The dual pandemics of racism and Covid 19 dramatically collided in Spring 2020, bringing a sense of urgency and declarations of “we must do something” from many white-majority organisations far and wide, ranging from village schools to high street fashion outlets, national charities to global food chain stores. In some cases, there’s been an organisational equivalent of the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – that could be translated to the stages of workplace commitments to change, emerging over this period. Social media has been instrumental in amplifying and making public much of this phenomenon.
How did antiracism become EDI?
Anti-racism was the clear and urgent priority following the murder of George Floyd, and over time, this seems to have been re-routed to a more generalist approach. Although it is not exactly the same as declarations that ‘all lives matter’ or the ‘whataboutery’ often deployed to what is perceived as a need to counter prioritising one injustice over another, it’s hard not to sense that this might be a softening, as anti-racism work becomes increasingly tricky and demanding when the dust has settled on the public announcements and the work begins. One crucial question often seems to be, ‘If you are saying you want your organisation to be ‘anti’ racist, does this mean you are ready to accept as fact that it is in fact structurally racist at present?’ People of colour (usually in roles in the existing hierarchy that lack power, influence, a budget, or agency precisely because of the racist structures they seek to disrupt) have been hired within their own organisations only sometimes to find themselves isolated or abandoned to do the work, feeling they are token, powerless and exposed in an elaborate game of hide-and-seek. In some scenarios, the role has been discontinued in favour of some training, and pledges to do better. In other cases, having lifted the lid on it, working on racism is said to seem ‘combative’ or ‘unduly negative’. The logic goes that since there are actually Equality Duty objectives which hold us accountable to demonstrate equality for all of the nine protected characteristics, it seems inequitable to just give oxygen to the one: race. This can be further explained by those who have heard that since inequity is intersectional, we can legitimately work our way through all of the protected characteristics with that in mind. This problem has been acknowledged by Miller (2019) who tells us that “”issues to do with ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ in education have been subsumed in wider discourses around ‘diversity’, the result of which is the subsuming of ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity issues under a single diversity banner is contributing to the invisibility of the quotidian experiences of ethnic minority people’ (p.223). Miller’s observations are consistent with Kimberle Crenshaw’s entreaty to engage in intersectional anti-racism work, but not in place of actual anti-racism work.
Social media has also colluded with the situation to create an army of freelance Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) experts with varying knowledge and practice experience, of all ethnicities. Whilst the market is large enough to accommodate all these experts, organisations must be discerning so their spend in this area can take them forward in knowledge and practice. It might come as a surprise that despite the intention and activism of staff and leaders there is only limited evidence EDI programmes are in fact increasing diversity. Not much has changed during the various waves of EDI work since the 1960s, aside from of course some new technological advances to help gather and track data. Organisations still rely on ‘diversity training’ to reduce workplace bias, and ‘anonymous recruitment practices to try and improve attracting and recruiting new candidates. Whilst these important actions, without organisational and individual ownership of anti-racism, meaningful change is quite possibly further away than imagined or believed.
There’s almost always an elephant
One unintended outcome of the fragmentation and marketisation of EDI work and the associated social media noise, is that it might actually be driving a shift away from focus on anti-racism to one centred around a more generalist diversity agenda pointed out above. ‘Diversity’ can be a way to sanitise what was seen as a great urgent concern two years ago, and perhaps now still feels deeply uncomfortable – and therefore attract more business. It feels more fair and equitable, and it opens the door to people who perhaps feel they don’t have skin in the game to rely on as their driver for change to find their ‘in’, and can perpetuate the notion that racism is a ‘Black problem’, as opposed to something firmly rooted in the structures of whiteness. Furthermore, EDI professionals need to ensure that diversity management is a strategic priority for those willing to employ their services and by setting out the ‘moral and business’ cases for diversity. Organisations are guilty of overriding the moral case and not sufficiency engaging with the business case, leading to a zero sum game.
The elephant in the room of course is unpacking what we mean by diversity and how it is used. Language is important, after all. Firstly, people cannot be ‘diverse’. And yet we hear EDI specialists and the general public talk of ‘diverse candidates’, ‘diverse teachers’, even people referring to themselves as ‘diverse’. But the use of the word diverse in this way, actually reinforces the status quo and normalise a notion that default and standard is one thing (white, male, heterosexual, cis-gender, able bodied, middle class), and anyone who falls outside of this is ‘diverse’. Similarly, ‘diversifying’ the workforce, or ‘diversifying’ the school curriculum is often talked about as if there’s a trunk road of normal, and some small lanes of scenic routes we could add in to make the journey to our destination perhaps more scenic and enriching. These notions are as problematic as they are important.
The most significant elephant in the room, we find, is that of power. On a grand scale we need to contextualise power within the framework of capitalism and the necessity of inequalities to create the power structures for the system to work in the first place. On a smaller scale, diversity practitioners themselves often overlook the centrality of power in the equation, and in doing so fail to reposition organisational discourse, practice and the responsibility for leading change towards those with the power to do so. As Miller (2020) sets out, “leaders have the power to establish and influence cultures; to influence race relations positively; help reframe problems, ameliorate conflicts and inform strategies; secure buy-in and create an institutional multiplier effect, and to influence practice outside their institutions” (pp. 5-6).  As Professor Paul Warmington said recently, ‘racism is everyday, it is not a glitch in the system, it is the system’ – a situation which makes it even more urgent for anti-racism to be done, and to be done by those with appropriate knowledge, skills, and lived experiences.
Another outcome of the furious competition and fragmentation of EDI work is that it plays straight into the hands of capitalist market forces and creates a situation where true collaboration and powerful alliances become difficult. There becomes an ironic mirroring of the power dynamic of having the owners of the means of production and those that generate the profit for them through their work inherent in the capitalist model. Noisy self-appointed EDI celebrities create what they refer to as collaborations through drowning out the perceived competition, effectively colonising the space and co-opting others’ work, allowing them to grab onto their coat-tails in exchange for ‘exposure’. While this can be useful for both parties, if examined through an educated lens of diversity, equity and inclusion, it should be problematised and openly critiqued for a space to be created for truly reflexive and emancipatory work.
Keeping an eye on EDI and anti-racism
Racism lies at the centre of society as a powerful tool with massive reach. We absolutely must think of the nine protected characteristics detailed in the Equality Act 2010 and work towards our duty to make workplaces and society friendly to all humans. It is also important to not lose sight of the fact that when we consider race, we are talking about peoples upon whom the greatest genocide in human history was enacted and which was systematically justified through flawed and carefully manufactured logic of race and racism. A logic which is still embedded in our psyches today, and by which society is still ordered in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. In short, people of colour are still paying the price for the fact that “racism as a tool for ordering society is bigger than any weapon of mass destruction” . We need to keep a critical eye on EDI and antiracism work, and ensure that we are not falling foul of the structures of inequity and systems of division that nurture inequity through our own work. We need to build equitable alliances and collaborations to ensure that our work is powerful, agile and enduring. We need to generously showcase counter-narratives to the status quo that show pockets of hope and examples of activism, wherever they can be found. We cannot afford to allow apathy, a lack of trust or competition to railroad both EDI and antiracism efforts, wherever they are taking place.
 Miller, P. (2019) ‘Race’ and ethnicity in Educational Leadership. In T Bush, L Bell and D Middlewood (Eds) Principles of Educational Leadership & Management (3rd Edn), London: SAGE.
