Do you feel like you belong at work? Here’s why it’s so important for your health, happiness and productivity.

Dr Nilufar Ahmed portrait

Written by Dr Nilufar Ahmed

Dr Nilufar Ahmed is a multi award winning Chartered Psychologist, Academic, and Accredited Psychotherapist. She works as an academic at the University of Bristol where her research and pedagogy focus on Inclusion and Engagement. Her work is situated in an antiracist and Intersectional framework. She is regularly invited to comment in the media on all things psychology and has delivered training, keynotes, and consultancy services across sectors including HE, business, and Government.

Originally published for The Conversation on May 9th 2024, republished with author’s permission.  

 

We all want to feel like we belong. Psychologists have known this for a long time, describing belonging as a fundamental human need that brings meaning to our lives.

Traditionally, this need was filled by family and community networks. But as society becomes more individualised, with many people moving away from their community and family, the workplace has become an increasingly important source of meaning, connection and friendship.

Many employers know the value of belonging, boasting that their organisation is like a family – a place where everyone is welcome and takes care of each other. But in reality, just being hired isn’t necessarily enough to feel like you belong. Belonging is about feeling accepted and included. This might mean feeling “seen” by your colleagues and manager, and that your work is recognised, rewarded and respected.

Most people want to do meaningful work, and belonging and feeling connected with others is part of this. Meaning in work may come from the job itself – doing something that aligns with our purpose – or from the relationships and roles people create in the workspace. Consider someone who has a (formal or informal) position of offering support to their colleagues. This sense of connection and belonging can make the job feel more meaningful.

Belonging is also good for business. Feeling excluded and lonely can lead people to disengage, negatively affecting their work performance. Surveys have found that over 50% of people who left their jobs did so in search of better belonging, with younger workers more likely to leave.

The exclusion that comes from not belonging can be as painful as physical injury, and feeling isolated can have a range of negative health impacts. In contrast, when employees feel they belong, they are happier and less lonely, leading to greater productivity, fewer sick days and higher profits.

In my role as a psychotherapist, I work with countless people who feel unsupported and alone in the workplace due to direct or indirect discrimination and exclusion. The instinctive response can be to work harder to be accepted and belong – but this can lead to burnout, trying to get the approval that might never come.

The pandemic altered how we think about and engage with work. Some businesses may feel that bringing people back into the office is the answer to building connections and fostering belonging. But the truth is such actions alone could have the opposite effect.

People may withdraw and become less connected in such spaces. Those who prefer working from home may feel unsupported by their workplace if they have to come in to the office to deliver work they can do equally, if not more productively, at home.

On the flip side, for some people, being in the office offers a sense of belonging and connection that can be missing when working from home. Ideally, enabling a balance between the two allows people to benefit from the advantages of both spaces and work in a way that maximises productivity and connection. But it may be some time before employers figure out how to get the balance right.

Finding belonging

Belonging is particularly important to consider as workplaces become more diverse. Workplace discrimination is more likely to be experienced by marginalised groups, and is a major barrier to belonging.

Employees in organisations that are more diverse, particularly in senior leadership positions, are more likely to feel a sense of belonging. Diversity is also related to greater productivity and profitability. But organisations must consider the diversity distribution. While grand statements of inclusion may attract new workers, if the senior leadership team is predominately white and middle class, these statements have little meaning.

For diversity to effectively create belonging, it has to go hand-in-hand with psychological safety. This means that everyone – not just those who share characteristics with the majority or the leaders – feels they have a voice and are listened to. A workplace where people feel nervous about raising concerns, are worried about making mistakes, or feel there is a lack of transparency is one that is lacking in psychological safety.

When people feel unable to bring their authentic selves to work, they may end up performing different identities or codeswitching – adjusting their language – to become more “acceptable” and fit in. These strategies initially help workers create a sense of safety for themselves in the workplace, but can result in exhaustion and burnout.

Creating ways that people can express their authenticity – for example, through employee resource groups such as women’s staff networks – can create a safe space to share with others who have similar experiences in the workplace. For those who are self-employed or work mostly from home, to combat isolation, consider finding online groups or local coworking spaces that mirror the social benefits of a workplace community.

Employees feel more connected with the wider team when their efforts are recognised and rewarded. But this does not have to be through a pay rise or promotion – even an email from a manager can boost someone’s sense of belonging. The more recognition and appreciation for the work we put in, including from our colleagues, the more positive the benefit.

Not everyone has the opportunity to leave workplaces that make them feel unsafe or unhappy. If you are in this position, you can minimise the negative impact by finding connection and belonging outside of work, and reconnecting with people and activities that bring you meaning and joy.


New Official Study Guide for GCSE Set Text Leave Taking by Winsome Pinnock

Samantha Wharton portrait

Written by Samantha Wharton

Samantha is a seasoned educator from East London, with ancestral roots tracing back to the Caribbean nations of Antigua and Guyana. She brings a wealth of academic achievements, including a degree in Communications and Media from Brunel University, a PGCE in English and Drama from the Institute of Education at University College London, and an MA in Black British Literature from Goldsmiths University.

A new official study guide for Leave Taking by Winsome Pinnock, authored by educators Samantha Wharton and Lynette Carr Armstrong, brings a fresh approach to GCSE English literature, enhancing the teaching and learning experience for GCSE English Literature students and teachers.

Samantha Wharton and Lynette Carr Armstrong bring a wealth of expertise from over 50 years of combined experience in education. As co-writers of this study guide, they have meticulously crafted an in-depth exploration of Leave Taking, ensuring that it delves into the nuances of the text with precision and clarity.

But what sets this study guide apart is its academic rigour and its authors’ lived experience and insight. As children of the Windrush generation, Samantha and Lynette possess a profound understanding of the worlds depicted in Pinnock’s play. Their lived experiences and living memories enrich the guide, providing readers with authentic perspectives that resonate with the characters and themes of Leave Taking.

