Race & Equality – 5 Questions for Every Headteacher

Viv Grant portrait

Written by Viv Grant

Director of Integrity Coaching

Like many, following the death of George Floyd, I was swamped by almost daily waves of emotion. I heard someone the other day that their “mind was full and their heart heavy”. It was how I felt too. It was as though my whole nervous system experienced some kind of historical trauma.

The flagrant disregard for the life of a black person brought up many painful memories from my past, of times when I was made to feel “less than” simply because of the colour of my skin. 

Swallowing the pain of racism

As a young black woman growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, incidents of racism were peppered throughout my life. When I was 15, I was told by my careers teacher that my aspiration of becoming a nursery nurse was too high and I should consider becoming a cashier in the local supermarket instead.

On another occasion, I was reprimanded for talking in class and told to “go outside and swing on the trees, like my friends and relatives the monkeys do”. Complaining or expressing my hurt was never an option, so I simply learned to swallow the pain.

Despite my school experiences, in 1988 I decided to train as a teacher. 

In my first year, I was introduced to the work of Bernard Coard, and his research on “How the West-Indian Child is Made Educationally Sub-normal in the British School Education System.

It was not the lecturer’s intention, but as the only black student in my year, I felt a deep shame and discomfort when she read excerpts from his book that matched so closely with my own experiences of the British education system. For the majority of the white trainee teachers, Coard’s work was simply an academic treatise. For me it was personal. 

I come from a black, working-class family. Social and economic deprivation and racial inequality were the backdrop for my childhood years. No one in the lecture hall shared my story. 

As the lecturer read how the structure and design of the British education system had led to many black children underachieving and living with a hidden, yet deep, sense of inferiority, it felt as though she was shining a light on my own hurt, leaving my bruised and conflicted inner world for all to see.

I wanted to get up and leave the lecture hall. I didn’t, but I spent four years at teacher training college wanting to escape. I was tired of being in the minority, tired of being on the outside, tired of fearing that I could never truly achieve in a system that had only ever seen black children as a problem. 

Low expectations for black pupils

When I eventually qualified as a teacher, I taught at schools in Brixton and Stockwell. One of them was on the border of a road that had been a flashpoint for the Brixton riots in the late 1980s.

It was a time when, just as we have seen in recent weeks, black people protested against the level of police brutality exhibited towards them. And it was here, at this school, where I faced some of the worst levels of racism.

It was a one-form entry Church of England primary school, where the majority-white teachers believed they were there to save the black children. Expectations for them were incredibly low. 

In the early days, children spoke down to me. Why? Because the only other black staff were cleaners, and, on a daily basis, pupils witnessed the derogatory ways their white teachers spoke to them (and to me) and so it perhaps seemed inconceivable that I could be there to teach them.

There were times when I cried in the staff toilets because teachers referred to black boys as “gorillas” and I found my own voice stifled by staffroom hostility when I tried to counter these abhorrent views.

Despite all of this, within six years I rose to the position of headteacher at this school. I used my position to bring about change and ensure that high expectations, a sense of pride and achievement were a reality for every black child at the school.

Quest for change

If ever there was a time for education leaders of all hues to seize the moment and do the same, it is now. Bernard Coard’s conclusions still reverberate around our education system today. 

It has not been easy for me to process the emotional pain that has arisen as a result of recent events. But I am continuing to lean into the pain because I know that if I don’t, I limit my own capacity for change; not only for myself, but also for my children and my children’s children.

School leaders have to go on a similar quest. It is perhaps the most difficult quest a leader can take because it will require them to explore issues of identity and integrity and what they truly mean in the context of their own school settings.

It will require them to have difficult conversations and face uncomfortable truths about themselves and their schools. Yet it is these sorts of conversations that truly define leadership and are fundamental to growth and positive change.

Furthermore, it’s only by leaning into the uncomfortable spaces and finding help and support that something new, something better, can be brought to life.

This is what true moral and ethical leadership is about. And it is only by going on this journey that school leaders can effectively model what leadership for racial equality and social justice really look like.

In order to navigate this journey, perhaps for the first time, leaders will have to ask themselves:

  1. Am I willing to listen to the black communities’ stories of pain, discrimination and hurt?
  2. Am I prepared to let down my defences and look at my own unconscious biases?
  3. Am I willing to engage with the weighty feelings and emotions that are a necessary part of this terrain?
  4. Am I willing to shine a light on every single aspect of my school and our education system and call out all the policies and practices that have limited the progress of black children and black educational professionals?
  5. In this struggle for racial equality and social justice, what is mineto do?

In my 30-plus years in education, I have seen how an unwillingness to truthfully engage with these questions has hampered progress for all. However, this time I hope things will be different.

In the months and years ahead, black parents will be looking at their children’s schools and wondering whether school leaders have truly heard the deep, searing cry that has shot through the black community for racism to be eradicated.