One of the first questions we ask teachers who participate, is to what extent they are aware of the SDGs or Global Goals as they are also known. In our experience, it is normal for a vast majority of teachers to start the initial webinar with us unaware of the SDGs beyond a vague understanding that they exist. By the end of the course, they can see what a powerful framework the SDGs can provide for guiding tomorrow’s global citizens in today’s classroom. As the world experiences a shift in circumstances with the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, now more than ever, we can feel the powerful relevance of global connectedness and an international commitment to solidarity around tangible goals to support a healthy, equitable and responsible future.
What are the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?
The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was adopted by all United Nations member states in 2015 and “provides a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future”. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals are central to this, and although we often might perceive them as intended for our fellow citizens ‘over there’, they form an urgent call for action by all countries – so-called developed and developing – in a global partnership. These global goals make clear that urgent action must be taken to eliminate poverty and inequality, address climate change, and act for peace and social justice for all people, everywhere. The SDGs build on decades of work by countries and the UN, including the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs and can be found here https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org.
A number of elements of this report stand out, when looking at the work we are doing with schools, teachers and students to explore the power of human stories from around the world. We often find ourselves helping teachers and students alike to realise that the global goals outlined in the SDGs are not ‘over there’ but very much here and now in our own society and the communities we serve. The socio-economic impacts of lockdown in the UK have acted as a magnifying lens for many of these global goals.
SDG 1: No poverty
With the partial closure of schools, we see how this can impact on families our schools serve. A shocking 4 million children live in poverty in this country. That’s 30% of children or 9 children in every classroom of 30. Two thirds of these children’s families will have at least one parent in work, yet they will be earning an income below 60% of the UK’s average. Loss of income as employees are furloughed or laid off altogether, can have a devastating impact on already precarious lives. In addition, individuals who haven’t previously experienced poverty, have seen their incomes impacted by the lockdown, and may experience their first taste of immediate financial insecurity.
SDG 2: Zero hunger
For many of the families already living in poverty, and those newly threatened by it, school provides an important service not only through delivering a formal education, but also by ensuring a reliable source of nutrition in the form of a daily cooked meal. Food production and distribution can be disrupted by the lockdown. It is reassuring to see how schools have upheld the importance of food distribution for their vulnerable families, and have put pressure on the government to provide a voucher scheme to support them through this difficult time, including during school holidays. Schools are mindful that not only those defined as being eligible for free school meals are at risk at the moment, and are making arrangements for any family that is in need at this time.
SDG 3: Good health and well-being
With restrictions on all of our mobility, no matter the socio-economic circumstances, everyone is feeling the impact on their physical and mental health of the lockdown. With the daily routine of work and school disrupted, families are under strain. Young people’s mental health is already under the radar as they are particularly at risk of increased anxiety. With 87% of the world’s student population away from schools and universities at present, and GCSE and A Level students having the rug pulled from under them as they were sharpening their focus on the upcoming exams, this is particularly acute. Hand in hand with these growing levels of mental health concerns, is also a growing awareness among young people and they are stepping up to the challenge by running campaigns, volunteering to support vulnerable peers and contributing as innovators in the good health and well-being space on and off line.
SDG 4: Quality education
With learning moved to the home for most institutions, introducing some form of remote online learning has been the response of many schools across the country. For some, online learning is less effective or even inaccessible. We can see digital inequality playing a part as some schools serving privileged populations are able to continue the delivery of the timetable with a shift to remote learning, knowing that their students will most likely have an adult to support, children with their own room to study in, a personal device to work on, and reliable internet access. Other schools are sending home paper-based activities that will at best keep children occupied for a short stint during each day, provided they can complete them without adult support. Without clear leadership on a digital strategy for a new landscape, teachers are doing their best, but many may not feel able to step up to the challenge effectively yet.
SDG 5: Gender equality
Women are more likely to be in the caring professions and account for the majority of health, social care and the teaching population who are exposed to COVID-19. We are already seeing increased levels of domestic violence against women, as they spend more time in the home and are less likely to be able to seek support from friends and family. Even with both parents at home, in two-parent families, it is often still the women who will take on most of the caring and housework responsibilities. This can be while simultaneously trying to work from home or being required to take on longer shifts as a keyworker.
SDG 6: Clean water and sanitation
Never before has this been more important in this country, when it is often seen as something that impacts on developing countries ‘over there’. We are suddenly keenly aware of the impact of inadequate access to water and sanitation that can hinder handwashing, one of the most vital preventive measures in the fight against the spread of COVID-19. And of course, the street homeless and rough sleepers are always impacted by limited access to sanitation, which is ever more crucial at this time.
SDG 7: Affordable and clean energy
Many families in the UK are already living in ‘fuel poverty’, meaning that they spend more than 10% of their income on energy. Fuel poverty affects over 4 million UK households – roughly 15% of all households, before the COVID-19 crisis. This looks likely to rise given the economic impact of the crisis. With so many people at home, and the NHS working flat out, the strain on electricity supply – and in many cases on broadband services, as many workplaces move to online meetings – is tangible. Home utilities bills are going to be impacted as many of our indoor leisure activities require electricity.
SDG 8: Decent work and economic growth
For many occupations, unemployment, lower incomes, and longer hours are now the norm where previously they might have been perceived as realities reserved for others. For the school workforce, the window has opened for handing in notice to seek employment in other schools, either for a change of scene or to pursue promotion opportunities. How this will work in the current climate is uncertain now.
The impact of the pandemic on employment, education, mental and physical health outcomes will be a clear driver in further exacerbating the huge economic, gendered, and educational inequalities we face in this country. The gap between rich and poor has already been growing during the last decade, and although the virus itself doesn’t discriminate, newspapers and researchers alike are reporting the effects of inequalities on the outcomes for people who have less access to resources.
SDG 11: Sustainable cities and communities
Areas of high population density and multi-generational or overcrowded homes will be hit harder by the risk of exposure to COVID-19. It is heartening to see initiatives spring up to use resources effectively and to think about measures that are put in place now, that could endure and support more sustainable living in the future. We seem to be better at remembering people that live alone and the elderly, of late.
SDG 12: Responsible consumption and production
Panic buying and resource hoarding has been much-reported in the news, followed by reports of food wastage as bulk bought items are discarded unused. On the other hand, we are not able to keep up with demand for personal protection equipment and vital ventilators needed by hospitals. It seems that more education is needed around our collective social responsibility to each other’s well-being and access to resources.
SDG 13: Climate action
On the one hand, there has been a hiatus in the attention given to climate change activism, but reports of the positive impact on pollution levels and on wildlife due to reduced industrial production and transport-related emissions is heartening. This also relates to SDG 14: Life below water and SDG 15: Life on Land. But will this have a lasting impact, unless we continue to raise awareness?
SDG 16: Peace, justice and strong institutions
Nothing is more evident than schools’ commitment to this goal. We see how many school leaders have stepped up as civic leaders and guardians of social justice at the heart of their mission. It is also important that Ofsted inspections, SATs, GCSEs and A Level exams and league tables have been suspended for now. There is much debate about what this will look like when we reach the other side of the lockdown and return to a new normal.
SDG 17: Partnerships for the goals
While some parties are seeing the global pandemic as evidence against globalisation, it also helps highlight the importance of collaboration across borders and across continents on issues such as public health, research and knowledge-sharing. Civil society and community-based organisations are feeding and caring for vulnerable families, and edtech companies are providing free access to resources for schools, for example.
