Representation, Challenges and the Importance of DEI in Schools

Taiwo Bali portrait

Written by Taiwo Bali

Taiwo Bali writes education updates, teaching tips and well-being related content for secondary school teachers.

From receiving hate mail to leading a booming community that celebrates all people, Hannah Wilson has shown her commitment to DEI. She sat down with Beyond Digest to share why she believes DEI is essential in all schools.

Hannah Wilson is a leadership development coach and trainer with a passion for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) in education. She is the Co-founder of #DiverseEd, an organisation dedicated to tackling issues faced by underrepresented communities and furthering DEI in schools.

Her former roles as a Secondary English Teacher, Head of Secondary Teacher Training and Founding Executive Headteacher allowed her to develop rich expertise in education. Hannah kindly spoke to Beyond Digest about her journey with DEI and the importance of diversity in schools.

Q: What sparked your passion for diversity and inclusion?

H: As a student doing GCSE English I was indignant about the lack of diversity in the curriculum. It just never sat right with me. I was exposed to postcolonial literature at university and learned about topics such as diversity in social justice during apartheid and the caste system in India. It was really interesting for me to look at literature in that way and also the critical theory around it. So when I trained to be an English teacher, I guess I just brought that into my teaching and into my curriculum design because I worked in quite challenging schools. I worked in a boys’ school in Kingston, I moved to an academy in Mitcham and then an academy in Croydon. I’ve taught really diverse students and I think when I’m looking to see whether they see themselves in the displays and in the library, in the curriculum, you can see the disengagement because they can’t. 

Q: What has being a DEI ally taught you?

H: As I’ve been promoted, I’ve thought about what I can do in my roles as a curriculum leader, pastoral leader  and headteacher to help affect change. When I co-founded #WomenEd we had lots of conversations about gender representation, but quite quickly, the feedback from the network was that it felt like it was white feminism as opposed to true feminism because it was a group of white women predominantly talking about it. At events, I put myself in a room with all black teachers, talking about their experience of education and headship. At that moment my bubble got popped and my own privilege got checked. Even as someone who felt quite aware of some of those issues, I discovered a whole trench load of information that I didn’t know. That’s when the need to diversify the organisation became the top priority. 

Q: As someone who ran a school, why do you think it’s important to have a diverse SLT?

H: I have worked in six different schools and the SLT and governing bodies never represented the children. When I left London and then moved up to Oxford to be a headteacher, I recruited a very diverse team because I care about diversity. I recruited a diverse SLT because I knew it was going to be part of our school culture, policy and practice. Diversity needs to be humanised so by having a visibly Muslim member of SLT who did assemblies about Ramadan and spoke to the children about his faith, he demystified and de-stigmatised what it meant to be Muslim. He educated the children and their parents on his faith. We also had openly gay and bisexual members of staff which supported young people who were exploring their own sexual orientation and allowed parents and carers in same-sex relationships to feel accepted. Visible representation and role modelling made the children, parents and fellow staff feel safe. 

Q: How important is it for young people to see diverse staff?

H: I worked in schools with 55% black boys and there were no black men on the governing body. For me, there needs to be that mirror, there needs to be a reflection of the children we are teaching and the communities we are serving. Young people need to be able to see themselves in the staffing, leadership and governance. There’s great irony in a young person walking through their school and not seeing themselves. I have done talks at heads conferences where quite often, people think their school is more diverse than it is. You may have diverse adults in the building but what job are they doing? Are staff from underrepresented groups in positions of power and can they influence decision making? What messages are the children receiving about their future prospects and opportunities to succeed? We tell young people they can be anything they want but we implicitly cap their potential by not being intentional about who is appointed into which role. We can’t say one thing in assembly and then on staff recruitment day, do something completely different. Young people have got to see it to be it. 

Q: What challenges have you faced in championing DEI?

H: After moving to Oxford, I think my team and I were all a little bit shocked that the DEI work we were doing in schools in London, Reading and other parts of the country felt really alien in this part of the world. I got quite a lot of pushback because they weren’t quite ready for it. The challenge came from the people in the wider community. We had parents and carers who chose not to send their kids to our school because they didn’t want their kids to go to a school where there were LGBTQIA+ posters in every classroom. I had parents say to me, your school is beautiful, I love your vision for education, take those posters down and I’ll send my kids to your school. It didn’t sit right with us so we kept them up. This was part of our school culture and ethos. We were committed to creating psychological safety and a sense of belonging for all children. It all kicked off when one complaint from a parent ended up in the local media and the story went from regional to national. There were nasty comments from a popular newspaper’s readers and 3000 comments in a local Facebook group and I even received 86 letters threatening my life.  DEI brings the worst out of people sometimes. 

Q: How did the negative press impact the DEI work you do?

H: People get loud, defensive or just spew hate because they think their actions will stop you. If anything it made us even more committed to the work because it showed the ignorance and lack of empathy in some people. I do a lot of work talking about values and ethics and for me, remaining committed to DEI is ethically the right thing to do. My values drive this work. Though advised not to, I wrote a blog post to address the negative press because I didn’t want to be silenced as a woman. I didn’t want to be silenced as a school because we were committed to this work. The blog went viral. I think we had about 14,500 thousand hits and I got a lot of disclosures from other heads and school leaders around the country who had been in a similar situation and were happy I spoke out.

