Today’s interview with Suzanne Overton-Edwards, Principal for Gateway College, is the second in a series celebrating unsung heroes across the learning and education sector who are currently ‘making history’. The series is part of NIACE’s activity for Black History Month 2012.
Suzanne, tell me a bit about your background and how it shaped who you are.
I was born in London and went to a small primary school in West London. I had a very good head teacher who was very student focussed and had high expectations of the children regardless of what their abilities were.
One of the ways in which I benefited was by going to a small school at primary and secondary level, so I wasn’t a number, I was an individual. I was known by all of the teachers and that for me, was very important.
I also think the grammar school system was brilliant and has been an important catalyst for unlocking the potential of thousands of people and because it was a girls’ school, the expectations were different. We were told ‘you can do what you want to do, you can conquer the world’. There were no ceilings, glass, or otherwise. All of that has shaped me.
Also, my mother who was a key figure in my life always said to me, ‘education is the only thing I can give you’ and I have said exactly the same to my children. Money, forget it. Education, yes, because then you can earn your own money. This is very much the culture I was brought up in.
As a black woman teaching in the 1980’s, did you stand out?
I was quite fortunate because the year after I started there was another female black science teacher who joined the team and we got on really well. There was a head of year who also happened to be a science teacher, a black man, and he was senior member of staff in the school. He took me under his wing. He was my unofficial mentor and he inducted me in terms of the school politics. That was brilliant and I will always thank him for that support and nurturing and I feel fortunate that our paths crossed in that way.
What is your specialism?
I began teaching science, biology and chemistry in particular, then ‘essential skills’ became my specialism especially numeracy. I studied Physiology at university.
Are you pleased with the priority being given to Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)?
I am very pleased that STEM has such a high profile now, because it offers lots of opportunities for young people. We just have to open that door and show them all of the things they can do, not just the traditional careers that they tend to think about.
What inspired you to go into science?
An uncle who is an engineer. He has always been, and still is, very driven by the importance of education and continuing to learn throughout your life – in our family it has been the route ‘out’, a way to securing a better future.
What are the barriers for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) learners and are they different now than they were 30 years ago?
I would question if they are different, they are there in a different guise.
There was a time when people would say whatever they thought, whether it was good, bad or indifferent. It then became politically incorrect to say or behave in a particular way. It all went underground. The danger there is that it’s more insidious. So sometimes you will feel something, but there is nothing concrete for you to grab hold of and say I will deal with this. In some ways it is harder for people because it is not so overt. Nothing’s been said, nothing’s been done, so how do you tackle it? That’s a potential danger.
What can practitioners do to support BAME learners?
There are two key things. You have to have high expectations – that has to be the minimum. And you have to work in partnership with those people/agencies that students are connected with.
What’s needed from adult learning policy-makers to ensure that learners from BAME backgrounds get the best from learning opportunities?
Within education we talk a lot about the learner voice, but I do question how much we listen. I think we hear, but I am not convinced we listen.
All students have a view about how we can improve what we are doing for them and with them. It’s about being very open-minded and not going in with an agenda. It’s about being prepared to be challenged by students, really taking note of what they are saying and doing something constructive with it. This should be a very strong theme right the way through our sector.
How do you see your role as a BAME leader and the impact this may have on BAME learners, aspiring leader s and the wider community?
I do see it as a responsibility – I feel very honoured and very humbled being in this position. I am a small cog in the life of the organisation – I have to make it as good as I possibly can for the students who are here today and for those who are coming tomorrow