We will overcome this global crisis and emerge as better societies, workplaces and communities
“The COVID-19 pandemic is a defining moment for modern society, and history will judge the efficacy of our response not by the actions of any single set of government actors taken in isolation, but by the degree to which the response is coordinated globally across all sectors to the benefit of our human family. The United Nations global footprint at the national level is an asset for the global community to be leveraged to deliver the ambition needed to win the war against the virus. With the right actions, the COVID-19 pandemic can mark the rebirthing of society as we know it today to one where we protect present and future generations. It is the greatest test that we have faced since the formation of the United Nations, one that requires all actors – governments, academia, businesses, employers and workers’ organisations, civil society organisations, communities and individuals – to act in solidarity in new, creative, and deliberate ways for the common good and based on the core United Nations values that we uphold for humanity”
It is my hope that an even clearer shared language of civic engagement and collective social responsibility will take centre stage, encouraging the view that school leaders are in fact civic leaders – using their autonomy to create spaces where change and progress can happen in ways that work for their communities and that both provide models for, and draw on learning from, other communities worldwide.
I hope that schools will be able to spend time considering their digital strategy – not just for their students but also for staff CPD. We are hopeful at Lyfta that with a renewed focus on weaving online and face-to-face activities into the curriculum and ensuring digital equality for all students as part of their gap-closing priorities for the future, schools will be able to engage with global citizenship as a given at every age and stage of their students’ education.
More than ever, we remain committed to our mission at Lyfta to ensure that, by the time a child has completed their education, they will have been able to visit every country in the world, and will have learned from at least one human story from each place they find themselves in the world. We want to support the leaders of tomorrow to be world-wise, globally aware and to bravely consider the UN’s global goals as our collective social responsibility wherever we are in the world, and whatever the obstacles we find ourselves up against, now and in the future.
If you would like to take advantage of Lyfta’s free online CPD courses and access to stunning immersive human stories, email firstname.lastname@example.org to secure your place now.
Kindness is a buzzword we hear a lot nowadays. It takes its place alongside mindfulness, the search for happiness, and other misappropriated concepts that have been borrowed from spiritual traditions and co-opted, reduced and repackaged by the self-improvement industry. Hang on though, what sort of cynical or heartless sub-human would have a pop at kindness when our world seems to be so tragically unkind? The kindness agenda does indeed seem attractive when acts of kindness can be used to counterbalance the efforts of some individuals who spend time cyber-bullying, tormenting, racially abusing and parading their cruelties to others so openly on social media for example.
The glaring flaw of the kindness agenda seems to be that acts of kindness are in danger of being selective, almost transactional and certainly fleeting moments meted out to people we deem worthy of our attention at a given time. Furthermore, they seem to be more about us than the recipients of the kind acts. The feeling of warmth we gain from acting kindly somehow doesn’t equate to the same level of relief from hardship or misfortune that can be gained from someone on the receiving end of an act of kindness. In fact it has been proven that being kind makes us healthier, but doesn’t have the same impact on those subjected to our kindness.
In fact, what I am driving at is not even about the act of kindness in itself. What I am trying to get to is deepening the motivation, and the impact, behind it. Even shifting the agenda from kindness to compassion is a step closer to something that has much more impactful value than kindness can ever have.Let’s take a closer look:
/ˈkʌɪn(d)nəs/ the quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate
/kəmˈpaʃ(ə)n/ sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others
Even through putting these two definitions side by side, you should be able to see a shift from something that is more performative to something that contains a further step of ‘putting oneself in another’s shoes’. You are moving from a way of acting to a way of thinking about others.
Collective social responsibility
There is, to my mind, a stage beyond either of these two, which we seem to have lost sight of and which should really guide all human interaction, especially in these strange times we find ourselves in recently. This is known as collective social responsibility.
Collective social responsibility is not just a way of acting; or even just a way of thinking – it is a way of being which includes a depth of thinking we can’t take for granted from kindness or compassion alone. Through collective social responsibility, we see our relationship with society and the environment as an opportunity to create shared value and we act upon that shared value in a way which is inclusive and promotes the wellbeing of all as collectively valued. It is something that requires broad knowledge and specific interest. It is ever evolving and iterative. It doesn’t set people on a continuum based on value judgements and a meritocratic hierarchy of the deserving and the undeserving.
I am an adult who grew up during the selfish era of Thatcherism. Since 2010 we have seen the rise of policy that seems to be aimed at benefiting the few and not the many. On this backdrop, I am keenly aware of how much the agenda of individualism, self-efficacy and so-called meritocracy guides many people of my generation’s world view. Kindness fits into this, and is a moment of performative softening, from time to time, of what could be seen as a ruthless focus on individual needs and goals.
Let me illustrate how being kind can be differentiated from collective social responsibility and how an act of kindness can be contextualised within a wider collective social responsibility agenda. It could be seen as a kind act to stand and give up your seat for someone else on a bus, because they are elderly or struggling with heavy shopping and have asked you to, either verbally or non-verbally. It is compassionate to be able to see that someone standing near you seems to be uncomfortable and could use your seat and for you to beckon them into your seat. For me, collective social responsibility would be, as an able-bodied person to make sure I sit upstairs ensuring that the seats on the bus downstairs are free for those that need them most. It is for me to explain this rationale to my children as many times as is needed, so that they understand their collective social responsibility to get out of the way, to climb the stairs of the bus even if they would rather stand by the door for the five stops they need to travel than suffer the faff of climbing the stairs. It is not enough for me to instruct them to give up their seat, I must contextualise this and frame it as collective social responsibility. It is that same collective social responsibility that is lacking when we enact a first-come, first-served attitude to the accessible area on the bus, or when a parent sits their child on a seat that could be taken by a vulnerable or frail person instead of putting that child on their lap.
It goes deeper still for me. Kindness could be perceived as a blanket of niceness, that can be delivered in the guise of treating people politely. Collective social responsibility can be about redressing imbalance of resources, power and privilege in simple ways that come from a place of consciousness and conscience. Which is why I become agitated when people divert discussions around social activism, anti-racism and so on, with the suggestion that we just all need to be kinder to one another.
In the context of being a parent of school-aged children, I was sometimes really struck by other parents’ lack of kindness or compassion towards each other, and certainly of the complete lack of collective social responsibility. They were not pointedly unkind as such, just completely unimaginative about other parents’ experiences, needs and life situations. As a parent governor, for example, it is important to try to see the perspective of all families and to try to champion the needs of those who might be least heard or seen, not just to protect and champion the needs of your own child. I would assert that as parents (regardless of whether we are on the governing board or not) that are part of a school community, we should all push ourselves to operate in this way and to enact our collective social responsibility to others in the school community wherever we can.
As the child of a single-parent family myself, I was very aware of the lack of collective social responsibility enacted by others towards my mum. She was so isolated coping with even some of the seemingly simple parts of the parenting malarky that after a while she just gave up trying to do it all alone. So with this in mind, when my children were at primary school, my partner and I talked about how we could enact our collective social responsibility towards those that don’t have our privilege and level of stability, and those that could use a practical additional pair of hands now and again. We had our struggles with stress, money, and as renters suffered some injustices and difficulties around feeling insecure as tenants. Not everything was smooth, stable or safe in our own lives, but we knew that there were compassionate acts we could easily undertake, rooted in our deep sense of collective social responsibility, that made us both want to extend ourselves a little in support of other parents that could benefit from that. I’msurethere were also many times when Iwas as ignorant and indifferent toopportunities where I could have been kind, compassionate or acted as a socially responsible person to other parents. This isn’t about judgement but about trainingoneself to see more clearly when possible.