Q: Where can schools get DEI training?

H: After the death of George Floyd schools needed to do something about DEI but didn’t know how to get started. Everyone in my network was looking for training. DEI is very overwhelming because it touches every single policy and practice. You don’t know what you’ll find out about your school until you start looking. It is a difficult and emotionally draining journey to go on and schools need support. The #DiverseEd website is a one-stop-shop for all aspects of DEI training. We use the directory to signpost specialists so if schools need anti-racism, menopause awareness or gender identity training they can find the best trainers. #DiverseEd now works with 185 organisations that are tackling DEI all over the world. We also offer toolkits and reading lists based on different aspects of DEI for schools to use.

The #DiverseEd community continues to grow. Last year they held its first virtual event (June 2020) which had a reach of 13,500 people from around the world, who joined for 5 hours on a Saturday morning to listen to all things DEI. The next free event will be held virtually on the 22nd of January 2022. Find out more here.

Hannah and her friend Angie Browne have also joined forces to create a programme to help schools navigate DEI. Both former headteachers use their expertise in headship to offer paid leadership training courses in governance training, SLT training and diversity masterclasses. The training covers topics ranging from inclusive language to curriculum development and now has 20 cohorts of leaders, which is a testament to the value they offer. 

DEI should be an integral part of every school. Having a safe learning environment that celebrates diversity and raises aspirations is something all young people deserve. How does your school tackle DEI? Share your thoughts with me via Twitter.

Find Hannah @Ethical_Leader and #DiverseEd on Twitter and #DiverseEd via the website.

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More Than Ticking a Box

Tak-Sang Li portrait

Written by Tak-Sang Li

An English teacher of twenty years and counting - most recently as a Head of English, and now an Assistant Head. Also a doctoral candidate on the EdD programme at UCL Institute of Education.

When I first became an English teacher in London almost twenty years ago, my father – who, along with my mother, had emigrated to the UK from Hong Kong in the late 1960s / early 1970s – found it amusing that I, the son of a Chinese immigrant, would be teaching English to predominantly native speakers of English. I paid little heed to this at the time, as my father is known for his off-the-cuff remarks, and, in some respects, I believe it was his idiosyncratic way of expressing paternal pride in the fact that I had secured a job upon graduation. Whilst my father found the notion of a Chinese English teacher amusing, I have been fortunate enough to have worked in schools where my ethnicity has not been an issue. I can only recall a couple of instances where I have felt otherwise. I have a vivid memory of a parent eyeing me up and down during a parents’ evening, as their son walked them over to the table I was seated at, and remarking in a rather sneering tone, “That’s your English teacher?” (I am fairly certain that this comment was directed to the fact that I’m Chinese rather than anything else about me – as anyone who knows me will tell you, I am otherwise quite inconspicuous.) At another point in my career, when I was one of two Chinese male teachers in the school I was teaching at, I had begun to lose count of the number of times that pupils (and, occasionally, some colleagues) would mistake me for him. That grated – with no offence intended to my colleague – though I realise that it was likely to be an innocent mistake on their part.

Aside from this, as aforementioned, I have been fortunate to have been appointed and accepted as “part of the furniture” at the schools I’ve taught at over the years. You might argue that this can be partly attributable to the fact that I’ve been based in schools in London and the South-East during my career to date, where the pupil bodies are especially diverse in terms of ethnicity. To a lesser extent, and anecdotally, I would argue it has been less well reflected in the staffrooms of which I have been a member: I have always had colleagues of differing ethnic backgrounds, but they have been few and far between, and that remains the case even after two decades of teaching. The number of times where I have attended courses or examiners’ meetings, as a Head of English, and been the only person, or one of only a few people, from a BAME background, have been innumerable. Importantly, I say this not as a metaphorical stick with which to beat schools: in my experience, I believe – genuinely – that I’ve taught in schools which appoint the best people for the job irrespective of race and ethnicity, or any other defining characteristic for that matter, and long may this continue.  

I’m equally aware, however, that this may not be the experience of colleagues in the teaching profession elsewhere in the UK – something that has been increasingly documented, as is the relatively low proportion of senior leaders in schools from ethnic minorities. It is something that I’m increasingly aware of as I step up this autumn, from being a Head of English to an Assistant Head post, with a responsibility for teaching and learning. Much has been said and written over the last few years about the increasing need to diversify the curriculum to reflect the diversity of those we teach. In my own subject, English, it has been heartening to see the inroads that have been made in featuring texts on the curriculum reflective of and authored by those from diverse backgrounds – crucially, I believe, texts that can sit alongside those from the UK’s rich literary “canon” and heritage (I write this as an English teacher who is especially fond of “dead white men” – in particular, I have a passion for all things Chaucerian). Yet, as a teacher and now senior leader from an ethnic minority, I do believe yet more needs to be done in school recruitment to (a) encourage people from BAME backgrounds to enter the teaching profession, and (b) to encourage colleagues from such backgrounds to have the confidence to apply for positions of responsibility in schools. For me, this is much more than simply ticking a diversity box. We owe it to our pupils to see that equality of opportunity is open to all in the teaching profession, as much as any other profession that they are interested in exploring in their respective futures. 