They will be looking for evidence that their child’s experience of school will be different and that the dreams they hold dear for their children are also held by those who teach them.

We can do better and we must do better. This is a defining moment for our education system; for our black children and black teachers to see that their lives really do matter.

 

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My Five Top Tips for Making Your School LGBT-friendly

Jared Cawley portrait

Written by Jared Cawley

LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) Pride month seems like a very appropriate time to give extra attention to making sure your school is an inclusive, diverse and safe place for your families, students and workforce who identify as LGBT+. The month of June honours the anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall riots, where LGBT people and allies fought against police brutality and harassment that many were and continue to be subjected to today.

Schools are well-known for their openness and celebration of diversity when it comes to students, but some LGBT teachers still feel isolated and uncomfortable to talk openly about their sexuality. Schools are heteronormative workplaces and being a person who is not ‘straight’ requires some careful navigation. Headteachers and school leaders have a responsibility to sustain a school environment that welcomes diversity, supports equality, and defend all staff, including those who identify as LGBT. If you are a school leader who identifies as heterosexual, or is not part of a minority group, you are less likely to notice the exclusion or the discrimination that may be happening in your school. 

As a LGBT teacher and a gay man, I have been subjected to abuse and discrimination throughout my life for loving someone of the same sex. Even though Government legislation has strengthened over the last few years, there is still a long way to go. As a LGBT teacher, I am hypervigilant and cautious about who I ‘come out’ to. This feeling of uncertainty is because being straight is the preferred and presumed sexuality. Choosing to ‘come out’ to students, families and colleagues is fearful, as you do not know their opinions and beliefs when it comes to the LGBT community. Making your school LGBT+ friendly must begin with small, deliberate steps. We must acknowledge that this will not happen overnight, but with thoughtful planning and strong leadership, a school can improve its culture of inclusivity for everyone.

When making cultural change in your school, it is important to avoid tokenism. It is superficial to teach diversity for a week or a month as a bolt on to your curriculum, when that is the only time you discuss LGBT rights or teach how to be anti-racist. All members of your school community is needed to make real change, deliberately walking the walk, instead of just talking the talk. 

Below are my five top tips for making your school LGBT+ friendly: 

1 Use Inclusive Language 

Making small changes around inclusive language can have a huge impact on either making people feel accepted and/or feeling excluded. 

Here are my suggestions:

  • Instead of greeting your staff team or students with, ‘Good morning ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls’, say, ‘Good morning everyone’. With this, you have included all genders and identities without assuming everyone identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth.  
  • Challenge students and colleagues who continue to use phrases that diminish showing emotion or acting like a particular gender. For example: ‘man-up’, ‘you throw like a girl’, and ‘boys don’t cry’. 
  • Stop organising students into boys’ teams and girls’ teams, find different ways. 
  • Avoid reinforcing gender stereotypes.

2 A LGBT+ friendly school is everyone’s responsibility. 

  • It is a mistake to think that creating a LGBT+ friendly school should solely be the responsibility of the ‘gay teacher’. It should be a collective responsibility. Headteachers, senior leadership teams, teachers and the rest of the school community should be actively working together to promote an inclusive and diverse environment, ensuring all members of staff and students feel safe and can be their authentic selves. 
  • CPD and INSET days could involve external speakers, offering your staff a refreshing voice and a different perspective. 
  • LGBT+ people experience the world differently to their heterosexual counterparts, and school leaders should give them a safe space to talk about their experiences, with the support of their LGBT allies.

3 Be Proud of LGBT Visibility 

If you are showing a prospective same sex family around your school, or a LGBT teacher comes for an interview, or a new student who may identify as LGBT or does not know their sexuality, how do they know that this school or future workplace is a safe and inclusive environment where they can be their authentic self? 

Here are some suggestions:

  • Give teachers a choice to wear LGBT badges/pins or have LGBT lanyards
  • Display the Pride flag inside and outside your school. There are many flags here that represent the LGBT+ community. 
  • Displays. Show your visitors that you celebrate inclusion and diversity. Have displays celebrating LGBT stories and issues. 
  • Encourage LGBT+ teachers to make a network or support group where they can talk about LGBT issues and use this to show that LGBT+ voices matter.
  • Have your senior leadership team and staff go on a learning walk, where the focus is LGBT inclusion. Can you see it represented in your school?

4 Have an inclusive and diverse curriculum

Your curriculum should be well planned and deliberately tailored to minority groups and should not be left to chance. To avoid tokenism, these practices should be carefully planned and seen across all subject areas. 