So, how does that manifest itself? Tapping a parent on the shoulder in the playground and offering to collect their child on the way to school some mornings so they could get off to work sometimes a little earlier or a little calmer – we all know how fraught those school runs can be at times. (And aren’t these moments all the more difficult when you don’t have a partner or another adult to confess your anxiety to about being shouty or terse on the school run?) Or maybe offering to have their child overnight at the weekend so they can get out and not have to think about what time they get in and the expense of a babysitter. A small shift in our routine for us can make a huge difference for someone else, for their child, and even in the long run for the community as a whole. Imagine the power if this was hard-wired into all of us in a school community. Think of the impact on school lateness and absence for example if all parents took it upon themselves to see that all children got to school on time and if we found ways to share the school run as our collective social responsibility…
So, next time you think of something kind or compassionate to do for someone else, please don’t think I am trying to stop you from reaching out and being kind. I’m not. However, if we can find a way to contextualise another person’s experience within the social, societal, and collective, imagine to what extent our actions may lead to something closer to social justice than a feel-good act that has more benefit for the giver than its impact on the wider social good.
This toolkit is designed to be a starting point for event organisers. Whether you are part of a grassroots organisation putting together an event as a volunteer, or if you work for an organisation where this is part of your paid work, you will want to ensure that your event is high quality, represents the people and the issues that are important to the sector you serve, and that you are not consciously or unconsciously doing things that may perpetuate a narrow view of the world or that may exclude voices from typically marginalised groups being included in the programme. Similarly, if you are asked to speak at a conference or to take part on a panel, there are proactive things you can do to ensure that you are part of the solution and not part of the problem. Intentions are important, but outcomes are what matter most.
The toolkit will comprise of the following parts:
Detailed challenge and support around the likely issues you will need to consider and overcome when organising an event
A short checklist summarising the actions you might take to support your event and with space for you to set out your next steps
Reading and resources to support further thinking and learning
A flowchart designed to help map out things you will need to consider (This is still work in progress and will be included here as soon as it is ready)
Challenge and support
This section will feature some of the questions you may ask, may be asked by others, and some possible responses or things to consider. There are also links to further reading and where appropriate, data and evidence to support the responses.
Why is it necessary to be inclusive and have representation?
At a time when the UK ranks 57th in the world in terms of women’s representation, men outnumber women 4 to 1 in parliament, Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) school leadership is at around 3%, and government cuts mean that disabled and marginalised voices are even harder to hear, it’s only right that we celebrate diversity to create a more inclusive, representative and inspiring events programme in the education sector.
We live in a diverse country and we serve increasingly diverse student populations in our schools. We also live in a diverse, global world, and should be integrating a range of voices in our events, regardless of the population we serve locally.
If you are looking for high-quality and stimulating content for your event, you will need a wide range of voices. Research by McKinsey and Company shows that having diverse voices in your organisation is great for productivity, creativity and decision-making. It creates diversity of thought and action, which is a goal any education event should be seeking to work towards in order to cater for a diverse range of attendees working in a variety of contexts.
What does diversity of thought and action mean?
This means that although it may feel comfortable working with people who are like you, you will achieve more if you work with a group of people who have had different experiences from each other, especially in terms of their socio-economic background, their race, gender, education and political outlook. If we all look, sound and think the same, and have had broadly similar experiences, we may be operating under the false assumption that this is what reality looks like for everyone. We will also be in danger of recycling the same old ideas and action; perpetuating our existing biases and remaining unaware of the blind spots in our thinking and action. Please watch this animated explanation by the Royal Society.
Thinking the best person for the job happens to be a white man
“If you only play football with the same ten people, your idea about who the good footballers are, will be limited.” Amjad Ali
This is not an easy one to summarise in short, but there is a vicious cycle which can make people think that white men are the best voice of authority on many if not most matters. We are conditioned to think that white men are the best fit when it comes to speaking authoritatively, because we are accustomed to seeing white men speaking authoritatively. This means that there will also be a larger number of white men who are authorities on a subject and are well-known, as they are the ones that have been given legitimation as voices of authority. We need to break this cycle so we don’t only draw on this narrow pool of people. This means it is crucial to look beyond those that have been used a lot at events and start to promote a more diverse range of voices, that may be unfamiliar to you. You may even need to be brave and choose someone who may be for now less famous, and yet really knows their stuff.
When is it tokenistic?
It would be tokenistic to choose someone onlybecause they are from an ethnic minority group (or global majority, which is more accurate terminology) and/or a woman, for example. It would also be tokenistic to choose someone to talk about a subject they are not an expert on, or who is not a good public speaker, or not qualified for the job because they are Black and you need to fill a quota. This would also be counter-productive, as if they were less than convincing, the vicious cycle is further reinforced by doing this.
What does balance look like?
Balance means intentionally and purposely looking for a range of opinions, as well as a range of routes to getting to a certain opinion. It means thinking creatively about who is speaking and what they are speaking about. Because the accepted norm for authority is typically a white man, you will want to challenge that and think carefully about how to include a range of voices that are not only white men.
Balance also means what is on the programme, not just who
Thinking about balance and diversity means considering the programme contents as well as the people who speak on stage. Therefore, you may need to think carefully, do some research or ask/seekout a critical friend to help you consider how to widen your perspectives when planning the programme. For example, if your event is about curriculum design, have you included something around decolonising the curriculum? Are all your curriculum examples from a traditionally white canon? If your event is about recruitment and retention, have you included something about women, people of colour, disability, parents, flexibility, class, age, and so on?
Ensure people from diverse backgrounds are included as experts
“Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance!” Verna Myers
Balance also means ensuring that you have diverse voices speaking about issues that they have expertise in within the education sector, and not (just) being asked to speak about their identities. This means that you will not want to annexe people into talking only about their race, gender or other marginalised aspects of their person, unless your event directly deals with these issues and/or these are their explicitly stated areas of interest, experience and expertise. A Black man or a visibly orthodox Jewish woman should be able to be seen as an expert in curriculum design or data analysis if that is their field of expertise.
Quota systems to explain why your event is all-white doesn’t work either
Ensuring people from diverse backgrounds are seen doesn’t mean that they should only be seen in areas where schools typically serve diverse student populations.
Saying that your event is taking place in an area of the country which doesn’t serve a diverse population and/or that there are no diverse teachers in that area is not acceptable. People can and do travel if necessary. Representation doesn’t mean an exact science of like for like. It is about a range of voices. It would, in fact, be sensible to be even more committed to diverse representation in an area where this isn’t seen much, as we are prone to the white man bias described above unless we actively disrupt this and provide more variety of voices and views.
How do we reach diverse people if we don’t know any?
You may find that your social, professional and social media circle doesn’t include people that are from diverse backgrounds. Aside from the fact that this should indicate to you that you need to broaden your own echo chamber of professional acquaintance, there are ways that you can get help to find speakers if you are not familiar with anyone outside of your own narrow pool.
Organisations like the teacher unions, universities, local networks of schools, The Equalities Trust, the Runnymede Trust, the BAMEed Network, WomenEd, DisabilityEd, LGBTEd can help.
The BAMEed Network has a page on its website with a list of diverse speakers on a range of topics https://www.bameednetwork.com/speakers/ for example, specifically for the purpose of making it easier for people to find who they need.
The BAMEed Network, LGBTed, and WomenEd are planning to work together to create a directory of credible leaders, speakers and experts that can be called upon – or at the very least, link to each other’s websites once these directories are up and running on LGBTed and WomenEd websites. It would be good to work with DisabilityEd on this too.
How do we ask people to take part in a way that doesn’t feel awkward?
As mentioned earlier, be clear on what you want people to talk about and make sure you know what their expertise is. If you don’t know, ask them first to tell you what their expertise is, and what they would be best speaking about. Tell them about your event and ask if they see themselves as someone who would be happy to speak at it, should there be an opportunity to do so.
A woman from an ethnic minority background who is an expert on leadership development, being asked to speak about curriculum makes her know that you want her for her colour, not her expertise. This is tokenistic and insulting.
