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.

Last year, on my return to work after a short maternity break, I wrote a very candid post about leading EDI in schools. Almost a year on, I have had some wonderful opportunities with DiverseEd, The GEC, Teachit, Edurio, Schools Week, SecEd, Middle East Eye…all talking about diversity, equality and inclusion in education. Now working in the Higher Education sector, I am learning so much about intent vs impact, using Driscoll’s model of reflection. In using Driscoll’s model, I find myself questioning the EDI ‘work’ more and more – not its necessity (believe me, it’s more needed than ever), but whether or not it is making a sustainable impact and lasting change, or whether it is simply at risk of being a step on a ladder, a set of buzz words and a marketing asset for schools and organisations.

Is it right to be an EDI Lead?
George Floyd’s murder can be regarded as a watershed moment for anti-racism work, but also for diversity and inclusion. With the rise of Gen Z, Gen Alpha and social media, the EDI landscape has, in many ways, rocketed and quite rightly so. Although many think it drives a cancel culture and a call out culture, it has also led to meaningful change for people with protected characteristics. Equally, a growing number of companies are making EDI roles bigger, smaller or redundant. Speaking to friends and colleagues in the ‘field’ (especially global majority heritage colleagues), it seems EDI is a thriving, purposeful business, but one which is exhausting and draining too. To be completely candid, I have reflected and wondered whether I am toxically ‘profiting’ from my own ‘EDI’ trauma, story, knowledge, expertise (whatever you want to call it) and sometimes feel a level of guilt, imposter and also, loss.

It’s tough being vulnerable in the public and professional eye, laying bare your identity for the sake of strategy, culture, governance, policy and practice. I also worry about what’s next? Not necessarily because I think EDI will become redundant (this thought in itself is  problematic and misplaced). Rather it is mentally and physically tough to work in a field so rich and granular, that I worry where and how the energy can be sustained.

The work is purposeful, important and of value. However, for it to be impactful and fulfilling we must start holding organisational leads, middle management, policies and practices to account. If there are policies and practices which have a detrimental, and historic impact on individuals with protected and non-protected characteristics (socio-economic status for example), no amount of training is going to fix that. Experience and very loose, qualitative research (candid conversations!) reveals consistency and commitment to inclusion at middle management level is just as important (if not more) to creating a culture of belonging. 

To flip from business to culture, it is integral that leaders and managers intentionally and uncomfortably make the difficult changes necessary to create equitable work environments. Celebrate whistleblowing and call our culture, scrutinise and fix representation gaps, embrace flexibility and use positive action, inclusive recruitment strategies; do what you have to do to create a trusting and lasting culture for every employee and student.

Diversity across the curriculum is scratching the surface.
Whilst a diverse curriculum and EDI training is wholly important, and can have a life changing impact on young people (especially Early Years), it is but one cog in a set of very large and complex wheels. In my relatively short time of working in this space, I’ve learned just how easy it is to become a ‘tickbox’ or a ‘box ticker’, without even realising. All too often EDI is boxed in; it’s carved out like an isolated gym session (stick with me). We all know 1 run, 1 personal training session, or 1 class a week will not make a difference to our health unless we see to our eating habits, our mindset, consistency, our NEAT actions. A brilliant guest speaker may leave us high on endorphins like a Spin class, but then what? EDI is a hard, constant and ‘infinite’ journey that should never be redundant or complete – the world is ever-changing and diversifying, in our lifetime at least. If this thought leaves you exasperated or frustrated, flip those feelings and be curious instead: it provides a perfect opportunity to speak to an EDI specialist or students and staff with protected characteristics to ask, how can inclusion and belonging become an active part of day-to-day, micro and macro policies and practices in your workplace? Listening is important, developing and actioning a plan is fundamental.

In her book, The Courage of Compassion (2023), Public Defender, Robin Steinberg says ‘the struggle for social justice is won […] one person at a time’. With every feeling of imposter and exhaustion I simultaneously realise just how purposeful, impactful and necessary equality and diversity is – in education, the workplace and society. Of course, the ‘business’ of finding solutions and making a tangible impact is very important, however the ongoing work, the self-reflection, the side-by-side influences, are perhaps integral to keeping diversity and inclusion at the centre of every business and organisation.