Crucially, Samantha and Lynette had the privilege of consulting with Winsome Pinnock herself during the development of this guide. Pinnock’s invaluable commentary is woven throughout the text, offering readers a rare glimpse into the playwright’s mind and enriching their understanding of her work.

Leave Taking is not just another set text—it is a vital piece of literature amplifying Black voices and sharing insights into the Black British experience. Samantha Wharton and Lynette Carr Armstrong emphasise the importance of showcasing these narratives through Black voices with shared experiences. In a world where the Black experience has been historically erased, texts like Leave Taking must be unpacked and explored with sensitivity and nuance.

This study guide is more than just a pedagogical tool—it is a labour of love, insight, and experience. Samantha has taught Leave Taking at St Angela’s School in London, where staff and students have met it with enthusiasm. The diverse cohort of teachers at St Angela’s have thoroughly enjoyed teaching the text, while the students are excited to see modern characters that reflect their own experiences.

The release of the official study guide for Leave Taking by Winsome Pinnock marks a significant milestone in GCSE English literature. With Samantha Wharton and Lynette Carr Armstrong at the helm, educators and students can embark on a journey of discovery that celebrates Black voices, amplifies lived experiences, and enriches the educational landscape for generations to come.

The duo are committed to supporting teachers in implementing Leave Taking into the classroom. They will offer future training experiences, including workshops and seminars, to provide educators with the tools and insights to effectively teach this text. These training sessions will cover various aspects of the play, including thematic analysis, character studies, and classroom activities. 

To inquire about future training opportunities or to reach Samantha Wharton and Lynette Carr Armstrong for further information on the study guide, educators can contact them via email at samantha.wharton@gmail.com and Lynettedcarr@hotmail.com. They are eager to collaborate with schools and educational institutions to enhance the teaching and learning experience of Leave Taking. They are available to answer any queries or provide additional support as needed.

The study guide has received recognition from Lit In Colour, a prominent platform championing diverse voices in literature. It was endorsed in their latest newsletter and featured in The (incomplete) Lit In Colour list, a curated collection of essential resources for educators looking to include diverse perspectives in teaching. This recognition reinforces the guide’s reputation as a valuable tool for promoting inclusivity and representation in education, making it indispensable for educators passionate about diversity and equity.

The official study guide for Leave Taking by Winsome Pinnock can be found through various channels. It is available on the Nick Hern Books website, the same publisher as the play, ensuring authenticity and reliability. Furthermore, the guide can be purchased on popular online platforms like Amazon!

The study guide and texts are available here: 

https://www.nickhernbooks.co.uk/leave-taking-gcse-study-guide

https://www.nickhernbooks.co.uk/leave-taking-bundle-deal 

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Leave-Taking-GCSE-Student-Guide/dp/1839041366 

Press coverage about the play: 

‘The godmother of Black British playwrights’ – Guardian on Winsome Pinnock

Guardian  ‘Three decades since its debut Winsome Pinnock’s pioneering portrayal of the lives of black Britons feels shockingly contemporary… Pinnock was a pioneer and her piece still hits homethrough its often shocking honesty about the hazards facing black people in Britain’ 

Time Out ‘A devastatingly powerful story of a British-Caribbean family… whyWinsome Pinnock’s play isn’t on the English Literature syllabus is a mystery to me, given its shocking contemporary relevance… this play warms and devastates’ 

Two generations. Three incredible women. Winsome Pinnock’s play Leave Taking is an epic story of what we leave behind in order to find home. It premiered in 1987, and was revived at the Bush Theatre, London, in 2018, in a production directed by the Bush’s Artistic Director, Madani Younis. 


Five reasons why schools should teach Princess & The Hustler at GCSE

Jessica Tacon portrait

Written by Jessica Tacon

Jessica Tacon is second in charge of the English Department at City of London Academy Highgate Hill and is a member of NATE’s (National Association for the Teaching of English) ‘Reviewing Literature’ working group. She created The Right Writing campaign which aims to improve racial diversity in English Education.

In September 2022, AQA launched ‘Spark something’ to inspire and support English teachers to teach their new set texts. To improve the diversity and inclusion of their English Literature GCSE offer, particularly racial diversity and inclusion, AQA introduced a new novel, My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal, as well as a new poetry cluster and two new plays: Leave Taking by Winsome Pinnock and Princess & The Hustler by Chinonyerem Odimba. 

I was lucky enough to be asked by BBC Bitesize to become their lead writer on Princess & The Hustler. This is Odimba’s heart-warming and heart-wrenching story about Princess, a 10-year-old girl, and her family living in Bristol between Christmas 1962 and September 1963. In the play’s opening scene, her father, The Hustler, returns after being away for a long time.  Throughout the plot, Princess dreams of being winner of Weston-super-Mare’s Beauties of the West contest; Odimba says that part of her motivation for writing the play was to allow young Black girls to feel “beautiful” as well as “strong and capable”. The story is set against the backdrop of the Bristol Bus Boycott of 1963. At this time, the Bristol Omnibus Company was upholding a colour bar, which meant that they refused to hire Black or Asian bus drivers or conductors. The people of Bristol protested against this racial discrimination by refusing to ride the buses.

After the initial research stage, BBC Bitesize asked me to write revision-focused content for their website on the text. By this point I was already in love with Princess as well as Odimba’s story of family, struggle, and self-love. Below are five (of many) reasons why I believe schools should absolutely be teaching this text as part of the AQA modern text section of the literature GCSE.