“We’re a grassroots organisation and don’t have time to organise ourselves like this”
There is only one response to this. If you can’t do it well, don’t do it at all. There are plenty of grassroots organisations that are run by people who work full time in other jobs and have families, studies, and other volunteer roles on top. Their commitment to doing it well is not compromised by this and there are many other grassroots organisations that will be keen to support yours to get it right. In the words of Spiderman, “with power comes great responsibility” and as a conference organiser, whether you recognise it or not, you have great power.
“We ask people to volunteer themselves so we can’t control who comes forward”
Again, taking into account the fact that your own circle of acquaintance might be skewed towards a certain demographic, this is problematic as the only way to recruit speakers. Think of other ways to reach deeper into schools and other institutions – perhaps create a poster or flyer on a document that can be shared, printed and put in staff rooms across the country. Reach out to large organisations to help you circulate these either by email or in their newsletters to their members e.g. the unions, Ambition Institute, Chartered College of Teaching, Teaching School Alliances, WomenEd, BAMEed Network, Challenge Partners, Teach First and so on. For help with this, please get in touch, or contact The BAMEed Network who will be happy to connect you and support you with your strategy on this.
Think also about where you advertise the event. Getting beyond Twitter can be tricky for some, but using Linked In, Facebook and even Instagram can be excellent quick ways to still use social media platforms, but widen the pool of people that will see your call for speakers. If you use a platform like Eventbrite, this will also ensure that people find your event.
Widen your network and start with an ‘over-subscription’ of diverse people
The most commonly-heard excuse for events that have all-male or all-white speakers is “we had a woman/person of colour on one of the panels but s/he dropped out at the last minute”
What would happen if you started building your speaker preference list and started with an ‘over-subscription’ of people from typically underrepresented groups? Try it, and see that this will help you to stay diverse throughout the planning and execution of your event.
Attracting a diverse audience is important
“You can’t be what you can’t see” (Marian Wright Edelman)
Having a diverse range of speakers on the programme may boost the number of people from marginalised groups that attend your event. However, many events in the education sector, especially those aimed at leadership, will see few people from BAME backgrounds in attendance. There can be reasons why this may occur, and there are a few things you can do to ensure that it doesn’t happen at your event.
The cost of tickets and getting away from school can be factors for some people from BAME backgrounds, especially if you consider that these will be the people who are less likely to be progressing into the higher paid and more autonomous roles that allow event attendance. You may wish to offer a travel subsidy or early bird rate for people to take advantage of should they wish to attend but find it financially difficult. There is no shame in offering a bursary for early career teachers or aspiring leaders from BAME backgrounds and/or other marginalised groups alongside your statement around commitment to diversity and inclusion. Some people feel uncomfortable about the prospect of being the only person of colour in a roomful of people that they don’t know, so group discounts or two for one offers are also useful so that a delegate can extend the invitation to a colleague they feel comfortable with.
You have responsibility if you are taking part in a conference as a speaker
If you are asked to speak at an event, to facilitate a workshop or be on a panel, you also have a responsibility to ensure broad and balanced content and representation. I will repeat that, as this may be an alien concept to many people on the speaking circuit: you too are responsible for the diversity of speakers at an event if you are invited to speak at it. Even if it’s not your event, you don’t know the organisers and you were just asked to take part, you can and should take responsibility for the diversity of voices included if you agree for your voice to be one of them.
When you are approached, you can ask “I’m interested to know a little more about your event, who else is speaking, how did you come to ask me?” There is a growing number of white men who do this and will decline to speak as a white man on an agenda full of white men. They will of course do this cordially, and will offer solutions and suggestions of other people. This can be hard to do if you would quite fancy speaking at the particular event, and if you would like to get some exposure for yourself. But this is also an active commitment to anti-sexist and anti-racist activism that is powerful and effective. Chances are also, that you will get to speak after all since your suggestions will have helped the organisers to create a better balance and your presence isn’t going to be part of an identical line up now.
What if we can’t afford to pay people? “I asked a Black woman and they asked for payment, when other speakers are doing it for free” is something we have heard.
There is a complex system of privilege in place in society which means that in some cases, a senior, white, man, may be able to generously give their time to speak at your event for free. Many women and people of colour may find themselves less able to give of their professional expertise free, without personal financial sacrifice, and in some cases, that includes having to pay not only for travel, but also fees to carers for dependants while they travel to and take part in your event. In many cases, a man may not be expected to take on these roles and will be freer to use their time as they wish. They are also more likely to be on a higher pay scale, as white men tend to reach leadership positions with greater ease and more frequently, which affords them the luxury of giving their time for free. You only have to look at the data on gender and race pay gaps to understand why this is fact.
Grassroots conferences and how to pay your speakers’ travel costs
There are ways to ensure that you can at least pay travel costs for your speakers.
The first way is to charge attendees a minimal fee for attendance and explain that this covers speakers and refreshments. There is a direct correlation between attendance numbers and charging, which is good for your event as well. When people pay, they show up. And if they pay and don’t show up, they have at least helped cover the costs of your event and the travel costs of your speakers so it is win-win – see above section ‘Attracting a diverse audience is important’ for suggestions on scaled costs to allow for a diverse range of attendees
Ask for donations from local or national organisations – consider your local university, the TES, or a local business that would like to see their branding on your event page acknowledging their support
Have some professional exhibition stands and ask for a fee from them. If you get 5 stands all paying £300 to have a few minutes with your attendees that visit them, that can cover travel costs for a good number of speakers. This doesn’t have to bring down the tone of your event – quite the opposite, a useful interaction with an organisation that can help your attendees is an added bonus to attending the event. If you need help getting a list of potential exhibitors, please email email@example.com or consider using Innovate my School to deliver a speed dating session at your event, that they will usually organise themselves and which will fund your event nicely
Crowd-funding is an option. Explain what you want to achieve and why you want to repay your speakers for their time. You never know, you might get more than you need to put on a fabulous event
Committing beyond cosmetics Gold standard event management includes the way that you treat your speakers, including how you brief them for their part in the event. How you prepare your speakers, panel members and workshop facilitators so there is a level playing field of experience on the day is extremely important. You should try to let them know what to expect in as much detail as you can, as well as who will be there, with a view to breaking down class and culture barriers. There is nothing worse than showing up, not knowing that there is a dress code, or that lunch is not included and you have no cash with you and so on. You can cover this by issuing a one page outline of what to expect specifically for speakers and panel members.
A word on panels
A good panel session will be dynamic, may have people chosen for their deliberately opposing views, and may have some controversial or even provocative elements. However, be very careful about setting people up for humiliation, or failure, or pitting people against each other in a way that is unfair. Ensure that panel members know what is going to be discussed, who the other panel members are, and who the chair will be. And again, make sure all participants are briefed well, and have an opportunity to accept or decline your invitation in good time. Although it may lead to lively debate and good entertainment for your audience, you need to avoid a discussion which compounds stereotypes, marginalises already marginalised people and so on. As above, don’t ever invite someone from a marginalised group to represent that group unless that is what they want to do, but do include a diverse range of voices who are experts in their field. You can read more about one panellist’s experience here
This Saturday, I was fortunate enough to attend the Portobello Festival of Learning in Edinburgh. I am writing this while the train home carries me hurtling through green fields and northern cities, with a feeling I haven’t had for quite some time. It’s a mixture of deep pain and uplifting joy, both are the direct result of feeling connected to a shared narrative experience. The golden thread running through the event was around storytelling and narratives as pivotal not only to learning but to the human connection which makes learning sticky, memorable and even a deeply happy experience. Nina Jackson’s incredible hour-long keynote was as harrowing as it was hopeful. Like a phoenix from the flames, she took us deep into the fire of her experience in childhood and early adulthood and right through to the colourful and whole person she is today. The intensity of 300 pairs of eyes tracking her glide around the centre stage was visceral. Her ability to tell her story, to elicit gasps, laughs, to have us leaning in and then recoiling again, was phenomenal. Her pulling together the themes, tying them into clear strands and using minimal visual inputs at carefully timed intervals was clearly craftwork.
