Over the past few weeks, I have been talking to schools about mental health and wellbeing. It is fantastic to hear that teachers and leaders are taking mental health and wellbeing of children seriously and are putting things in place to ensure that it is integrated into the curriculum, behaviour management and relationships across the school.
What I have felt through talking with schools is that nurturing good mental health and wellbeing of staff doesn’t come naturally to many. While they understand that no amount of cakes, recognition walls and coffee vans are going to cut workload and the stresses of the job, leaders seem inexperienced around what does matter to human wellbeing in the world of work more generally, and which are in their power to change.
My experience of the world of work tells me these things matter when they are done well, and can break people when they are not. You could file all these things under building good organisational culture, which I believe is as grounded in the niceties of daily interaction as they are in solid, routine and dependable processes and practice working in synchronicity.
Feeling valued professionally
Most people don’t stay in a job for the cake trolley on a Friday or the Christmas party. What really matters is feeling valued professionally. When this is done badly, you might get a hint of your value through the thrill of being new, being one of the old timers whose place seems secure, or be flavour of the month for a fleeting period. But what really matters for our health and wellbeing at work is similar to what we want in place for the children in our school – does everyone have at least one trusted adult who consistently has their best interests at heart, who can coach them through difficult times, set clear boundaries and support them to reach their full potential?
Professional value can be communicated through the following ways:
Does my line manager schedule regular 1:1s with me?
Do they show up to them without fail and hold a conversation with me around a simple agenda:
What’s going well?
What could be better for you?
What’s stopping you?
What will you do next?
Do I have regular opportunities to look at my performance targets and see how I am doing on reaching them? Did I have a hand in crafting them so they are realistic, achievable, measurable and motivating? Does my line manager walk with me on the journey to achieving them? Or are these written for me, filed and then looked at again at the end of the year?
Knowing you have someone who takes an interest in your professional journey, who helps you trouble shoot, identify issues yourself and supports you to find answers, celebrate successes, and pushes you to reach your potential makes coming to work feel safe, challenging and motivating. Don’t underestimate the power of investing 45 minutes a week in someone else. And as a line manager, you also will benefit as your own professional knowledge will be enhanced, and you can keep your finger on the pulse around what happens in different classrooms and through the eyes of different professionals.
Does my line manager and the rest of the team know what my strengths are?
Are these being used frequently or am I being forced to get better at things I hate and am bad at? Do I know other people’s strengths and am able to draw on them and collaborate?
See my previous post on Strengths Based Leadership here
Do I have opportunities to lead, learn and develop?
Even if there isn’t a clear formal TLR or ladder rung to climb, do I have clarity on where I can take on projects that make me visible across the school as a competent leader? Can I work shadow, be seconded somewhere, lead on a project, collaborate with a more senior colleague? Can I have coaching and mentoring for my professional development?
Do I have opportunities to develop my leadership and knowledge?
Is reading, doing action research, online learning and other CPD valued by the school or is it all channelled into INSET days and twilight sessions?
Does my school engage with and understand some of the structural barriers?
Is there a commitment by your school to understand and lean in to some of the structural barriers that people from typically marginalised groups can face? Remember that these can be intersectional as well, but women, people of colour, people with disabilities, people who are LGBT+ will face daily micro-aggressions, outright discrimination and structural inequities which will impact on their professional journey, day to day wellbeing and general outlook. Schools should be absolutely clear on what they have in place to ensure that the workplace is equitable, and should be putting extra support and nurture in place where appropriate. The BAMEed Network provides coaching for staff from Black, Asian and racially minoritised backgrounds, as well as support to schools with their diversity and inclusion work.
Feeling heard, held and seen through seminal moments
For me, these seminal moments have been make or break situations. The way that an organisation treats staff in its day to day operations is embedded in the culture and can be supported by having policies in place. However, these policies aren’t worth the paper they are written on if as an organisation you don’t have a robust plan in place to support people through seminal moments. Fudging it, getting it wrong, being clumsy, ill-informed or insensitive can be make-it-or-break-it moments for many people at work.
What do we mean by seminal moments?
Marriage, birthdays, births – does everyone get the same attention & gifts or is dependent on how popular you are?
Attending your own children’s first day at school/nativity/doctor’s appointments – can you do this guilt-free – or at all?
Parental leave – do you have Keep in Touch days and are these used well? What happens when people come back to school after parental leave? Is there provision for breast-feeding mothers to pump somewhere private and store milk somewhere appropriate?
Fertility – can a staff member have treatment and are they supported appropriately? Does the school know what it means to go through fertility treatment both physically, emotionally and financially? Would it be worth knowing about it now, even if you have never encountered it in reality and no staff member needs support with this yet?