Reason 1: Young people need stories about people like them fighting for what they believe in 

From early in the play, Wendell Junior, Princess’ older brother, is a devoted fighter of the cause of the Bristol Bus Boycott. He attends marches and speaks passionately about the need for change. Young people are the future, and this important aspect of the story can remind them just how much power their voices and actions can have. 

Reason 2: The play communicates important lessons and messages

The play, in very nuanced ways, teaches important lessons that will genuinely help students to understand themselves and to navigate the world around them. One example is the colourism that Princess experiences throughout the book which is often very subtle. There is an instance where her lighter skinned half-sister, Lorna, is invited to a birthday party by a girl at school, but she is not. Odimba does not explicitly point out that this is the reason why Princess is not invited, but the reader is encouraged to infer this through careful hints. This is an important lesson about how prejudice and discrimination are often insidious. However, this in no way means that these instances are any less harmful. This will show students that not all prejudice has to be explicit and obvious to be wrong and painful. 

Reason 3: The historical events are part of England’s history

Princess & The Hustler sheds light on a very important period in England’s history. It absolutely should be taught in a specification which aims to help young people to “appreciate the depth and power of the English literary heritage”. 

Heritage does not happen and is not learnt about in a vacuum; teaching texts about England’s heritage, whether showing aspects of the country in a good or bad light, are an asset to achieving the aforementioned aim. 

Reason 4: The play covers a variety of themes 

I was reluctant for any of these reasons to be about the exam itself. However, of course, it would be somewhat irresponsible to teach texts to students at a GCSE level with no consideration as to how it will help them to succeed in their exams (and, in lots of ways, consequently their future). That said, Princess & The Hustler covers a variety of themes that offer opportunities for students to analyse in detail. Themes like family, love, conflict,  prejudice, and power are all richly peppered and embedded throughout. Diversity has become somewhat of a buzzword. And yet, this play alone offers true diversity in the sense that in such a small story it covers so much. 

Reason 5: Young people need stories about self-love

We are living in a world of social media and, heartbreakingly, growing numbers of mental health issues among teenagers. It seems necessary here to celebrate the fact that at its very core, this is a story about a girl who, against a lot of external barriers, learns to love herself. 

Mavis, Princess’ mum, says to her when she is struggling with her self-image:

“Phyllis James you listen, and you listen good!//Whether your hair long or short. Skin good or bad.//Us…//Us…girls and women with our skin dark as the night, every shade of brown, glowing like fresh-made caramel, or legs spindly like a spiders we are everything that is beautiful on this earth.//And you…you the prettiest of them all because you are my girl”. 

I think we can all agree that this is absolutely beautiful advice for young people to be exposed to.

For more information about the BBC Bitesize revision resource to accompany Princess & The Hustler, please visit www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize


#AllTheThings

Helena Marsh portrait

Written by Helena Marsh

Helena is a WomenEd co-founder, mum of three and experienced school and Trust leader. In her ninth year of secondary headship, Helena has also held the role of MAT CEO. An advocate of flexible working, Helena co-wrote the ‘Flexing our Schools’ chapter in the first WomenEd book and has been an active supporter of the Flexible Working Ambassador Scheme and the MTPT Project.

Spending the day among some incredible inspiring women at the ‘Breaking the Mould’ event on 9th March at Milton Road Primary School, Cambridge, was a fabulous way to mark this year’s International Women’s Day. 

Hannah asked me to contribute to the event when we met for an after work mocktail in May 2023. At the time, having this little spot of feminist joy to look forward to on the horizon really uplifted me at a particularly bleak moment in my leadership career. 

Several months later, I was not disappointed. Featuring amongst a programme of kick-ass women gave me a real sense of personal and professional rejuvenation. 

My session, entitled ‘What’s the point of cake if you can’t eat it?’, focused on my experiences, as a mum of three, of gendered perceptions of leadership. In my 15 years as a senior leader, I’ve been conscious of women stepping away from the profession, and their leadership potential, citing selfishness and a pragmatic need to focus on their families, as the reason. 

To coin a phrase by Summer Turner, I questioned: ‘Are the boys also worrying about this?’ Do men perceive becoming a dad and maintaining their career as ‘having it all’?

Gender pay gap research reveals that they don’t. The Fatherhood Bonus, in stark contrast to the Motherhood Penalty, rewards men for becoming fathers. While women are stepping down or away to focus on caregiving and accepting the inevitability of this pause/permanent freeze in their professional journey, men are, statistically, enjoying promotion and pay progression when starting a family. 

My presentation focused on the factors, institutional, societal and personal, that lead to women feeling as though progressing professionally is not a viable choice once becoming a mum. I concluded that wholesale changes to sector expectations of leaders is necessary. As Jill Berry wisely observes, if having a job and a life isn’t achievable, there’s a problem with the job. 

The other inputs to the day complemented this theme. Particularly Niamh Sweeney’s rousing cry to tackle the injustices within the profession that inhibit and preclude. Niamh’s anecdote from her recent trip to the States chimed with many of us in the audience. The audacious goal of winning ‘all the things’ spoke to a refreshing cultural ambition. Meanwhile, many of the other talks highlighted the importance of acknowledging feminine leadership traits and valuing the benefits of diversity in leadership teams.   

I left the day reflecting on how often ‘having it all’ is misunderstood for ‘doing it all’. My Mother’s Day stash of gifts that I received the following day from my little ones included various iterations of listing pads. As a fan of organisational stationery, I was chuffed with my haul. However, it did make me recognise how much of my sense of success as a mum and leader is measured through my accomplishment of ‘stuff’. Many women that I have worked with pride themselves on getting all the sh*t done and to an exceptional standard, often at the expense of their personal health and wellbeing.

As I acknowledged in my IWD talk, the weight of the mental load that mums carry, let alone mum leaders carry, is immense. It’s important that having #AllTheThings doesn’t necessitate us doing everything but having our fair share of whatever it is we strive for, whether that’s cake, career development opportunities or childcare responsibilities. 