When I refer to storytelling and narratives as a tool for learning, it is clear to me that this is not just about teachers telling stories that make learning happen in the classroom, although the inimitable Hywel Roberts’ session definitely reminded me the power of a carefully prepared narrative containing dramatic development, coupled with a deep understanding of sound pedagogy, to activate the senses and make engaging learning take place. As he led us through some of the methodology he uses in the classroom with teachers and children alike, I had a physically and emotionally intense response to the suspense and drama he created. The group was positively bristling with excitement and childlike willingness to enter into an adventure with him. We mustn’t forget as teachers that our ability to facilitate learning in others is most powerful when coupled with our own commitment to lifelong learning as a human being. Part of this learning means seeking out the human stories of those around us, so that we can expand our view of the world, the possibilities and similarities and differences. Prior knowledge means that we have anchors and reference points to draw on, but alongside this is also the fact that what we often class as prior knowledge is often deeply flawed, contextually irrelevant or even just plain learned bias. Lyfta’s workshop took participants on a journey to immersive storyworlds with embedded human documentary stories. Opening the session, Serdar Ferit started with the fascinating contextual framing that led to the Lyfta concept being born. Guiding the group around the storyworlds Lyfta has created, and before playing each human story documentary, he asked, “what can you say about what you can see, and how do you know?” We’re all willingly sharing our assumptions as our eyes scan an Ethiopian village, a Palestinian family living room, a Finnish ballet studio and we hazard a guess, only to be gently redirected as we watch the short film that follows, and as we listen to real human beings telling us their story. By the end of the session, teachers in the room spoke of what sounded to my ears like a renewed commitment to treat what we have learned with the challenge it rightfully deserves. One of the powerful yet simple learnings I have gained from reading about race and class in recent years is the toxic nature of the presumed innocent question we often ask people we meet, which is along the lines of “where are you from?” or “what do you do?” This can be loaded with racially stereotypical and classist connotations and assumptions. One way around this, which is also faithful to the importance of storytelling and narratives is to ask “what’s your story?” – giving people the opportunity to respond in as narrow, wide, personal or generalised way as is fitting for their own contextualised narrative journey of the current moment.
Paul Dix reminded us of the importance as educators to lead on the co-creation and at times to own the narrative for our young charges. The simple process of reframing the narrative can diffuse potentially disruptive situations in the classroom. He laid out carefully why we as adults need to be clear on our part in the story that is unfolding right there in our own classroom. We may need to retell the story to include perhaps a historical context that allows a potentially volatile young person to rewrite the story in real time. Instead of entering into a battle of wills, trying to get a child back on task, you can say for example, gently but with conviction, “remember last week you helped me clear up when the lesson was finished, and you stayed behind to make sure everything was in place? That’s the person I know, and that’s the person I want to see here now”. This reminds the young person that this positive element is still part of their story, and is included in the whole story. Paul used dramatic demonstration and emotionally engaging dialogue to help us understand that as responsible adults, we can reframe, redirect and take charge of the narrative so that behaviour is guided back on track leaving both your and the student’s dignity and self-respect in tact.
Aside from learning about others through taking an interest in their narrative and on their own terms, is the important work of learning to connect with our own narratives. By this I don’t mean to endlessly hone the story we tell others about ourselves, which we often defensively beaver away at to show ourselves in the best light. Learning one’s own narrative means being able to zoom in and out, and as we gain greater perspective and distance, weaving in the contextual, socio-historical backdrop to give more rich and layered meaning to our own pinhole camera view. Parts of the day were personally resonant, and therefore profoundly painful for me and I’m sure many people in the room. But I know that I am also increasingly able to understand my own childhood experiences firmly within the political backdrop of Britain at that time. I contextualise my parents’ decisions and behaviours that led to some serious negative outcomes for their children within their class-based economic constraints, educational achievements and resulting restricted opportunity, and the contemporary gender role expectations – as well as the commonly-held beliefs about childhood of the time. This helps to ensure the story I tell is iterative and nuanced, based on my own emotional growth and psychological bandwidth to zoom out from the pure hurt to an external packaging which humanises the chain of events without betraying my own experience.
Whatever our narrative, and however we weave storytelling into our professional, pedagogical and personal life, perhaps we all need Nina Jackson’s reminder of the Japanese practice of Kintsugi – repairing broken ceramics with gold. Kintsugi wisdom says rather than disguising the broken pieces, you recognise the story of the object and visibly incorporate the repair into it, while outlining the places which are whole and in tact. By outlining the places that broke us, or where the story changed, we can also remember the beauty of the process of retelling and rebuilding that resulted in who we are now.
I noticed someone on Twitter asking recently for recommendations for speakers for INSET days. There are some great speakers out there and some brilliant examples of good quality and impactful CPD that schools use their INSET days for. However, too often, people feel either drained from passive listening or massively inspired but unable to really do anything life changing or practical with what they have heard.
This made me remember the times I have been involved in hackathons as a brilliant way to energise, harmonise and galvanise a staff team into being trusted to identify, name and sort some innovative solutions that can have an immediate, positive and lasting impact on the school.
So what the heck is a “hackathon”?
You might have heard of these from tales of start-ups and tech companies as time set aside for engineers and innovators to build something new by the end of the day. Legend has it that during a Facebook hackathon, the ‘Like’ button was conceived by a couple of lowly employees. Can you even remember what Facebook was, without being able to ‘Like’ things?
A hackathon is an event usually over two days where different people get together to work collaboratively on a project or an idea. It is creative and experimental. People develop projects without any constraints except time and their collective skill. It’s fun, satisfyingly solutions-oriented and valuable learning rolled into one.
Why should we even care about hackathons?
Most of the answers in organisations like schools, can actually be found within the four walls of the school and the people working there but only if there is enough time and trust given to people. A hackathon is a great way to give a 48 hour push within clear and safe boundaries for some brilliant thinking and a bit of real action.
Hackathons afford your team members time to focus on things they might otherwise never get to. It also gives them license to work on projects or ideas that don’t even seem to need to get done. Think pet projects, pet peeves and issues that would help your organisation move forward, but that there hasn’t been time to develop. Think marginal gains and small blockers, once removed, allowing the good stuff to flow forth. Imagine that small boy with his finger in the dike and what might have happened if he had removed it….
Hackathons are a great opportunity for staff members who don’t usually get to work together to get to know each other’s professional strengths and interests better. People are encouraged to work in pairs or teams if they think multiple skills sets will help their projects along.
Hackathons encourage creative thinking, something that can be considered important for your organisation, but that doesn’t really see the light of day in the usual grind of routine.
How do you run one as an INSET?
It’s pretty easy to run one as long as you are really clear on the aim, framework, expectations and structure of the two days. Make sure that people have understood well in advance and have the time blocked out in their diaries.
It’s good to prompt people with the parameters when you block out the time. In general, projects don’t have to be connected to their subjects, or be necessary for the team’s day-to-day operational activity, but they should probably relate to the school’s ethos, values and mission in some way. Whatever they choose to do, it needs to be feasibly completed in one to two days (however long your hackathon is). It’s best to think about a problem they want to solve or a skill they want to sharpen or develop. It is also good to think about how they might work with others and think creatively about who those others might be. Between the time you have announced that you are going to do a hack day and the start date itself, people should be finding time to discuss ideas and even potentially settle on a project and a group structure for each.