Menopause – do MEN and women know what to do/expect? What are the physical, emotional and professional impacts for women going through menopause? What can the school do to support with this in small yet meaningful ways?
Moving house, death & divorce – They say these three seminal moments are of equal impact on our psyches. Does the school have a clear leave policy or is it all a bit ad hoc? What is our agreed shared language we use with each other to acknowledge and show compassion?
These are just a few examples of how you can make sure people feel valued professionally and personally at work and which will impact positively on mental health and wellbeing more than a thousand cakes and coffee vans. With these in place the other things won’t feel tokenistic.
For the second time in a year, we are seeing headlines claiming that English schools must not teach white privilege as fact. The first time was by the then minister for women and equalities, Kemi Badenoch, who decided to bring this up in a House of Commons debate on Black History Month. As if by magic, during Black History Month this year, the new education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, has again repeated this warning, following a report by the Commons education committee.
What is white privilege?
To be clear, white privilege is a term used to mean the multiple social advantages, benefits and courtesies that come with being a member of the dominant race. It is not rocket science.
Looking at the historical and contemporary ways that white people can be privileged above people of colour is actually a tool for understanding the persistence of racial inequality in the UK and elsewhere. White privilege draws attention to the fact that we don’t live in a post-racial society, we live in a world where huge, tangible inequalities between white and Black and other ethnically/racially minoritised communities exist.
Let’s think about it in a different way – it is a fact that men have privileges which are not afforded to women, because our society does not yet treat men and women equally. Take a simple thing like walking home at night. Most men feel able to do this without thinking twice. My daughter’s male friends, in acknowledgement of their male privilege, walk her and their other female friends home after a night out. Until we end the structural and systemic inequalities that lead to violence against women being an every-day occurrence, we can say uncontested that men have privilege. This is not a divisive stance and does not undermine the cohesion of men and women.
If it’s easier to conceptualise, think about a different marginalised group, disabled people. Most public and domestic spaces are structured in such a way that it makes it more difficult, and sometimes impossible, for people with disabilities to access them. This is called being ableist. Can you acknowledge that it would be a good thing if we make the world more accessible for all? Does it hurt you to acknowledge that as an able-bodied person, you have privilege when going about your daily business? You don’t have to think about how you will do things differently. You won’t have to build in more time (going the long way around because there aren’t lifts in the station near your workplace), spend more money (taking a taxi because there are no accessible stations near your workplace), and so on. Acknowledging your advantage as a person who is not disabled is not a divisive stance and does not undermine the cohesion of disabled and non disabled people.
In a similar way, our society is set up for, and operates to the advantage of white people as the dominant group. The evidence for systemic inequality is undeniable – look at educational outcomes, employment, health, pay gaps and there it is. Clear as day. Whether you think it is because people of colour are treated as somehow inherently less intelligent, less employable, genetically prone to ill-health, deserve to be paid less, or if it is due to inequities baked in at every level of society creating the equivalent of ‘having to go the long way round’, both are clear evidence that white people in England have a level of privilege. This is not a divisive stance and does not undermine the cohesion of people of colour and white people in our country.
Acknowledging your white privilege doesn’t make you racist, and neither does denying it exists or trying to be colour-blind make you not racist. White privilege is not a political standpoint. Acknowledging white privilege doesn’t make people of colour feel inferior. It doesn’t even have to be a sensitive and complex issue, just as wanting greater equity for women, and for people with a disability doesn’t need to be politically, personally or legally contentious. It is not divisive and nor does it undermine the cohesion of a school or a country to educate other people on these as facts.
How is learning about white privilege harmful to white working class children?
It is important also to understand that privilege is always relative. Rather than suggesting that white people face no challenges, white privilege highlights how a group of people are (and can be) affected by discrimination and disadvantage. Disadvantage and discrimination can be intersectional – which takes account of people’s overlapping identities and experiences in order to understand the complexity of prejudices they face. In other words, your disadvantage as a disabled woman will be experienced differently than if you were an able-bodied woman. Disadvantaged white children have white privilege in that their race will not be a factor that contributes to their life challenges in addition to other challenges they face around a lack of economic wealth. They will not face racism as part of their disadvantage. Recognising that some communities can be disadvantaged due to their racially/ethnically minoritised backgrounds doesn’t deny the economic and social inequalities faced by communities from all racial backgrounds. Children who are on Free School Meals have lower attainment levels compared to those from wealthier families, whatever their heritage. To say that white children on free school meals have white privilege shouldn’t be conflated with saying that they don’t feel the impact of their disadvantaged economic situation.
Narrowing the focus on the disadvantages white people face versus all other racial groups reverses decades-long efforts to close the attainment gap. But it also is a symptom of the coalition, and subsequent Conservative, governments’ lack of attention to race as an indicator for mobility in education and the labour market. In fact, this current government seems to be doubling down on its efforts to take race off the table as a contributory factor in education or society. The widely condemned Sewell Report went so far as to claim not to be able to find any evidence of structural racism in Britain today.