Should schools provide prayer spaces?

Zahara Chowdhury portrait

Written by Zahara Chowdhury

Zahara is founder and editor of the blog and podcast, School Should Be, a platform that explores a range of topics helping students, teachers and parents on how to ‘adult well’, together. She is a DEI lead across 2 secondary schools and advises schools on how to create positive and progressive cultures for staff and students. Zahara is a previous Head of English, Associate Senior Leader and Education and Wellbeing Consultant.

The recent High Court decision, ruling in favour of headteacher Birbalsingh’s decision to ban prayer spaces has created quite the media storm. The decision has raised concerns about the precedent it sets for schools creating safe spaces for students and staff, Muslim students and staff in particular. It has also raised conversations about what schools are for and how schools and workplaces can fulfill their obligation to adhere to the Equality Act and The Public Sector Equality Duty – and how they can get around it too.

The responses to the verdict reveal that we live in a society and online world in which Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hate is increasing; whilst we have ‘come a long way’ in overcoming Islamophobia since 9/11, a high court ruling like this makes me wonder if we’ve made any difference at all to the safety of Muslims for future generations? The verdict also reveals the disconnect that exists within the school system itself: we have some leaders who are not interested in creating unity and understanding within a diverse country – yet at the same time they ‘tokenistically’ take pride in multiculturalism too. And, we have other leaders in education giving us hope, embedding inclusive and equitable practices in everyday school life. I find it baffling that a simple question about prayer spaces ends up at the gates of a High Court. To me, this not only reveals a lack of unity and understanding in a school but also an absence of a critical skill that should be at the centre of schooling: listening.

Many educators and commentators have been sharing their concerns and outrage about the decision. It will also concern parents and students who regularly use prayer spaces in schools, maybe even at work (many teachers use prayer spaces too). It’s a disappointing decision and whilst several anti-woke keyboard warriors rejoice at the ruling, we cannot let it set a precedent for schools – and I don’t think it will. Schools absolutely should provide prayer spaces and they will continue to provide such safe spaces for students – it’s quite simply common sense. For this blog, examples and explanations are practical and experiential, based on what life is like ‘in school’. Whilst research and data are important, progress, collaboration and community cohesion are also nurtured by listening to the candid, lived experiences of staff and students in schools.

Time and space to pray

In line with the Equality Act, allowing students and staff to pray is reasonable and proportionate to a school and working day. It is comparable to allowing students to have break times, music lessons and god-forbid, toilet breaks. Different forms of prayer and spiritual practice are a part of nearly every faith. In Islam, praying 5 times a day is an integral part of the faith. It takes 5-10 minutes to pray. For the duration of that time, a prayer mat takes up just as much space as a two-seater desk. Depending on the time of year, prayer usually fits into a lunchtime. Just as schools host extracurricular clubs, music lessons sports fixtures and more, prayer can usually fit into this time too. It is not a big ask and it is not disruptive.

Some schools may have a designated prayer room, which is great. Other schools may allocate a classroom, usually near a space where a teacher is ‘on duty’ anyway; the last time I checked, prayer doesn’t require back flips, cartwheels or balancing on one’s head…the health and safety risks are fairly manageable. Some schools might even say, ‘if you need to pray and you have what you need with you (prayer mat, head covering, beads, holy book etc…), feel free to use a designated safe space. It does not need to be complicated.

Prayer spaces are not the problem

To blame prayer and collective worship for peer pressure and bullying is deflecting from the real problem. If children start praying as a result of seeing others pray, or if they simply observe with questions and curiosity, why is this such a problem? If they find it to be a positive experience, surely that can only be a positive learning experience. If the opposite happens, it’s not necessarily a problem either. Rather, it’s a teachable moment and reveals hostile attitudes any school should be aware of. Knowledge about the prejudices within our communities is the first step to safeguarding young people in education. ‘Cancelling’ or banning prayer spaces is not. 

‘Banning’ or ‘cancelling’ (on and offline) doesn’t work. It is a power-based behaviour management tool fuelling a notion that education is based on ‘controlling the masses’. We all learn through conversation, discussion, listening, knowledge, understanding, boundaries and respect, not necessarily in that order. By no means are any of the latter ‘easy’ to achieve, but from working with teenagers I’ve found they’re open to a heated debate, discussion, learning, understanding and compromise. 

School is a place of work and I’m not sure why we expect teenagers to just abide by ‘yes and no’ rules with little to no explanation. Plus, if they find a reasonable solution (like praying in a classroom for 10 minutes at lunchtime), what’s the big deal? Secondary school students are a few years away from further education and the workplace, which we all know thrives on innovation, creativity and autonomy. In this case, a blanket prayer ban in a school (their current place of work) completely contradicts the 21st century workplace they will inhabit. It doesn’t make sense. 

‘It’s inconvenient: we don’t have time to police prayer spaces’

Like any theory of change, whether that be introducing a mobile phone policy or changes to a uniform policy, navigating any arising teething issues (by students, parents and the community), takes time and flexibility. None of this is impossible if it is built firmly into the school culture, relevant processes and policies. These policies and processes may be safeguarding, anti-bullying, behaviour management and curriculum. All of the above are part of a teacher’s and a school’s day-to-day functions; navigating prayer spaces is no different to introducing a new club or curriculum change. Plus, we somehow managed bubbles and one-way systems post-lockdown…I think schools are pretty well equipped to create a prayer space for all of a matter of minutes in a day!