Before you start, each team member could have found themselves a manageable and exciting project and a group of people to work with (or at least one other person). There could be a list up in the staff room of the projects and who is part of each.
To make it easier, you may wish to allocate a theme to the hack day. For example you could be really specific with ‘Using tech for good’ or broader with ‘Connect, Collaborate, Create’.
What sort of things would a staff team do as their projects?
The ideas are many, and can be as simple and seemingly uninspiring as tidying the science cupboard and re-labelling the treasure found there in such a way that it gets used effectively across the school year and against objectives identified in the curriculum. Ideas I have seen have also been connected to curriculum design but have involved a cross curricular team nailing an exciting programme of study that interweaves everyone’s disciplines. More ideas can be around solving irritating and pervasive problems that might manifest themselves in bureaucratic pen-pushing or workload issues. Don’t automatically dismiss what seem like run of the mill tasks as projects – I have seen people roll up their sleeves and reorganise the staff room or an induction schedule for new staff, and in so doing they have set out a new statement of collaboration clearly linked to the organisation’s culture and values through doing so. Nice ideas have also been about sharing knowledge, such as setting up a study group with a curriculum and menu of guest speakers across the year, and creating a podcast and blogsite to support this.
A common starting place can be “what hacks me off about the way we do things?” and taking a solutions-focussed approach to finding a way forward. I guess they aren’t called hackathons for nothing after all!
Keeping it fun
Sometimes a change of scene, somewhere beautiful, even outdoors in the wild, can be a great way to make sure there is no science cupboard cleaning or hiding in familiar spaces and with the usual clique.
Everyone will be working hard and you might want to incentivise them by making sure there’s music blaring, food organised and plenty of hydration options. One of the ones I did, we also organised a little sub team who was in charge of making sure there was healthy and fun food available for lunch and snacking.
I have been involved in two hackathons when I worked at The Key for School Leaders, and each time we brought a relevant and inspirational speaker to open the day and to set the tone. Someone who spoke for 20 minutes about their organisation and how they draw out creativity and innovation from their people.
Have an itinerary
Hackathons need structure. Things to think about are group dynamics, energy levels, food and travel times. Leave plenty of contingency in the schedule and make sure people are aware that they don’t have to take part in everything if they don’t want to.
You might be able to do an overnight residential, or staff may prefer working across two days with people being local enough to the venue to go home in the middle. Either way, consider building in a social and fun afternoon/evening activity.
The first part of day one should be given to brainstorming ideas and getting to know the people in the team, setting ground rules, expectations and discussing fears, hopes, non-negotiables, favoured ways of working and so on.
Have a clear sense of closure
The hackathon should always end with groups presenting their projects back to the whole team in an upbeat, creative and interactive way. No death by PowerPoint should be going on here! Every project should be completed within the 48 hour period, and should be ideally ready to implement as soon as you get back to school.
In some cases, people present their projects as ideas and the others in the group critique or even do a Dragon’s Den type appraisal on whether they think it is going to work, whether they want to invest time in it and so on. You will need to decide carefully whether these more competitive ideas will make or break the team dynamic, add or detract from the energy that has been built up over the course of the hackathons.
Okay, but I need some help!
If you are interested in running a hackathon but are unsure where to begin, I am happy to help. Just get in touch, and maybe I can support you to organise your thoughts and move to a place where you feel the right ownership and excitement about it to be able to pull it off in your own school. Just drop me a line.
According to the National Governance Association’s 2017 annual school governance survey, just 4% of school governors and academy board trustees are from a Black, Asian or ethnic minority (BAME) background. The figure was at once at 5%, according to research commissioned by the Department for Education and Employment back in 1999. In almost two decades, no progress has been made and school governance remains steadfastly the domain of white, older people, usually men.
Outside of the field of education, there is solid research to show that diverse teams make better decisions, work more effectively, and run more successful companies. McKinsey and Co looked at 1,000 businesses over 12 countries and concluded that the best performing ones across the board were those where their leadership included not only women, people with disabilities, BAME, LGBTQ, and young people, but more importantly ones which sought diversity ofthought and action among its teams. I’ll come back to this in a moment, but considering that we have a significant lack of women, people from BAME backgrounds and young people on school governing boards, it is no wonder that school governance is often seen as in dire need of a reboot. Many heads I have spoken to see their boards as at best something that can be tolerated, and at its worst a huge impediment to the progress of the school.
I would like to assert that there is a clear problem with recent campaigns to ensure that there is more diversity on boards – both in the world of business and on school governing boards. The first problem is recruiting people from diverse backgrounds in the first place. Where are you going to find these people if you don’t know them? Many governing board members probably don’t know anyone who isn’t like them and if most boards are white and male, we have a first hurdle right there. Secondly, how are you going to feel comfortable accepting someone into the fold that doesn’t look like and probably behave like what you feel is the norm? Thirdly, if the type of leadership qualities you think you need are generally deemed a domain of the great straight white male, how will you ensure that the people you invite onto your board have had the opportunities to gain the skills and experience you are looking for?
All of this aside, getting diverse faces around the table is a good idea to increase the chances of diversity of thought, it really isn’t enough. There is much work to be done before this happens, and also continuing work to be done after you have redressed any imbalance on your board that might be visibly obvious. I believe that we need to understand and accept an uncomfortable truth. We are all socialised and subtly conditioned to believe in a very specific idea of what a leader looks like and that is usually a white, older man. For centuries, the Western world has operated with the norm and neutral to be white. It’s so subtle that I bet you haven’t noticed what colour all sticking plasters are, or what colour ‘flesh’ coloured tights or colouring pencils are. Furthermore, we expect our leaders to be white men. Try Googling images for ‘business leader’ and see how many white men in suits come up. The world has been telling us, and continues to tell us a very specific message about who has the right and the authority to be at the top table. Making a decision to say this isn’t the case, that we don’t see difference, or somehow trying to trick our brains isn’t going to cut it.
This is where diversity of thought and action needs to come into play. We need to get people around the table who are not like us. Therefore, we need to actually see and seek out difference, and welcome it. We need to deliberately get people around the table who don’t think and operate like us, and deal with it. We need to get people around the table who haven’t had the same experiences, upbringings as us, that aren’t from the same class, religion or socio-economic background as us, and work with them effectively. And we need people there to enrich, challenge, and stretch our horizons by forcing us to think differently. Collaboration is hard enough when everyone thinks they understand each other and has common ground, but how will this work when nobody does? If the McKinsey report is anything to go by, it works stunningly well.
But again, this isn’t enough. Just because I am a woman, doesn’t mean that I know anything about feminism, the subtle and not so subtle undermining and demeaning of women that happens in everyday sexism. Just because I am a woman, doesn’t mean I have given much thought to why I behave the way I do, dress the way I do and speak the way I do at work, for example. And just because I am a woman, doesn’t mean I am automatically in solidarity with other women, see them as comrades or do anything in my daily life to forward the prospects and voices of other women. This is because I have been brought up in a male-dominated society where the norms are demonstrated by that earlier Google images search result, where men might call caring for their own children ‘babysitting’, and where even when a woman does get to the top, her right to being truly a woman is often called into question.