How might teachers be breaking the law?
Both announcements by the DfE regarding white privilege stated that schools teaching the concept as uncontested fact could be breaking the law, and this might also be a breach of the Equality Act 2010. The government’s report looked at the poor educational outcomes for white British pupils eligible for free school meals. It saw the reason for this as due to ‘persistent multigenerational disadvantage, regional underinvestment and disengagement from the curriculum’. One has to ask oneself how schools will have created the former two reasons without the decades-long government policy which has impacted directly on families, pushing them further into poverty – a staggering one third of children live in poverty in the UK. These same policies have loaded more of the responsibilities of social care onto schools by cutting social services, mental health support, early years provision and youth services while also squeezing school budgets. Let’s not forget that government also mandated a national curriculum to schools, which now seems to have led to disengagement by some pupils. Pointing the finger at teachers for these issues, and their supposed indoctrination of children with concepts such as white privilege is at best misguided, and at worst, it is divisive and undermines the cohesion of a school and our country.
White privilege, with knowledge, white resistance
There is a strong community of white people within the education sector and beyond, who make it their business to not only acknowledge their white privilege, but to ensure that they are equipping themselves with the knowledge to resist attempts to undermine efforts to build a more equitable education system and society for all.
If you want to learn more about any of the concepts mentioned here, here’s some good places you can go:
The BAMEed Network has local area groups which you can join for more discussion and support.
It is clear that there is an acute and snowballing issue around recruitment and retention of staff in our schools’ workforce. Schools are considering many proposed solutions, including promises to reduce workload, challenging the traditional reticence around flexible working practices and job shares, and the DfE has even launched a jobs board platform aimed at reducing the costs for recruitment that are often crippling for schools. Successive education secretaries have declared that far more teachers from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds are needed in schools to be role models for their pupils. Since the recent brutal killing of George Floyd, and the subsequent soul searching that seems to have happened for many white people around their relationship with the structures and systems which impact on Black people’s life chances, the BAMEed Network has seen a flood of requests from schools and multi-academy trusts asking for support to diversify their workforce.
Teachers from BAME backgrounds have been marginalised in a system that seems to have changed little since the 1980s, back when theSwann report identified that ethnic minorities were underrepresented in teaching. Research since has confirmed that BAME educators are consistently the victims of systemic racism, which sees them overlooked for promotion and undermined. This is enacted not only through policy and practice around curriculum design, recruitment and performance management, but also through daily examples of microaggressions and behaviours from their colleagues – all of which serve to discredit them as teachers and leaders. We are all becoming familiar with the term “unconscious bias” to try to explain why this might happen, but we have seemed less committed to finding ways to seek out and cull the practices which perpetuate this bias. Structures of disadvantage in education are untouched and continue to perpetuate stereotypes of ethnic groups. Saying it is “unconscious” has proved to even give us an excuse that it may not be within our power to change. This is, of course, a damaging fallacy. Acknowledging the forces of socialisation can be a start to bringing the seemingly unconscious into the conscious domain and ensuring that the outcomes of our behaviour and actions, policies and practices are not damaging.
Why recruit for diversity? It may seem obvious especially now, but it is surprising how many schools and other organisations are still not clear on the reasons for their own commitment to diversity. Many colleagues believe in the mantra “we just recruit the best person for the job” and won’t question why those so-called best people all seem to look and sound the same. While we must always recruit the best person for the job, in doing so we are often blind to our own inherently biased perception of what that person looks and sounds like, what background and experience they should have had, and rule out the best person not for lack of skills and experience, but for other, more insidious reasons that are masked by seemingly innocent statements like “team fit” or “team culture”. The bottom line is, that if your team is not diverse in its make up, you most likely have not recruited the best person for the job. Excellent recruitment practice will naturally lead to a diverse range of backgrounds, experiences, styles, perspectives, opinions and so on, and that can’t possibly mean a cookie cutter version of the same person. A word of warning here, no-one wants to be recruited for the colour of their skin, their gender or sexuality to fulfil a Top Trumps spectrum of perceived diversities that look good. However, just as addressing the bias that holds women back in the workplace shouldn’t be left exclusively to women to champion and work towards, so too must colleagues, school leaders and system leaders from all backgrounds educate themselves around the unnecessary barriers that face their marginalised counterparts. It is the recruitment practice, coupled with a commitment by the organisation to learn, iterate and change that practice that will lead to recruiting and retaining a successful, diverse team.