Prayer is not ‘an add on’

Faith is observed differently, from person to person. It is a way of life, and an ongoing lived experience; for some it is an integral part of their identity and for others it is their identity. Prayer is a major part of several religious practices. Like some people are vegan and vegetarian, prayer is not just a choice and something to switch on and off – it is an intrinsic part of an individual’s life. Some individuals, as far as they possibly can, plan their days, weeks, holidays and more around prayer. Not only is it a religious obligation, it is also a source of wellbeing and peace. In a time where health and wellbeing are paramount in education, denying prayer spaces seems counterintuitive. Enabling some form of space (like we do options on a menu) for individuals to pray is a minimal request and something schools can do with minimal disruption. However, if cracks in the system are revealed and outrage spills online and at the High Court, there are bigger questions and concerns to address.

Schools don’t need to be ‘impossible’ or difficult spaces – and they shouldn’t be made out to be like this either. One high court ruling does not define the state of schooling in the UK. I have too much respect and experience (or maybe good fortune) of working in schools that enable, or at the very least, welcome conversations around inclusion, safety, flexibility and authenticity. None of the latter disrupts mainstream education and a student’s chances of attaining a grade 9. However, many other things do and those are inequitable opportunities, ‘belonging uncertainty’ (Cohen, 2022) and denying the identities of the young people we teach. 


A Class Apart

Dr Teresa Crew portrait

Written by Dr Teresa Crew

Dr Teresa Crew SFHEA is a Senior Lecturer in Social Policy with research interests relating to various social inequalities. More specifically Dr Crew's research explores the barriers faced by working class people in education. She is the author of the book "Higher Education and Working Class Academics: Precarity and Diversity in Academia" (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020) which examined the experiences of working class academics. Her second book, “The Intersections of a Working Class Academic Identity. A Class Apart”, will be published by Emerald in July 2024.

The echo of footsteps resonating through university hallways often carries with it a narrative of unearned advantage.  This is in stark contrast to the uphill climb some have faced just to set foot on these grounds.  For many working class academics (WCAs) like myself, each step reflects complex feelings of taking pride in rising above class constraints combined with a persistent sense of unease that we do not fully belong within these elite spaces. Far from being unique, this reveals that despite loud diversity rhetoric, quiet biases continue obstructing the WCA experience.

My extensive research incorporating over 250 interviews and surveys WCAs across the UK over the past 5 years reveals systemic barriers continue to make academia an inhospitable environment for many scholars from disadvantaged backgrounds. Nearly 75% faced ingrained classism subtly woven through campus culture via small slights eroding confidence in belonging. These obstacles are likely deterring talented potential working class scholars from pursuing academic careers.

Classist microaggressions served as the ever present undercurrent with manifestations ranging from derogatory comments questioning their credentials and mocking regional accents. Women endured layered inequities – both gender and class biases. Unpaid service tasks consumed valuable time otherwise dedicated to scholarly writing necessary for advancement, reflecting embedded biases limiting their mobility. Ethnic minority WCAs encountered underrepresentation and racialised stereotypes that questioned their intellectual capacity, coupled with the assumption that their presence was simply a result of diversity initiatives rather than merit. 

My research also exposed profound institutional fractures at the intersection of class and disability. Participants recounted struggles to obtain reasonable adjustments. This disregard for individual needs was particularly harmful for those reliant on precarious incomes, as the absence of family wealth amplifies their vulnerability.

Our lived experiences offer a crucial counterpoint highlighting how WCAs display remarkable resilience, strong “aspirational capital” and determination. WCAs typically serve as mentors, role models, and support systems for many marginalised students.  We offer innovative teaching methods and curricular interventions aimed at uplifting excluded voices and dismantling entrenched hierarchies. These interventions, informed by lived experiences at the margins, adds unique depth and insight to WCA scholarship, making us invaluable assets that enrich the tapestry of academic discourse.

Despite our remarkable resilience and talent, WCAs often find their potential curtailed rather than nurtured. Hiring discrimination, promotion bias, and precarious employment create significant hurdles, constructing invisible yet potent barriers to curtail our career advancement. Overburdened workloads and the absence of tailored support networks further exacerbate these challenges, creating a “chilly climate” within academia that often discourages many WCAs from reaching their full potential.

We must actively dismantle these barriers by challenging entrenched structures and disrupting the harmful effects of classist practices that erode individual aspirations and stifle working class potential.  This demands bold, systemic change. 

Key areas of action include:

  • #MakeIt10.  To create real equal opportunities, we must end unfair treatment based on an individual’s social class background and add social class as a protected characteristic in the Equality Act 2010
  • WCAs need stable employment with living wages, enforceable rights, and consistent hours.
  • Targeted career development programmes and mentoring specifically for WCAs.

These strategic interventions, informed by the powerful narratives of WCAs navigating the system, hold the key to unlocking the transformative potential of an inclusive academia. Only then can we ensure that knowledge and empowerment reach all corners of society, shaping a future where the collective brilliance of diverse minds, regardless of background, can truly flourish.


Meaningful wellbeing coaching for ITT

Amy Sayer portrait

Written by Amy Sayer

Amy Sayer is an associate, consultant, mental health trainer and content writer. She is a Leading Diversity advisor for the Chartered College of Teaching. She is the author of the book ‘Supporting staff mental health in your school’.

When I was first training to teach in 2007, I wanted to impress everyone by working ridiculously long hours, volunteering to write new schemes of learning and exhausted my body to the point that by the first week of December I had a horrible chest infection and was in bed for four weeks recovering. I struggled with boundaries and putting time aside for my self-care and time to rest. If I hadn’t had a supportive mentor who role-modelled a healthy work-life balance, I might have pushed myself to the point of being too ill to qualify at all! When I have mentored trainee teachers myself, I made a conscious effort to make time to talk about their hobbies and life outside of school. I didn’t create impossible deadlines which would compromise their wellbeing. Looking at the latest teacher retention figures, 33% of Early Careers Teachers leave within five years of teaching and there is a clear moral duty for ITT providers to explicitly talk to their trainee about supporting their mental health and wellbeing so that they can stay teaching for as long as possible.