So, it is a logical assumption that just because I come from a Black, Asian or minority ethnic background, this doesn’t mean I am less likely to see white, male leadership as the norm. Which is why getting diverse bums on seats is not enough. It’s also a massive burden as the only woman around the table or the only Black person around the table, to be charged with the responsibility to always see and protect the interests of ‘my’ marginalised ‘group’. To truly make changes in the composition of our governing boards, and in order to make changes to the way these boards operate, we need to make changes in the inherent bias that is part of each and every one of us, and part of being human. I would suggest that the first step to ensuring that governing boards are diverse is to ensure that we wake up to inherent bias as a concept, that we learn how to ask the right challenging and brave questions of ourselves and others that will ensure we are actively seeking out and tackling racism, sexism, homophobia and anything else that leads us back to the tempting magnetic north of straight, white, male, authoritarian conditioned concept of the norm.
If you’d like a reading list of books to help get you thinking about inherent bias, here are some that have helped me on my learning journey :
Brit(ish) by Afua Hirsch
Natives by Akala
Why I am no longer talking to white people about race by Reni Eddo Lodge
White Privilege by Prof Kalwant Bhopal
Slay in Your Lane by Yomi Adegoke and Elizabeth Uviebinené
As someone who has spent the last decade working with school leaders, including working closely with Local Authorities, Multi Academy Trusts, and the more recently invented partnerships for school improvement, the inaugural Association of Education Parterships (AEPA) event was like a weird edu-geek version of ‘who would you invite to your dream dinner party?’ It seemed that practically everyone who was anyone in the ‘collaborative working’ landscape was there. The general ambiance of the morning as people arrived, was of bristling collective excitement, curiosity, and an urge to get stuck in to share and learn together – so different from the tangible edge of competition and rivalry often experienced at other events where groups such as LAs, TSAs and MATs will come together.
The glue that is essential to place-centred thinking
The day consisted of a good balance of presentations with time to discuss in smaller groups, share and suggest. To kick off, former education secretary Estelle Morris, whose inimitable combination of passion and commitment has kept her at the centre of all things education, reminded us of the importance of place when thinking about how the education sector should be organised. She likened education partnerships to “the glue that helps schools serve collectively the needs of the children in their area rather than just compete on market principles”. That glue is often stretched to its limits with the introduction of MATs and TSAs, which can still be isolated, or can be operating across so wide an area as to not have much understanding of the localities in which they operate. Baroness Morris didn’t compromise her challenge to us in the room, when she insisted that although we have a collective responsibility to every child in our locality no matter the structures within which we work, our education system apparently doesn’t allow for this to happen effectively. Her impassioned voice spoke to a captivated room, “locality matters, geography matters. Yet we are building a school system that has no recognition of locality”.
Next up was Christine Gilbert, who also has decades-long sector experience ranging from headteacher to head of Ofsted, and more recently has been using her expertise and the obvious fire in her belly to help numerous local area partnerships get off the ground. Building on the theme of place, she commented that “education is the single best regeneration strategy for any locality or community”. Ask any estate agent, and I am sure they will agree. If you want to buy a cheap property anywhere in the country, start by finding out where the schools in Special Measures are.
Going beyond the land of nice
The core work for education partnerships, according to Gilbert is to make connections, gather intelligence, and to provide support and challenge, successfully “going beyond the land of nice”. Most importantly, their role should be to provide brokerage using local practitioners as well as setting in motion mechanisms to monitor, evaluate and evidence progress. We have many ways in which schools are scrutinised and monitored as individual institutions (and these are increasing with Ofsted, MAT inspections and Regional Schools’ Commissioner scrutiny), but any form of follow-on brokerage of support is often non-existent or weak at best. Also worth noting is that we don’t yet have a mechanism for measuring the effectiveness and impact of education partnerships like the ones that have been springing up across the country since the coalition government introduced a barrage of reforms from Early Years to HE, creating the most fragmented system we have ever had – and with this, the concept of a school-led system with no blueprint.
Christine Gilbert’s extensive experience and unfaltering belief in the power of moral purpose tells her that partnerships should be able to make an impact without distraction. They need collective moral purpose, a vision for the locality and need to shift the accountability mindset so that it is no longer top down, but instead comprised of lateral partnerships which can be recognised and evaluated. She took us through four models of school improvement partnerships, noting how the world has changed since she was a teacher in the days pre-Ofsted and league tables.
It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it
One of the consistent themes for the day, was that each partnership and locality needs to find the model that works for them. In doing this, they also need to ensure that they focus on solvable problems. So it was useful to see some models set out clearly in brief later in the session. There does need to be a balance between working it out as you go along, the danger of re-inventing the wheel and being able to learn from each other. Allowing time for the process is vital when designing local partnership working. But the double-edged sword for these organisations can also be the temptation to waste valuable time getting their ducks in a row. Worse still, there might be a tendency to get bogged down by deciding on structures before really considering what the problem is that they are trying to solve and understanding where there might be examples of practice and success that could be adapted and drawn upon. In terms of the lifetime of a child in the school system, just considering the time it takes to go from concept to a mature school-led partnership which is delivering measurable impact, already makes my hair stand on end.
There was certainly a huge appetite arising from discussion during the day for a mechanism to share what works in a coherent yet rapid way. There have been reports from ADCS and the Isos Partnership outlining what works in terms of local partnerships, but many people expressed a desire to get beyond models of partnership that are thrust upon us, or that involve the often quoted feeling that “partnership working is the temporary suspension of mutual loathing in pursuit of funding”.
Part of this desire for sharing might involve an intelligent way to explore and capture impact. Our education system relies heavily on highly problematic snapshot-in-time data such as exam results or Ofsted inspection reports, which can have a sinister side-effect of driving behaviours to get results. There have been stark realisations about the indicators we use to judge a school, such as schools which are doing well in terms of results, but that are not financially viable as institutions, and suddenly finding themselves in dire straits.
Creating a sense of membership
From my perhaps unique perspective as someone involved in creating a sense of membership for organisations I have worked with, one thing that many partnership organisations fail at are the more commercial and therefore assumed “not us” aspects of successful partnership working. By this I mean creating a business model that recognises the organisation as financially sustainable i.e. charging its members means thereby being transparent on how it intends to be accountable to its members. This also includes ensuring that your key central team members aren’t only ex-headteachers and educationalists, but also people who have proven expertise in marketing, creating a sense of membership, communicating complex messages simply and so on. Even after you have been through a forensic process of setting up your organisational structures, identifying your stakeholders and articulating what the problems are that you seek to solve, if you can’t get your message across in a timely and concise manner, none of this will matter. I would even go so far as to suggest that a successful partnership team would include those that understand enough organisational psychology to help you gauge who your early adopters, next wave joiners and eternal island-dwellers will be so you don’t lose valuable energy in brow-beating resentment wondering why you can’t get everyone on board with your brilliant new partnership idea. If you get all of this right, you will create a partnership which is based on mutual moral purpose, is not based on the usual deficit model of scrutiny and finger-pointing, and that will encourage self-referrals from schools looking to actively seek valuable support.
Dreaming big, but true to my own Virgo nature and thinking practically, it seemed that people in the room were looking for two tangible developments from AEPA. One would be a repository of resources to help partnerships in their various stages from conception to delivery, ranging from case studies of what works to examples of partner organisations or suites of services that might be valuable to schools. Another was the idea of a peer-review between partnerships that is formally structured and potentially even managed logistically by AEPA – and which could help colleagues to learn from, challenge and support each other in their endeavours. Having been at The Key from its journey from start up to grown up and seeing such a valuable resource change the way schools learn and grow from each other, makes me believe that this is not only a good idea, but also entirely possible to create. Secondly, my more recent experience at Challenge Partners tells me that robust peer review, that is equal measure challenge and support, and that is done with and not done to, is an essential ingredient to a genuinely school-led system. If there’s a way to make these two practical tools get going sooner, rather than later, the AEPA could quickly jettison itself from a place to get together periodically, to a game-changer in the business of local partnership working.