Rob Ford portrait

Written by Rob Ford

Rob is an educator for nearly 30 years, a history and politics teacher, a school leader in various schools in the UK and was principal of Wyedean School in the UK, before being appointed as Director of Heritage International School group.

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter”. MLK

As my colleague sobbed with frustration and emotion in my room one afternoon, after a long day at school, going through what had just happened in class, I realised in that moment how powerless I felt there and then as a person but I knew how powerful my school’s culture, ethos and policies truly were in these awful moments. More than just words when put to the test to support my colleague as she asked for my help as a school leader.

My colleague, an international teacher, had been on the receiving end of a racist comment and it underlined to me just how much work we still have to do in our schools and communities to ensure such hurtful and offensive moments don’t happen especially when it comes to the words, beliefs and actions of children and young people in our care. 

When we found the students responsible and put in place the necessary sanctions & follow up actions warranted, the comment from one parent said this to try and downplay the incident; “It’s like he was at the same table when the waiter was abused but all get thrown out of the restaurant”. 

Illustrating perfectly with the choice of words that even the most liberal, educated, wordly wise and enlightened of school communities, especially those with many nationalities and a strong global outlook, need to continue to work together with the whole community, to challenge and change such mindsets. In contrast, the students were actually very contrite, apologised, owned their responsibility and repaired the damage done with their teacher who was prepared to move forward with them on this basis. 

We cannot ever be silent on such issues as school leaders, nor should we feel powerless individually to tackle these issues successfully. We need to prioritise clear policies, culture, staff training and meaningful education in schools around issues & attitudes such as racism, nationalism, prejudice and hate that, unfortunately, have become more widespread in the 2020s around the globe.  Doing nothing or hoping it won’t ever be something you will have to address is not an option either for any school leader.

Your school culture is not international because it says it in the title.

It is always quite surprising how many school leaders feel that issues around racism will never affect them because they are “an international school”. This is a very false assumption as much as stating how many different nationalities are in the school community. It doesn’t mean a school is diverse, equitable or inclusive and it’s a “lazy assumption” and derelict  to avoid having a practical strategy in place because you say you are in the school’s name. Words matter here. 

You need a robust Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Policy in place.

Your DEI policy should sit alongside the handful of ones, like Safeguarding, SEND, Teaching and Learning, Complaints, that you have in crumpled paper form, covered in notes and highlighter on your desk as a school leader because they are used as part and parcel of daily school life. There are some really effective, comprehensive and robust DEI policies out there to look at and adapt to your school.

Your DEI policy needs to be regularly reviewed, a governor responsible, a senior leader made responsible for it, and for it to be made publicly available, for your whole community to be aware of it with the key points clear.  Get good outside experts to scrutinise it and for them to challenge you as a leader, your governors and your team on it as COBIS did to me and my school last year as part of our standards accreditation. 

You need regular CPD for staff awareness and all your team believe and operate in this culture.

I couldn’t imagine annual staff training in August or regular CPD throughout the year, without time spent on our DEI, any more than I would leave safeguarding, the fire drill or Teaching and Learning out of what is central in the education and duty of care towards children. There are some incredible voices and forums out there for schools to follow and engage with and bring that outside expertise and experience to your school.  Especially for schools and communities operating in homogenised and monoglot environments. Your DEI policy needs to be even more central in your strategy. 

There are some incredible voices and forums out there for schools to follow and engage with and bring that outside expertise and experience to your school so tap into it; for example we have used Jon Gibson and Backdrop Education for staff training around inclusion and equity, America House in Chisinau extensively on diversity training, our governors have worked with Jackie Beard, a NLG and used the DEI programmes from NGA. COBIS have been working with Angela Browne and Hannah Wilson to deliver DEI training in schools and we are signing staff up for this outstanding & highly recommended programme for the courses this year. We also follow Hannah’s work in offering free DEI conferences and webinars to educators in the UK and around the World. 

Raise student (and parental) awareness regularly, celebrating and commemorating our global, diverse communities in school daily life.

This is where you need to be prepared to be less than silent, especially in a World of labels thrown at schools such as “woke” or “cancel culture” for daring to celebrate and commemorate events in the global calendar such as Black History Month or Holocaust Remembrance. Do not shy away from what may be perceived as difficult topics or fearful of reactions.  

In those school boards in the USA, where some parent groups are challenging schools for holding Black History Month events this February, because they believe it is teaching “CRT” (critical race theory), school leaders are tackling this challenge head on legally as we finally see this “false equivalence” called out and for a many, a hill definitely worth a stand on. 

In Eastern Europe, the ugly racism black English footballers endured recently playing Hungary, became a very good debate topic for our IGCSE and A Level students and I was proud to see all of them call it out for the hate and ugliness it was.  These are not the values these students want or their part of the world to be associated with.

We also are facing in Eastern Europe the contextual challenge of the conflict of Russia towards Ukraine, with students of both countries in our community, so we have worked with teachers on how to handle difficult questions on it and deal with issues that may arise from students in a safe arena of dialogue. This is the very reason why we educate children. 

Make your community more inclusive and diverse.

This should include a recruitment policy that is more than just centred towards white Anglo-American educators and truly brings the global community to your school.  I still hear the positive words of one of my students when she said coming to Heritage is like going abroad each day.

The same is about the speakers you have in school, the role models for children chosen and what you study in the curriculum.  I have no issue with special days or months for events in the global curriculum calendar because it is a good excuse to highlight the work that is consciously there daily and it is not just for one day.  

Schools shouldn’t worry about the odd criticism on social media because you celebrate or commemorate one day either, as long as this isn’t the only time some topics or events are looked at and studied.  A “one off” is not a school culture but it is a good starting point to build on. Throughout this academic year, the UN’s #FightRacism campaign has underscored so many wider curricular events especially through whole school assemblies and cross curricular days we have aligned with as a school. 

Conclusion.

We should live up to our school’s mission, culture and ethos, especially where we want future leaders to lead with the very values we claim we are about in our schools to young people including diversity, equity, justice and inclusion for a better future.  Or as school leaders we will end up remaining silent on what matters most. 

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