Sowing the Seeds of Love...

Audrey Pantelis portrait

Written by Audrey Pantelis

Audrey Pantelis is an associate coach, consultant and trainer. She is a former Headteacher of a Special Educational Needs and Disabilities school and a current Diversity, Equity and Inclusion consultant and leadership coach.

This blog is inspired by a thread by @msybibi – Yamina Bibi – that I responded to following her attendance at the @ChilternTSH #REND event on July 15th.  REND stands for Racial Equity Network Dinner.  This wonderful event, amongst other key messages, showcased leadership narratives from people that, on first glance, would not have been considered as leaders.  I was struck by the subsequent tweets of appreciation, love and respect from those school leaders and supporters who attended who were inspired by the journeys of others who had made the journey.    What exactly does a leader look like?  Exactly.  There is no formula, no pre-requisite, no ‘ideal’.  Yet, the number of Global Majority leaders in schools is still unacceptably low. As Yamina pointed out, listening to stories of challenge, unconscious bias and racism are now a common part of a leadership journey that Global Majority school leaders must navigate.  You may argue that all leaders must navigate challenge and unconscious bias – but speaking from personal experience – race is an added layer that hinders talented and very able Global Majority teachers and middle leaders from making the leap.  This article on systemic racism published in January 2022 in the Guardian articulates their reality – and mine…. 

‘There is absolutely systemic racism’: BAME headteachers share their views | Race | The Guardian

Why must it be an exception?  Why is it not the norm?

Well – we can look at what is happening in the classroom and recognise that the experiences that our Global Majority children have do not necessarily lend themselves to a lifelong love of education.  This is not a universal experience – but the statistics show policies rooted in white culture are used to punish Global Majority children for their cultural values and norms.  Children from Black African or Black Caribbean descent are more likely to be suspended than their White counterparts. 


Suspension (rate) Permanent Exclusion (rate)
2019/20 2018/19 2017/18 2019/20 2018/19 2017/18
Ethnicity Minor Black Caribbean 7.03 10.37 10.46 0.14 0.25 0.28
Ethnicity Minor Black African 2.95 4.13 4.08 0.04 0.07 0.08


Suspension (rate) Permanent Exclusion (rate)
2019/20 2018/19 2017/18 2019/20 2018/19 2017/18
Ethnicity Minor Bangladeshi 1.93 1.97 1.42 0.04 0.04 0.03
Ethnicity Minor Indian 0.75 0.88 0.53 0.02 0.01 0.01
Ethnicity Minor Pakistani 2.52 3.10 2.05 0.06 0.06 0.04

The statistics, taken from the Department for Education’s publication Permanent Exclusion and Suspensions in England 2019-2020 identify children and young people by characteristic.

Understanding the reasons for suspension and exclusion are complex and I will not  unpack all of the reasons within this blog – but we need to recognise that socio-economic factors, alongside 

We can see the changes over time and for black children, they are going in the opposite direction to their Bangladeshi, Indian and Pakastani peers. 

How do we ensure that these statistics tell a different story?  How are we going to grow, nurture and develop future school leaders from diverse backgrounds if we are unable to keep them interested in learning?  When exactly does the disconnect happen?  

As a keen gardener I am always looking for ways that I can make my plants grow stronger and faster.  I have been known to buy the best plant food or read the latest natural solutions to ensure success.  If I need to, I will move my plants to a better position in the garden in order to encourage them to thrive. 

Do we do this sufficiently well in education?  Are we suitably committed to providing high quality education to all so that ambitions are realised?  Does our curriculum reflect and enable our diverse cohort within our (school) communities?  Are we sufficiently sowing the seeds of the love of education for our Global Majority students?  Until every school addresses these concerns with a more holistic and strategic approach and is less reliant on initiatives and carrot-and-stick strategies, nothing will change.  It feels like those of us from the Global Majority who enter education as teachers and leaders may approach our roles in one or some of these approaches where we may:

  • Choose not to acknowledge our race/ethnicity/visible diversity traits OR
  • Fully acknowledge our race/ethnicity and utilise our unique diversity traits OR
  • Desire a genuine meritocracy 

One does not cancel out the other, as we all belong to the Global Majority, but our identities are many and varied, and therefore we bring our unique perspectives that may well ‘chime’ with our Global Majority young people, seeing us, appreciating our contribution to society and to their understanding of the world.  I am committed to supporting school leaders in nurturing ALL children – but especially Global Majority children and young people, because the situation regarding a diverse workforce in our schools will not improve if we are not nurturing our seeds, our future diverse school leaders, with love. To return to my opening comments, what exactly does a leader look like?  Exactly.  There is no formula, no pre-requisite, no ‘ideal’.  We can create what we want to see.  Let us do our best to get the best.