role. Just know that’s where you want to be, then find good mentors and coaches.
- If you want to do qualifications, they don’t always need to be in education. Do them in business. Look at what leaders outside education do, whether they are in sport, politics or social commerce. Leadership is leadership.
- Remember how important family and home are. This is a job . A plan and a network will help make sure you don’t burn out.
- If you’re going to weather the storm, find your people, your network, so you are not alone.
- Learn how to stand your ground and know when to fight the good fight.
And don’t forget about the children. In my role I have ‘adopted’ children in different schools in the trust. When I go in to these schools I seek them out and find out from them and others how they are progressing.
We will always have to fight to overcome inequalities. What matters is the action each of us takes.