I was approached by the ITT Strategic Lead Georgina Crooks from HISP Teaching School Hub to create a wellbeing programme to support her ITT students. Based on the feedback from her trainees about their worries, I wrote a session to be delivered to the whole cohort which presented them with a wellbeing toolkit for them to use to support their wellbeing during their first placement. As a follow-up to this session, I was able to offer virtual one-to-one coaching sessions to trainees who signed up to create a bespoke wellbeing plan to support their wellbeing. When the trainees started their shorter second placement at a different school, I delivered a second input session to the whole cohort which focused on the importance of rest, managing workload and time to reflect on any amendments to their wellbeing which might need implementing. The session finishes by talking them through mental health and wellbeing tips for looking for their first schools. After this session, the trainees had a chance to book a follow-up one-to-one session with me, or an initial session to create a wellbeing plan. 

It has been a real privilege to work with the trainees and to hear their journeys into starting teacher training. The amount of adversity that some of the trainees have experienced, and the wealth of experiences that they will bring to their teaching has been truly inspiring to hear. So many have previously struggled with their mental health in a range of ways, and are brave enough to be honest about this so that the best support can be put into place for them in their schools. They have been able to create wellbeing plans which work around their commitments and carve out moments of joy and rest to ensure that they can be in the profession for as long as possible in a way that works for them and meets their individual wellbeing needs. 

The workload of the trainee year can be so vigorous and demanding, that sometimes they really value having a space to share their story. The sudden amount of change which occurs when going to a second placement can be really tricky to manage in a world coming out of a pandemic. Their ability to meet new students, form new relationships with new colleagues, travel to a new location (sometimes via hovercraft!) and learn new schemes of work is truly impressive and having the support of an optional one-to-one coaching session to talk things through in a confidential and safe space has proven to be an important part of planning joyful and regular wellbeing into their schedules.

`
`


ADHD Heads: How can we utilise neurodiversity in shaping the future of schools?

Nadia Hewstone portrait

Written by Nadia Hewstone

Nadia is a certified executive school leadership coach. She left headship to start Destino Coaching and now supports school leaders with their own development as well as development of their teams.

Below is what I shared at the ‘Breaking the Mould 2’ in Cambridge for #IWD2024. I would love to hear from you with your thoughts and reflections on the themes I explore:

I am Nadia, founder of Destino Coaching – an organisation that supports Headteachers to remain strategic while tackling the enormous amount of operational challenges in schools. 

I want headteachers to increase their influence over policy. 

Usually, I’m invited to speak about ways to stay on track with your big goals in headship. Over many years I have developed several planning strategies to help me stay focussed and on track. The main principles are now tools I teach the headteachers I work with. 

Looking back over my career I see that I became hyper focussed on finding ways to overcome the challenges I faced associated with being neurodivergent. This is what I want to explore with you today.

Over the next 10 minutes, I want to make a case for the need for neurodivergent leaders in schools as one of the key ways we will address the multiple systemwide issues schools are now facing. 

  1. My story

Like many parents of neurodivergent children, I started to look at some of my own behaviours through the lens of my developing understanding of autism and ADHD about 10 years ago, when I was a headteacher. Both of my children have autism and ADHD and my own assessment of ADHD raised a question about potential ASD too – I have yet to find the time and space to investigate this but I have ADHD and while I am just one person with ADHD, I have now worked with many neurodivergent headteachers and have thought long and hard about what we bring to schools as a group. 

As a woman with ADHD I face several struggles and I also experience a freedom I believe is unique to neurodivergent women. Here are some things about me that can appear strange to others:

  • I stand up for meetings or regularly leave my seat if I am required to be seated.
  • I often put tasks off until the last minute
  • I find it difficult to follow people when they give long explanations or instructions. I can appear to be bored – and often I am!
  • I have to try very hard not to finish other people’s sentences and speak over them in an attempt to speed them up
  • I have to work extremely hard at relaxing and being calm – even though I know it is essential to my well-being 
  • I need others around me to attend to details as I find detail painfully difficult and race forward
  • I break rules – especially when they don’t make sense to me
  • I do not proofread my documents 

The first time I went on a road trip with my deputy Steff, we stopped at a service station and her standout memory of this day was me getting out of the car before she’d finished parking. She still laughs at this memory now. While I see the funny side I also stand by the decision to do this – she is a stickler for doing things correctly, accurately, by the book – I am not. I saw an opportunity to get our Starbucks order in while she finished her perfect bay parking exercise – therefore cutting down lost time. 

Steff and I were a match made in heaven! She was accepting of my pace and challenging about my shortcomings – she gave me space to lead my way and facilitated my growth through her attention to detail. I will love her for this forever.

Now that I recognise many of my behaviours as part of my ADHD, I am learning to work with them, quieten my inner critic and communicate more effectively so that others do not take offense. 

As a headteacher, I implemented change very quickly and my high energy meant I took my team with me – they told me I was full of purpose and great fun to work with. I also disregarded things I saw as unnecessary restrictions. This was sometimes significantly risky but meant we cut through challenges and achieved things more quickly. 

I’ll leave it up to you to imagine the downsides of all this for my school business manager!

I have had 12 female coaching clients over the past 5 years who have a diagnosis of ADHD and all of them report frustration with the restrictions placed on them by the education system. 

Neurotypical heads undoubtedly experience this too – the difference is that people with ADHD view this as intensely impossible to work around. 

Coaching women with ADHD is generally focussed on how to achieve their massive, exciting, propositus goals despite external barriers such as Ofsted, the National Curriculum and prescriptive working practices. Mostly they are successful once we work out how to embrace the difference.

