Andi Silvain portrait

Written by Andrea Silvain

Andrea Silvain and Sarah Seleznyov are co-headteachers of School 360, a brand new primary school in Newham that is part of Big Education.

What if you could tear up your curriculum and start again?  What if you could design a curriculum from scratch that had inclusion and diversity at its heart?

As Co-Headteachers of a brand new school, School 360, we are lucky enough to have this opportunity but we have to admit, it has been a complex and challenging process.  We don’t think we have all the answers, but we do hope we are asking the right questions.

Question number one: What do we each bring to the table, both in terms of experiences and biases?

We come from two very different backgrounds.  Sarah was brought up in a tiny village in Wales, went to a very ordinary comprehensive school, and then ended up as a fish out of water at Oxford University.  She is passionate about breaking the cycle of elitism and sees education as a way to empower disadvantaged communities, and to enable social change.  Andi was born in Newham and raised in East London. She faced a number of challenges to achieve academic success in an education system that was not designed for her to do so.  She has a vision for an education system that is equitable. One that recognises, values and rewards students as multifaceted human beings.

As Co-heads we do what it takes to ensure that our vision is clearly understood and shared between us. We openly acknowledge and respect that we approach issues from different life experiences and will therefore have different perspectives and different levels of objectivity.  However, one thing is clear to both of us: we want to make anti-racism a priority, and set it at the heart of the school’s mission.  If it’s a half-hearted add on, it will fail.

Question number two: How can we avoid systematic bias in our recruitment of teachers and other staff?

Andi’s experiences as a black school leader and Sarah’s work on the Stepping Into Leadership project, have helped us reflect on how we can avoid bias in our recruitment and promotion processes.  We are currently recruiting for a teacher and have taken steps to ensure our job advert encourages diverse applications, by including a specific statement of intent to welcome applications from black and minority ethnic applicants, and those seeking job shares.  We want to listen and find out what a safe and welcoming environment feels like for black and minority ethnic teaching and support staff.  We are considering a stage in the interview process that looks at commitment to antiracism, equity and inclusion.  We have noted that eyes tend to focus on the name of the university that an application attended, and feel this may be limiting our openness to good candidates, so are keen on university-blind applications.

Finally, we are keen to have our application process critiqued by a wider group of teachers in the black and minority ethnic community once it has been put in motion, to see if we succeeded in our goal to be inclusive, and to generate ideas on what more could be done.  But the work won’t end at recruitment.  We know that bias demonstrates itself in progression to leadership, since school leaders often rely on the ‘tap on the shoulder’ approach, nudging people they recognise and can relate to, into leadership roles.  We know we need to keep this in check and plan to offer training for staff on recognising and avoiding bias, and how to have proactive discussions about race.

Question number two: How can we avoid systematic bias in our relationships with families?

Step one for us with this goal is to create an action plan with short, medium and long term goals for becoming an anti-racist school, like the one being developed with the School 21 team. As Big Education grows the number of schools in its family, this work should really expand to a working group across the Trust, ensuring the schools learn from each other and can hold each other to account for progress and setbacks.

As we take in our first cohort of children, we plan to survey parents to understand the experiences they have had so far with schooling either for themselves or their children.  Once we know about what brought them joy, the challenges they faced and what supported them in moving into successful adult lives, we can develop a curriculum that supports them and their children in moving forwards.  

We have a purpose built parent room and community kitchen in the new school, and are carefully considering how we might use this space to promote social cohesion, changing the narratives of class and race and individual potential and thereby truly enabling our students’ futures. We are exploring the possibility of a Community Cafe: a place at the heart of the school creating a heart for the community, a place to both meet the needs and realise the gifts of the community. 

Whatever happens in that space, and in our wider work with parents, we need to operate on the principle of mutuality. The name School 360 captures our intent to be at the heart of the community, both inward and outward facing, both offering and receiving from the community.  We are keen to engage parents and community partners in all aspects of the curriculum.  Local residents could host a talk, lead a course or put on a special event.  We have as much to learn from the community as we are able to offer them.

Question number three: How can we make sure every child feels equally valued and included?

Andi watched this Ted Talk by author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and she was struck by how much it resonated with her own philosophy about storytelling.  Chimamanda speaks about stories as the connection between humans as equals, which is at the heart of humanity.  She sees the dominant story being told as a manifestation of power, and articulates the danger of only hearing a single story.

As one a family of schools focused on oracy, School 360 wants to place a particular emphasis on storytelling.   We want our curriculum to ensure that children’s home cultures are integrated with school culture and for children to develop empathy and understanding of different cultures.  This will be deliberate through the books we choose, the  representations we share, the pride we instil and the stories we share. Storytelling as a pedagogy will help facilitate this, as children are supported to explore, articulate and share their own stories with the passion and enthusiasm these stories deserve.  Inspired by the award winning Ancestors Unknown project for secondary schools, we want children and families’ stories to sit at the heart of our curriculum.

School 360 children are the decision makers of the future.  We want the education we provide to be transformational in a positive and long lasting way. We need the right team to bring this vision to life, and that team has to represent the community we serve. It’s a project in process, but watch this space – School 360 has grand and important plans!

To find out more about the new school, join one of our New School, New Thinking sessions, sign up for our newsletter, respond to our consultation, or apply to teach at the school.

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