Jamaica and the UK: Interrogating the role of race across educational systems and leadership development

Dr. Paul W. Miller is the head of the School of Education and a professor of Educational Leadership & Social Justice at the University of Greenwich, UK.  He recently shared with us what he has learned teaching across two different educational systems and how this has contributed to his leadership focus.

Growing up in Jamaica, the value of education as a tool of enlightenment and social mobility was regularly impressed upon me, and contributing greatly to my process of “falling in love” with teaching and education. As someone who grew up in the working class, and who had been lucky to have secured an education, I wanted to give something back to children and young people like me—so they too could have a chance to improve their future and that of their families. Therefore, I trained as a teacher in Jamaica in the mid-1990’s and started my first teaching job in a secondary high school in September 1996. 

Since then I have had the opportunity to teach in two very distinct contexts—Jamaica and the UK—which have both contributed immensely to my growth as an educator. For example, much of what I learned in Jamaica in terms of behavior management I have employed in England, and much of what I have learned in England, such as planning inclusive lessons, has been instrumental throughout my professional career. Some similarities and differences I have noticed across these two contexts include:

  • Schools in England are significantly resourced, especially in terms of books and instructional materials.
  • Teachers in Jamaica appear to be more respected by students than those in the UK despite having more rights and responsibilities.
  • Teachers in Jamaica have a lot of freedom to interpret and implement the curriculum; in England, autonomy is somewhat restricted due to the National Curriculum and tighter performance-based agendas.
  • Teachers in both countries show great creativity in the face of contextual challenges and unequivocally want what is best for their students.
  • Teachers in both countries work very closely with parent groups and other adults to serve the needs of students and to address disciplinary, attendance, and other issues.

My trajectory in educational leadership and research began when I arrived in England as an ‘Overseas Trained Teacher’ (OTT) and pursued a Ph.D. researching the ‘Experiences and contributions of OTTs in London secondary schools’. In a sense, I was unpacking (i) what England gained from Jamaica’s loss of human capital, and (ii) how Jamaican teachers were impacted as a result of coming to England. Of course, the pay was higher, and the education, political, social, and other contexts were very different. However, what I have tried to do through my research is to locate and understand specifically these contextual differences and how these have reshaped the professional identity of Caribbean teachers in England. 

I consider myself very lucky to have a platform in England to share scholarship about Jamaica and the Caribbean. I use this platform as a social and as a political act. As a social act, this represents a counterbalance to negative discourse on Jamaica and on other developing countries, and as a political act, to locate and publish as many good things as possible (although not ignoring the not so good) so that Jamaica’s reputation as a small island state that is serious about educational leadership and management can be acknowledged and elevated. All of my activist efforts are framed through a social justice lens, using my position and my influence to right wrongs and to provide leverage and a platform for those that otherwise might not have access to share their voices. 

One reason for this lack of access is that racism is a huge problem in educational institutions in England, from nursery to university. If we look at the numbers of Headteachers in England in 2020 (24,281) and recognize that only 227 are from Black, Asian, or minority ethnic (BAME) heritage, this highlights how important it is that research is conducted to bring this reality into public consciousness and to raise questions about equity, progression, recruitment, and other contributing factors.

 My work on Overseas Trained Teachers (OTTs) for example, is very much framed in the context and race, migration, and identity. For example, I have looked at how many teachers from Jamaica and other developing countries are required to be retrained when they arrive in England? This is not the case for teachers from white-industrialised countries (the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and other countries in the EU) whose teachers are exempt from retraining requirements. Whereas officially ‘race’ may no longer be the head tax for letting people in, country of origin has become the next head tax, and therefore if only non-white, non-industrialised teachers have to retrain, then this undoubtedly represents a matter of racism couched in educational policy.

The reality is that inequity in education leadership is not just exclusive to England as Jamaica’s education system has an element of class discrimination and the society as a whole is greatly affected by ‘colourism’. While what I have found is that social class and racism are embedded into the social fabric of British society, I believe that Jamaica’s preoccupation with ‘colourism’ for example may just be that, a legacy from Britain, our colonial masters.

While it is critical that research unpacks these legacies of inequity and how they continue to play out in the current context, it is important to me that my research has a direct impact on the community. Much of my outreach work focuses on supporting headteachers, schools, and colleges to translate my work on racism and leadership into action plans for their context. Moreover, my work on the global context of school leadership practice has been extremely useful to principals undergoing leadership preparation courses/programmes in England and Jamaica, especially, in helping them to situate their own experiences of practice within broader social and professional milieus. 

Paul Miller and colleague at a conference event.

We thank Paul for sharing a small snippet of his extensive work on racism and educational leadership, and on the practice of school leadership in global education systems. To learn more please see his distinguished scholar’s page here.