People with ADHD are 60% more likely to be dismissed from a job, and three times more likely to quit a job impulsively (Barkley, 2008). This is a great loss to society and I hope we can reverse this in schools so that we can secure a way forward that serves young people.

2. Broken system – needs radical change

If you work in a school, I don’t need to tell you the system is broken:

  • A widening gap between rich and poor educational outcomes
  • Fewer resources
  • Greater mental health needs in our young people
  • Fewer services to support children and families

I believe that we need a different type of school leadership, a different kind of teacher. 

Teachers and leaders are still trapped by the exam treadmill, still unable to have in-depth curriculum discussions or spend proper time collaborating. 

Imagine if we flipped the story and leaders and teachers were designing the curriculum, to better match modern societal needs with an intelligent approach to assessment alongside it.  

I suggest that neurodivergent thinking is a great way to flip any story.

3. Creative thinking

Take impulsivity, one of the main symptoms of ADHD. The studies suggest it might lead people to have more original ideas. That’s because people with ADHD often lack inner inhibition. This means they have trouble holding back when they want to say or do something.

Many of my neurodivergent clients have found a new voice and new priorities, including giving attention to staff wellbeing and rethinking the micro-management that characterises so many schools. But achieving this small-scale will not have the impact we need it to have and they often do this at the cost of risking their career. 

Women with ADHD, in my experience, tend not to fear the truth and make brilliant cases for what new approaches might look like when systems are broken. More importantly, they often have the drive to see it through. This can appear radical, stubborn even, but for us it’s just about doing what makes sense. 

In my book, the Unhappy Headteacher, I explore ways we can still have influence and find joy in the role – because I believe we can. I also believe the system needs drastic change with an uncompromising model of implementation. To me, it is clear that neurodivergent women have a valuable part to play in this.

And gender does matter here. According to Association for Adult ADHD (AAD) men with ADHD are likely to develop aggressive and defensive behaviours in response to being misunderstood, Whereas women with ADHD are more likely to mask and experience self-doubt. This self-doubt can be a gift in headship as with support, it is the place where growth and empowerment can be found. 

What all adults with ADHD do have in common, in my experience is inner steel. We find EVERYTHING hard and to find fulfillment and do the stuff that lights us up – like pursuing excellence for a school – we have to accept that we will face tremendous amounts of challenge. Mostly because others often misunderstand our intentions. We share a bounce-backability that is unique to neurodivergent leaders and has prepared us well for the current state of affairs. When everything is hard anyway, dealing with the funding crisis seems surmountable somehow – leaders with ADHD believe there is a way to do the impossible, we just need to find it and we know we can

4. Representation

And let’s not forget the importance of representation in all of this. I have a client who has a diagnosis for autism and fears being open about this with her seniors because of her perceived risk of not being considered for promotion. This saddens me when I think about how far we still have to go in exposing our students to the talent and capability of people with ADHD. Our young people deserve to see examples of adults like them leading schools successfully yet as a culture we still shy away from celebrating the gifts of ADHD – these ‘gifts’ scare us rather than inspire us – what message does that give our young people with ADHD and what potential are we stunting?

Neurodivergent students need opportunities to learn ways to manage the challenges associated with serial rushing and extreme procrastination – what better way to do this than having high-performing leaders with ADHD modelling this around them.

My son has an EHCP and was recently interviewed by an Ofsted inspector in his college who asked him why he thought he’d been so successful at 6th Form, after performing below average at all other stop-off points. Lucas cited the single most important factor as being taught by a maths teacher who is autistic and comfortable with it. Could it be true that to become a mathematician, Lucas needed to see someone like him in the role first? And if so, what does this say about representation among our teachers and leaders in schools?

So how can we utilise neurodiversity in shaping the future of schools?

  1. Create a climate where neurodivergent school leaders feel free to be unapologetically themselves
  2. Celebrate neurodiversity in schools and society
  3. Recognise behaviours associated with ADHD and get excited about them as a sign that creative thinking is taking place
  4. Follow women with ADHD – they have survival mechanism we need right now in schools


Taking a Look Behind the Mask

Joanne Robinson portrait

Written by Joanne Robinson

Joanne Robinson, BA, MA, PGCE, FCCT, is an education consultant with significant experience of leading teacher training programmes. Prior to this, she taught in secondary education for 16 years. She now delivers postgraduate courses and advises on programmes of professional development for schools. She is keen to promote inclusive education that centres upon the wellbeing and autonomy of teachers as well as pupils.

I am writing this as an education professional with ADHD.  I am the parent of two children, one now adult, both with AuDHD (Autism and ADHD).   I have taught many children diagnosed with ASD, ADHD and other neurodivergent conditions.  I suspect I have taught many, many more who were not yet diagnosed. 

It’s interesting to look back on life after a late diagnosis.  It can be quite sad: the things that I found difficult suddenly had a reason, rather than just being proof of inadequacy.  People with ADHD tend to overthink things and be incredibly self-critical.  I know from reading other accounts of late diagnosis, feeling anger and grief is not uncommon.  From my perspective, I understand that how we look at ADHD has evolved significantly over the past few years and I recognise that it isn’t a failing of anyone that I wasn’t identified.  It is very complex, even now, to see neurodivergence in others.  I didn’t see it in myself, although I had a strong sense of being different. 

I masked my way through school and my professional life without even knowing I was doing it.  Masking is where we suppress behaviours in order to fit in with our peers and the expectations placed upon us.  It takes a significant amount of energy – no wonder I was tired all the time!  

I think this is a key point: we will encounter pupils who aren’t diagnosed, who don’t even know that they are neurodivergent yet.  They don’t know they are masking.  But they do know things seem harder for them.  

