Written by Audrey Pantelis

What does diversity mean to you? What about cultural diversity? Often mentioned, usually at interviews where the interview panel will want you to know that you “know” about diversity. I would put diversity in the same bag as equality and equal opportunities. When I was a teacher, these words scared me. Not because I didn’t know what they meant, but because I couldn’t be sure that I was applying them to my delivery of the subjects that I was teaching. As I reflect on those early years, I know that I loved promoting difference – probably because as a black woman in a predominantly white world, I embraced difference. I have always loved any aspect of character that shows individuality in any shape or form and it may also answer why I love special educational needs pupils. I was a mainstream teacher before changing phase to SEND in 2008. I guess I thrive on the fact that despite difficulties, we can express our true selves; our true characters. Overcoming our difficulties is a strength and shows true resilience which is a value that I so admire. And we can bring this to any table we choose to come to.

I spoke at the last DiverseEd conference in Slough in January 2020 with @HeadsUp4HT and had really enjoyed the set up and the drive that came from meeting likeminded colleagues. There were a lot of groups and grass roots movements that I had not heard of before but there was something compelling about their missions and values that resonated with me. I came away from the conference pumped up and wondering how I could get more involved.

When lockdown took hold of our lives and all face-to-face meetings were on hold – I was informed me that DiverseEd would be a virtual event and asked if I would look at ‘Smashing Ceilings’. You may have heard of the ‘glass ceiling’ concept – defined as : “an unacknowledged barrier to advancement in a profession, especially affecting women and members of minorities” .  From my lens, I would go so far as to say that as black women in the work place we often have ‘concrete ceilings’ to contend with.  The main difference being that at least you can SEE through glass and aspire for more – with concrete – that’s it!! This has been my experience. I have been let down, as we all are as we aspire to leadership positions, but for me it’s been very difficult to work out whether I was the wrong fit, or just plain wrong. When you add ethnicity into the mix – we could be here for a while, trying to work it out.

Cultural diversity is a form of appreciating the differences in individuals. The differences can be based on gender, age, sex, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and social status. Schools have realized the value in acquiring a diverse workforce but what is not so well promoted or encouraged is the opportunity to rise and in turn, steer the culture to embrace ALL. The stereotyping and prejudices, if unchallenged, contribute to a culture that can promote sameness and prevent the celebration of skills, abilities, and experiences.

My fellow speakers: Naomi Ward @naomi7444, Patrick Ottley-O’Connor @ottleyoconnor spoke of their approaches in how we can establish culture (see clip below). Hannah Jepson @Hannahjep also spoke in the same session (Session 3)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Q7RWmbKONo

with me during Saturday’s virtual conference – #DiverseEd on Culture and Diversity – about Unconscious Bias: Recruitment and it really chimed with my own thoughts about how and why we recruit who we recruit. As a former Head of School, I was extensively involved in recruitment and always ensured that I fully considered candidates that weren’t anything like me – as Hannah stated “fit is important” – but it need not mean that I discounted potential employees that weren’t as I wanted. Like a jigsaw puzzle, we may have different shapes, but when we are placed together to make the bigger picture, no one worries about individual shapes, ONLY the bigger picture.

I believe that there is a lack of:

  • comfortable, trusted strategic relationships
  • positive strategic feedback
  • opportunities to showcase breadth of skills and experience

If we don’t increase the amount of black and minority ethnic voices seen and heard at leadership and strategic levels, then how do we expect things to change?  How do we smash those ceilings, glass or otherwise? Change means being uncomfortable – and the challenge doesn’t need to be aggressive but there needs to be clarity in the outcome with a plan and milestones to ensure that we are on the way to achieving that plan. 

I am a big believer in action and we all have agency to make things happen. We are privileged in that respect – all of us. I’ve currently got the same excitement and passion bubbling up that I felt after the DiverseEd conference in January 2020. What I am aware of, in these post #BlackLivesMatters post #Covid-19 days, is that this is a REAL opportunity for change. A chance to do things differently. For too long we have said that same things and nothing has changed. We need allies, we need authenticity, we need curriculum reviews, we need visible leadership, we need programmes that enable our up-and-coming talent to remain in education and be the leaders of tomorrow, not become disillusioned as they are under-represented or oppressed again and again! We need the systems that already exist to be challenged to enable that change to take place. Yes – the conversations will be uncomfortable – but no one needs to get hurt! Let us LEARN from one another.

And….. my biggest take away from my session and indeed the conference itself, is that I would welcome a genuine level playing field.   Merit is the only currency that we should be utilising to enable us to progress.   Remember – “its difficult to be what you cannot see”.   

I have focused on diversity from my own lens but the beauty of #DiversityEd conferences is the inclusion of LGBT, disability, gender, allyship viewpoints, as well as ethnic minorities. It’s such an important conversation – and in the current climate we MUST keep talking; and turning our words into actions. #MyDiversityEdPledge is: to use my voice to lead from where I am and to support others so that they can challenge their understanding of diversity and Black perspectives. What’s yours?

“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognise, accept and celebrate those differences”.

Audre Lorde

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