Women in Leadership and Education – Marva Rollins

After more than 24 years, Marva Rollins OBE retired from her role as headteacher in 2019. Marva now uses her wealth of experience of leading schools to support school leaders in schools in challenging circumstances. The first black headteacher in the London Borough of Newham, Marva has served the community for almost 40 years. An outspoken voice on issues related to race, education and equality, Marva was included in the Evening Standard 2009 list of 1000 most influential Londoners and in The Metro’s 2011 list of “50 Black Heroes”.

Here are Marva’s reflections on our questions about women in leadership and education.

What has helped or inspired your own journey into leadership?

My aunt was a deputy headteacher in Barbados. That on its own did not inspire me. I am a Windrush child and I left my aunt and grandparents behind in Barbados to join my parents in England where the expectations of my generation who arrived in British schools was low or non-existent.

Women in Leadership

I trained as a teacher in my 30s and started teaching in 1986. In the early 1990s I was a teacher in Newham. I attended a Women As Manager course. I was then invited to co-facilitate. This course was very useful and gave me the strategies for preparing for leadership. But the focus was on women becoming leaders with no recognition of the possible challenges faced by Black teachers.

Two colleagues and I adapted the course materials and created a Black and Asian Teachers as Leaders course. Both these courses were ground-breaking, and it was these two courses, along with my voluntary work as a member of East London Black Women’s Organisation (ELBWO) and other Black organisation where I linked up with many visionaries, which inspired me to apply for deputy headship and then headship.

There are certainly more female headteachers than 20 years ago and there may be an assumption that there is no disparity, and that this is no longer a national agenda item. We also need to review the data on the gender gap in those giving up headship due to the current pressures facing leaders in schools.

What should schools focus on to address barriers to the progression of women into leadership?

I think the composition of governing bodies can be a factor. Again, back in the 1990s I was one of the facilitators on the governor’s training course in Newham. I would like to think that the initial stereotyping of what a leader in education looks like is behind us.

Women in leadership probably takes on a different meaning when you are a Black Leader. I know that there are challenges I have faced sometimes as a Black leader but I am not sure that these would have been the same if I was not Black. Being Black means I am constantly conscious of representation.

Girls are more likely today to see women as leaders in education. That does not guarantee that they see themselves as teachers or headteachers. There needs to be a focus on encouraging girls to see education as an option from an early age. For instance a girl living in certain areas might not feel able to identify with the female leaders in their schools, so we need awareness raising. In schools we bring in scientists, artists, motivational speakers to talk to our children. We don’t usually bring in a headteacher.

What advice, tip or words of encouragement do you have for the next generation of female leaders?

  • Understand the data on gender and representation and the current barriers facing women.
  • Girls must have an understanding of the trailblazers who broke down many of the barriers.
  • Development programmes on dealing with misogyny and microaggressions are needed.
  • Invite female students and staff to attend women in leadership programmes.
  • Actively promote female leadership, including a focus on Black female leadership.
  • Provide opportunities for female students to hear from female leaders in a wide range of professions, including education as part of the school curriculum.
  • Encourage girls and young women to see the positives in being teachers/headteachers.

Women in Leadership and Education

Leadership progression in education is not a level playing field. Whether deliberately or unwittingly, women, and particularly women from ethnic minorities are frequently disadvantaged.

Join us on 18 June 2024 and get ready to be inspired.

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