As teachers, we really need to be cognisant of this.  The pressure they are under might manifest in different ways: headaches, performance anxiety, not meeting expectations in written work when verbally they are very strong, daydreaming, fidgeting or doodling are just a few potential signs. 

Part of the challenge schools face is the quickly-changing landscape of neurodivergence.  We are transforming our understanding of what conditions like ADHD and autism are.  Several decades ago, we didn’t think girls could have autism.  ADHD was seen as a condition of naughty boys.  Little did we know that the daydreaming girl, who tended to be a bit talkative at times, could possibly have ADHD too.  

As I’ve told people about my diagnosis, some still seem incredulous.  I’ve come across many education professionals who thought ADHD was a concocted condition, formulated as an excuse for bad behaviour and bad parenting.   The ones who did think it was real were very much in the naughty-boy camp, not understanding that it can manifest in different ways.  Recent media coverage seems to promote the idea that we are all a bit ADHD from looking at our phones for too long, showing no empathy or understanding of some of the complex difficulties having ADHD can bring.  

The reason why educators need to be aware of potential neurodivergence is because school can be incredibly hard for these children, to the point that many stop coming as they hit their teenage years.  The mental health implications are damning.  The pressure of masking every day is exhausting.  This is where it becomes vital to listen to parents: their behaviour at home will be different as the mask will come off where the child feels secure.  Too many times I have heard teachers, and even a SENCO, say, “Well, he’s fine in school”.  He probably is!  It doesn’t mean he’s the same at home and that things aren’t profoundly difficult for him.  He may, without support mechanisms in place, simply give up.  

As teachers, we can’t diagnose children, but we can think about the classroom environment and how we structure tasks to support pupils in our lessons.  The diagnosis is partially a mechanism to get support; if we put neurodivergent-friendly adaptions into classrooms, we are addressing potential need rather than waiting for either a diagnosis to happen – which can be unlikely for many – or complete meltdowns and school refusal to occur.   There are many resources available to support schools with this, such as the wonderful free section on the ADHD Foundation site, which also encompasses other neurodivergent conditions.

It is vital to note that neurodivergence is not just difficulty.  It can bring amazing competencies too, such as creativity, innovative thinking, verbal aptitude, attention to fine detail, passion and authenticity.  By having classrooms where we create opportunities to draw on these competencies, whilst limiting some of the factors that bring anxiety and overwhelm, we can help these children to flourish and feel like they belong in school.

If a teacher suspects a child may be exhibiting signs of difficulty, that could possibly be a result of a neurodivergent condition, they should be sharing this with the relevant professional in school, whether a SENCO, Head of Year, or SLT member.  

Resources:

https://www.adhdfoundation.org.uk/resources/ 


'Coaches Like Us': You Have to See It To Be It

Hannah Wilson portrait

Written by Hannah Wilson

Founder of Diverse Educators

You have to see it to be it,’ the quote from Billy Jean King, is a phrase we hear used a lot to challenge the lack of visible role models in society but also in our profession.

It is widely agreed that diverse representation is needed in every layer of the school system. 

Our trust boards and governing bodies, our CEOs and Headteachers, our Senior Leader Teams are all people spaces that need diversifying. Alongside reviewing representation in our curriculum and in our libraries, for our learners, we also need to review it for our staff. (This is why we host a #DiverseEd World Book Day event each year to amplify authors from our network).  

There is a lot of continuing work to be done to disrupt, to dismantle, to diversify these different spaces and to review who gets to occupy them. 

But there are other educational spaces for us to also review:

  • Who recruits, develops and mentors our trainee teachers?
  • Who recruits, develops and mentors our early career teachers?
  • Who recruits, develops and mentors our aspiring leaders?
  • Who recruits, develops and coaches our existing leaders?

When you review these spaces you will often find a homogenous team, a team who mainly hold majority identities.

So how are the trainers, the mentors and the coaches being trained to become conscious of their own identity, to become confident in addressing their own privilege and to become confident in disrupting bias in the many forms through which it can manifest?

How trauma-informed are the trainers, the mentors and the coaches in supporting individuals who have experienced identity-based harm?    

The Church of England Foundation for Educational Leadership launched a brilliant pipeline programme to nurture leaders from a global majority background called Leaders Like Us a couple of years ago, in partnership with Aspiring Heads and the Institute for Educational & Social Equity.  This programme is a gamechanger for our education system and our future workforce.

So let’s all consider what Trainers… Mentors… Coaches … ‘Like Us’ would look like.

If we put a spotlight on ‘Coaches Like Us’ as a school, college, trust, SCITT, Teaching School Hub and localities we need to ask ourselves:

  • Who gets to be coached?
  • Who gets to be The Coach?
  • Who gets invested in?  
  • Who gets nurtured to flourish? 
  • Who gets supported to progress?

And most importantly, do people get to choose their coach? Or what has become a common phenomenon – does a coach get chosen for them? 

Coaching is about creating a safe space. About having a confidential conversation. About exploring how one is feeling. About being vulnerable and open. If your coach is your line manager or someone you work closely with – someone who might appraise your performance or sit on a promotion panel – we are in muddy waters.   

What difference would it make for an aspiring leader to self-select a coach who resonates with them? A coach who shares their identity? A coach who has walked their walk?

Some final thoughts:

  • How might being coached or becoming a coach help diverse educators stay in the system?
  • How might being coached or becoming a coach help diverse leaders climb up the leadership ladder? 
  • How might being coached or becoming a coach help us tackle the glass ceiling and the concrete ceiling in the education system? 

To help our clients, who have asked for our support in diversifying their coaching pools, we have created a #DiverseEd Coaching Directory:

  • You can find 25+ coaching profiles here.
  • You can meet our coaches through our video gallery here.
  • Get in touch if you are a coach who would like to be added or if you are looking for a coach and would like to be connected here