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Written by Taiwo Bali

Taiwo Bali writes education updates, teaching tips and well-being related content for secondary school teachers.

From receiving hate mail to leading a booming community that celebrates all people, Hannah Wilson has shown her commitment to DEI. She sat down with Beyond Digest to share why she believes DEI is essential in all schools.

Hannah Wilson is a leadership development coach and trainer with a passion for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) in education. She is the Co-founder of #DiverseEd, an organisation dedicated to tackling issues faced by underrepresented communities and furthering DEI in schools.

Her former roles as a Secondary English Teacher, Head of Secondary Teacher Training and Founding Executive Headteacher allowed her to develop rich expertise in education. Hannah kindly spoke to Beyond Digest about her journey with DEI and the importance of diversity in schools.

Q: What sparked your passion for diversity and inclusion?

H: As a student doing GCSE English I was indignant about the lack of diversity in the curriculum. It just never sat right with me. I was exposed to postcolonial literature at university and learned about topics such as diversity in social justice during apartheid and the caste system in India. It was really interesting for me to look at literature in that way and also the critical theory around it. So when I trained to be an English teacher, I guess I just brought that into my teaching and into my curriculum design because I worked in quite challenging schools. I worked in a boys’ school in Kingston, I moved to an academy in Mitcham and then an academy in Croydon. I’ve taught really diverse students and I think when I’m looking to see whether they see themselves in the displays and in the library, in the curriculum, you can see the disengagement because they can’t. 

Q: What has being a DEI ally taught you?

H: As I’ve been promoted, I’ve thought about what I can do in my roles as a curriculum leader, pastoral leader  and headteacher to help affect change. When I co-founded #WomenEd we had lots of conversations about gender representation, but quite quickly, the feedback from the network was that it felt like it was white feminism as opposed to true feminism because it was a group of white women predominantly talking about it. At events, I put myself in a room with all black teachers, talking about their experience of education and headship. At that moment my bubble got popped and my own privilege got checked. Even as someone who felt quite aware of some of those issues, I discovered a whole trench load of information that I didn’t know. That’s when the need to diversify the organisation became the top priority. 

Q: As someone who ran a school, why do you think it’s important to have a diverse SLT?

H: I have worked in six different schools and the SLT and governing bodies never represented the children. When I left London and then moved up to Oxford to be a headteacher, I recruited a very diverse team because I care about diversity. I recruited a diverse SLT because I knew it was going to be part of our school culture, policy and practice. Diversity needs to be humanised so by having a visibly Muslim member of SLT who did assemblies about Ramadan and spoke to the children about his faith, he demystified and de-stigmatised what it meant to be Muslim. He educated the children and their parents on his faith. We also had openly gay and bisexual members of staff which supported young people who were exploring their own sexual orientation and allowed parents and carers in same-sex relationships to feel accepted. Visible representation and role modelling made the children, parents and fellow staff feel safe. 

Q: How important is it for young people to see diverse staff?

H: I worked in schools with 55% black boys and there were no black men on the governing body. For me, there needs to be that mirror, there needs to be a reflection of the children we are teaching and the communities we are serving. Young people need to be able to see themselves in the staffing, leadership and governance. There’s great irony in a young person walking through their school and not seeing themselves. I have done talks at heads conferences where quite often, people think their school is more diverse than it is. You may have diverse adults in the building but what job are they doing? Are staff from underrepresented groups in positions of power and can they influence decision making? What messages are the children receiving about their future prospects and opportunities to succeed? We tell young people they can be anything they want but we implicitly cap their potential by not being intentional about who is appointed into which role. We can’t say one thing in assembly and then on staff recruitment day, do something completely different. Young people have got to see it to be it. 

Q: What challenges have you faced in championing DEI?

H: After moving to Oxford, I think my team and I were all a little bit shocked that the DEI work we were doing in schools in London, Reading and other parts of the country felt really alien in this part of the world. I got quite a lot of pushback because they weren’t quite ready for it. The challenge came from the people in the wider community. We had parents and carers who chose not to send their kids to our school because they didn’t want their kids to go to a school where there were LGBTQIA+ posters in every classroom. I had parents say to me, your school is beautiful, I love your vision for education, take those posters down and I’ll send my kids to your school. It didn’t sit right with us so we kept them up. This was part of our school culture and ethos. We were committed to creating psychological safety and a sense of belonging for all children. It all kicked off when one complaint from a parent ended up in the local media and the story went from regional to national. There were nasty comments from a popular newspaper’s readers and 3000 comments in a local Facebook group and I even received 86 letters threatening my life.  DEI brings the worst out of people sometimes. 

Q: How did the negative press impact the DEI work you do?

H: People get loud, defensive or just spew hate because they think their actions will stop you. If anything it made us even more committed to the work because it showed the ignorance and lack of empathy in some people. I do a lot of work talking about values and ethics and for me, remaining committed to DEI is ethically the right thing to do. My values drive this work. Though advised not to, I wrote a blog post to address the negative press because I didn’t want to be silenced as a woman. I didn’t want to be silenced as a school because we were committed to this work. The blog went viral. I think we had about 14,500 thousand hits and I got a lot of disclosures from other heads and school leaders around the country who had been in a similar situation and were happy I spoke out.

Q: Where can schools get DEI training?

H: After the death of George Floyd schools needed to do something about DEI but didn’t know how to get started. Everyone in my network was looking for training. DEI is very overwhelming because it touches every single policy and practice. You don’t know what you’ll find out about your school until you start looking. It is a difficult and emotionally draining journey to go on and schools need support. The #DiverseEd website is a one-stop-shop for all aspects of DEI training. We use the directory to signpost specialists so if schools need anti-racism, menopause awareness or gender identity training they can find the best trainers. #DiverseEd now works with 185 organisations that are tackling DEI all over the world. We also offer toolkits and reading lists based on different aspects of DEI for schools to use.

The #DiverseEd community continues to grow. Last year they held its first virtual event (June 2020) which had a reach of 13,500 people from around the world, who joined for 5 hours on a Saturday morning to listen to all things DEI. The next free event will be held virtually on the 22nd of January 2022. Find out more here.

Hannah and her friend Angie Browne have also joined forces to create a programme to help schools navigate DEI. Both former headteachers use their expertise in headship to offer paid leadership training courses in governance training, SLT training and diversity masterclasses. The training covers topics ranging from inclusive language to curriculum development and now has 20 cohorts of leaders, which is a testament to the value they offer. 

DEI should be an integral part of every school. Having a safe learning environment that celebrates diversity and raises aspirations is something all young people deserve. How does your school tackle DEI? Share your thoughts with me via Twitter.

Find Hannah @Ethical_Leader and #DiverseEd on Twitter and #DiverseEd via the website.

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