Erin Skelton portrait

Written by Erin Skelton

Erin is first and foremost an educator and her extensive experience includes a diverse range of roles, encompassing both pastoral and academic leadership positions, across both independent and state education settings. Prior to joining Bright Field, Erin’s most recent role was as Assistant Head and Head of Sixth Form in a top independent girls' school. In this role, she nurtured her students, instilled a sense of purpose and provided invaluable mentoring to prepare them for life as a woman in the 21st century and beyond.

I love language; the way it moves, the way you can craft sound and build momentum. I love the way words allow us to weave descriptors, myths and stories. I love the might of prose when used to overcome injustice or to fight for a necessary cause. 

And yet, we use words and acronyms every day to paraphrase and define. We use them to order and sequence and categorise, we use them for labels and for ease. Teaching is filled with them, definitions and categories, the DfE, POLAR4, ALIS, MIDYS, SEND, ISI, OFSTED are but a few. Society looks to educators, as those with the glossary for this educational terminology, to correctly apply it. But what happens when we can’t? What happens when there isn’t a common understanding or a shared approach? 

We then use confirmation bias to confirm what we believe to be true. Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms or supports prior beliefs or values. People display this bias when they select information that supports their views, ignoring contrary information, or when they interpret ambiguous evidence as supporting their existing attitudes. 

Our social systems have taught us to think of people in groups, students as cohorts and so we group them together. As educators, we define and label and use our glossary of terms to ensure that we can best support each group. Yet the danger in this is we lose our ability to speak of individuals, to speak beyond labels, we lose our ability to respond to the needs of individual children or we sacrifice the one for the many. Sometimes we choose one overarching characteristic and this becomes the defining one.

When we look demographically at UK teachers, the statistics are telling. In 2021, 85% of UK teachers were from White British backgrounds, as were 92.5% of Headteachers. 75.5% of UK teachers were women. And in a 2022 study for UCAS, 59% of 18-year-olds surveyed felt that they were unable to enter the teaching profession due to the educational or financial constraints placed upon them because of their socio-economic background. Armed with this data, I would question how a teacher’s personal experiences affect how they approach their students and where their unconscious biases or lack of lived experiences come into play.

Psychologists report that it takes one tenth of a second to judge a person and form a first impression, and as we know we will use sensory evidence to form this opinion. As I stand in a classroom or sit in the staffroom, people will form some opinions about me; how others interact with me, how I am dressed, the colour of my skin, my body language and my accent will all form an impression in their mind. They might make assumptions based on them. They could have possibly characterised me and might use confirmation bias to align their assumptions with their observations.

For a moment, imagine that I am a student and you are my teacher…

Can you place my accent? Would it be rude to ask me where I am from? How might I feel if you were incorrect in your assumption? How might knowing this information help you to teach me? Most people would define my ethnicity as Caucasian; Am I White English? Irish? Welsh? Would you define me as British? What if I don’t fit any of those definitions in their entirety? What stereotypes might be applied to me? And how might I feel when I am forced to prove my nationality or ethnic background? My level of English?

And what about when your unconscious biases don’t align with the boxes I might tick for myself, when your perception of me changes based on categorisation? I loathe census surveys, because I don’t fit in the neat little tick boxes. My attempts are always a best fit based on the categories I am given. I am not unusual in this, and I know that my level of privilege is higher than most of my students. I am keenly conscious that your perception of me might change based on the boxes I felt forced to tick. And so, if you were my teacher, would my sexual orientation, medical history, my accent, my political views, my socio-economic background or my educational history change how you might view me? 

What if fear of being pitied or treated differently prevented me from showing up authentically? How might this make me feel? And would you view me differently if I hid the ways I might identify myself to you? What if I told you that my accent has often been mocked, my pronunciation corrected? That I have experienced religious, gender-based or sexual discrimination or that there are memes and stereotypes associated with how I might define myself culturally and that these things have prevented me from showing up authentically?

What happens when the boxes you tick for me shame me? Or provide me with a narrative I can’t or won’t identify with? Would knowing my Adverse Childhood Experiences Score make a difference in how you view me?

What if that narrative doesn’t allow me to celebrate or struggle with the richness or nuances of my culture, my traditions or my personal journey? The complexity of my ethnic background, my nationality, my culture, religion, my lived personal journey won’t fit into a neatly labeled box or definition.

What if assumptions and stereotypes are written about me because of which boxes you have placed me in. What if your aspirations for me are not aspirational enough? What if I have equality in your system but no equity?

And what if I go through life either not meeting anyone who I can identify with or who can be my role model? How does that impact how I see myself and the wider world? What if I cannot succeed in a system that doesn’t see me?

A person’s sense of belonging from childhood underpins the entirety of their journey. Belonging relies on being seen and heard, having appropriate representation and being encouraged to be your authentic self without fear of judgment. 

Belonging is not trying to fit within a cohort or box, it is not having to develop resilience or grit to work twice as hard as everyone around you. Belonging is not having to work around a lack of resources or support. Belonging is not denying parts of yourself; becoming self-deprecating, being useful, funny or stepping into another role when you walk into the classroom. Belonging isn’t having to hide or opposingly, becoming the stereotype that people characterise you as because that has been the role that has been confirmed for you by their lived experiences or biases.

I wasn’t ever going to be able to write about this topic using quantitative data. I believe that the quantitative data that is used in education to categorise children is fundamentally part of the problem. My research was qualitative because children aren’t statistics, they shouldn’t be defined by the percentage of A*-C, Midys, ALIS, Progress 8, Polar 4 quintile, or their ACES scores. The grade written on a JCQ printout on Results’ Day should include a narrative of each child’s individuality and not a sanitised numeric score. 

My data is qualitative….

It’s the story of Jacob, the only boy of a White and Black Caribbean background, growing up in a majority white town, in a majority white school in a white household. Jacob who was constantly in trouble because he wanted to wear his hair natural and who could never walk through the corridors without someone wanting to touch his hair. Jacob who tried to fit the narrative that people gave him and was constantly breaking school rules. Jacob, who didn’t feel a sense of belonging and although he was one of the brightest students I have ever met, people’s aspirations of him were not high enough.

It’s the story of Katerina, the only English Traveller girl in a leafy-lane, middle class school. Katerina, whose parents didn’t have GCSEs, Katerina who was often kept off school to look after younger children. Katerina was discouraged from revising and was torn between embracing the cultural expectations of her and wanting desperately to be the first person in her family to achieve GCSEs. Katerina, who would often misbehave towards the end of the week to land herself in detention which would enable her to revise. Katerina who spoke with an accent and dialect that was unique to her culture but who was constantly corrected at school.

There is no easy fix for this issue. It requires teachers to be self-reflective practitioners, to challenge assumptions, to think beyond the framework that Ofsted, ISI and national league tables provide. It requires us to be vulnerable, to be still and listen, to acknowledge that we are the sum total of our experiences and that we are not the oracles just because we are the ones standing at the front of the class. It requires empathy, allyship and advocacy, to not accept the status quo and to acknowledge our own and others’ privilege.

In the spirit of vulnerability, I am a woman who struggles with boxes. There is no box to put me in and I am keenly aware that on the whole, my intersections are fairly normative. And so, I challenge you to share yourself, to encourage, to correct with empathy, to challenge misconceptions and accept how people individually define themselves, even if it doesn’t fit into a neat set of boxes or it challenges your experience, your perception or the norms of your organisation or society. Once upon a time, every adult was a child, a child whose sense of belonging, underpins the entirety of their journey, a child, and this journey starts in school, where every child should matter.