Here are some suggestions:

  • Children’s story books should include and promote different family dynamics, including same sex couples, single parents, foster parents, disabled children and parents, families of colour, families of different religions. Here are some ideas. 
  • In mathematics, have word problems that are inclusive of same sex families. Instead of Mrs. Smith or John, have names that come from a range of countries and heritages.
  • In your presentations, ensure that the pictures you use show a range of minority groups. 
  • In your humanities curriculum, teach about colonisation, the impact of imperialism, and celebrate indigenous communities and customs. See here for more about decolonising your school curriculum. 
  • Diversify your set texts, offer a range of authors, not just white, heterosexual men.

5 Educate Yourself 

I believe the best way to learn more about the LGBT community is to educate yourself, have an open mind and be comfortable with being challenged. I feel there can sometimes be a fear about people who do not belong to a certain minority group, making a mistake or unconsciously offending someone, or using a term or acronym that is outdated. 

Here are my suggestions:

Read books and use organisations that specifically discuss LGBT voices in education and whole school approaches:

 

 

 

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In Search of Great Governance

Rosemary Hoyle portrait

Written by Rosemary Hoyle

Primary School Governor and Chair for over 20 years.

Inspired to write this post by a recent online event held as part of the Freedom to Learn Festival I have been prompted to draw together all my recent thoughts on diversity and the role of governance.  In the opening remarks one of the speakers stated that it is a ‘schools’ purpose to create the next generation of global citizens’ and, not to give the game away too soon, that is surely why diversity matters!  Looking back over earlier posts that I have written about the core functions of governance and, in particular the one about vision, values and strategy, I can see immediately how the board can lead in this area.  In the strategic aims of the school I chair, agreed by the board after consultation with children, staff and the community, we felt strongly that there was a need to make diversity explicit so we state that we want to be – 

A school that is at the heart of the community; a good neighbour and engaged with community groups of all ages. A school that builds on our pupils’ own experiences, interests and strengths and helps to develop their sense of identity as local, national and global citizens.  

In order to do this, we state that we want ‘A curriculum that exposes children to other cultures and offers opportunities to explore a wide range of ideas’.  After listening to the presentations at the Diverse Educators event I think this needs to be even stronger, wider and bolder in its aspirations.  It isn’t just learning about others is it? Another of the speakers at the online event talked about being able to be your own authentic self and, surely, in order for that to happen you have to believe that your own ethnicity, your own culture and religion, your own sexuality, your own gender identification or your own disability has a place and is valued and represented in the world around you. 

So, let’s get back to the beginning – Yes, for this very important reason diversity matters and it matters to the whole school community.  It matters in the curriculum we teach our children and it matters in the resources that support this work.  It matters in the public information, the displays and the literature that families see about our schools.  It matters in the workplace, in the leaders and staff that the children (and staff) see around them every day in school and it matters in the board of governors. It is part of the ‘ethic of everybody’. (1) It should be a thread that runs through every part of our education system and we, as governors, have a big part to play in leading this. Mary Myatt suggests that governors ‘might ask themselves whether their work is underpinned by doing right by everybody?’ (2)  Any boards that have been involved in the Ethical Leadership in Education Project will have given a lot of consideration to this recently but take a moment to look around the boardroom table for there are real dangers in group think from a board that lacks diversity. In the 2019 NGA survey 93% of respondents identified as white and only 10% reported being under 40! (3)   

Then look up from that table and look at the school you lead, support and challenge, and ask yourselves are we really inclusive – does diversity matter here? (4) (5)

Here are a series of questions that we governors should ask

-of ourselves:

  1. How does our board reflect the diversity of the school community it serves?
  2. Is valuing diversity explicit in our vision and strategy?
  3. Do we/Should we have a governor who is focused on diversity?
  4. What training have we undertaken as a board to challenge and reflect on our understanding of diversity?
  5. How often have we talked about this at a board discussion? 

– of our school:

  1. Does our public information reflect the diversity around us?
  2. How and where is diversity evident in our curriculum – right from the Early Years?
  3. Do we have resources for our children from Early Years onwards which have a full range of representation – books, dolls, displays around the school?
  4. Are our staff confident to answer questions and continue conversations with children about diversity – do they know what language to use?
  5. What CPD have they been able to access to help them with this?

Notes:

  1. Dame Alison Peacock quoted in Mary Myatt, Hopeful Schools,2016, p 60-62 
  2. Mary Myatt, Hopeful Schools,2016, p 61
  3. National Governance Association, School Governance in 2019, [online] at https://www.nga.org.uk/Knowledge-Centre/research-(1)/Annual-school-governance-survey/School-governance-in-2019.aspxaccessed 21/08/2020
  4. The Ethical Leadership Commission, Framework for Ethical Leadership in Education, [online] at https://www.nga.org.uk/ethicalleadership.aspxaccessed 21/08/2020
  5. National Governance Association, Everyone on Board, NGA [online] at https://www.nga.org.uk/News/Campaigns/Everyone-on-Board-increasing-diversity-in-school-g.aspxaccessed 21/08/2020

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