Another practical reason to recruit for diversity is that it is proven to be good for business. We know from research such as theMcKinsey Report, that having a diverse workforce leads to better teamwork, and more successful decision-making. If we are to see a change in attitudes and the subtle and not-so-subtle trappings of systemic racism, we need role models from Black, Asian and other minoritised groups for our fellow colleagues of all backgrounds, for governors and trustees, and for students from non-BAME backgrounds too. If we are to accept people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds as credible teachers and leaders, we need to see these colleagues at every level in our schools’ workforce.
Finally, many schools believe that they should recruit staff that reflect the population they serve, if that population is itself seen as ‘diverse’. While it is true that children should be able to see themselves in the people who are their role models, there are two important points to highlight here. The first is that the colour of someone’s skin doesn’t make them able to understand all humans that have a similar skin colour. Diversity is intersectional – it includes class, gender, heritage, and more. Be careful with assumptions here. Secondly, it could be argued that schools that serve a predominantly white population will also absolutely benefit from seeing strong and capable role models from stereotypically undervalued and marginalised communities – this will be of benefit to staff, students and the whole school community alike.
If we want to address the recruitment issues we face, and if we want to retain and develop our best leaders from diverse backgrounds, there has never been a better time to commit to this.
Preparing your organisation to be friendly to all humans
Looking inwards before looking outwards For a campaign to ‘recruit for diversity’ to be successful, it’s worth taking an honest look at your organisational bias, and seeing why it may not yet be friendly to all humans. This is important because the last thing you want to do is recruit new people from more diverse backgrounds than you are accustomed to, only for it to be experienced as a hostile environment lacking the self-awareness to understand why only certain people will be able to thrive there.
To do this, you will need to commit some time and budget. You may benefit from some outside help to set the strategy with you, but you must carry out any work on this, as part of a committed whole-school learning process, even when you have external support. You will need to commit time to undertake reading, re-educating yourselves and un-learning some practices you have considered normal. It is also important to have an educated grasp on what systemic racism is, and not frame racism as many schools do, as just dwelling in notable incidents and overt acts of racist abuse.
The first place organisations usually go is to what is commonly known as “unconscious bias” training. Be careful with this, as one of the criticisms of quick-fix unconscious bias training is that it can have an opposite effect. Research shows that in terms of changing attitudes, it can often lead to people becoming more entrenched in their bias, and even concluding that because the bias is unconscious, it’s not possible to do much about it. That said, good training will help you understand what bias is, when it is useful, how it can be harmful, how you can own your bias and see it clearly, and interrupt it at the point before you may have enacted it previously. Good organisational culture around bias will mean that there is a safe space for colleagues to talk openly about situations where they can see their own bias surfacing, and can work together to acknowledge and mitigate the impact of that bias. Staff should be trained in things like microaggressions so they can avoid them, and learn how to be a reliable ally, learning to see, articulate and call out discrimination should it occur. Many schools are often not encouraging of critical thinking, challenge and straight-talking, so this may be quite a culture shift. It will be up to all levels of the organisation to hone their skills at spotting, naming and reducing bias and discrimination. Be warned though, the mark of an organisation committed to change and anti-racism may be one that once you have learned to see it, you see it everywhere! This can often be the marker of the shift from being ‘not racist’ to being ‘anti-racist’. Change takes commitment and time.
HR and policies Once you have learned to spot bias and systemic or structural racism, you can carry out an internal audit designed specifically to hunt out and change places where bias and structural racism tend to lurk. HR practices and school policies are often sites where discrimination takes place. Again, you may be tempted to use a template or a service to help you with this, but make sure that you are skilling yourselves up to do this effectively in an ongoing way, so it doesn’t become an external bureaucratic exercise but instead becomes part of the culture of the organisation at all levels.
The UK has 9 protected characteristics, set out in the Equality Act 2010. These are:
Marriage and civil partnership
Pregnancy and maternity
Religion or belief
There are 4 main types of discrimination under the Equality Act:
Any audit you carry out should be a critical look at your HR practices to ensure that there aren’t elements which are discriminatory. You’ll note that class and nationality are missing from this list. Again, none of this should be purely procedural or bureaucratic so it’s important to have training and regular robust and open discussion about these issues, as they are both complex and emotive. For white people such discussion may cause discomfort. This is a small price to pay in exchange for reducing the deep trauma racial discrimination inflicts on people of colour.
When looking at policies, it is vital that this extends to policies which affect the students and their families. These include home-school agreements, homework, hair and uniform policies, behaviour and exclusion policies and more. There is much research and writing about how these policies can be the sites of racial and other discriminatory action that can be subtle or blatant. A school that is friendly to all humans, needs to ensure this is true not just for staff working there, but also the whole school community. Staff cannot be expected to enforce policy which isn’t inclusive and which is discriminatory.
The most vital and perhaps challenging part of this work will be allowing a culture of identifying and challenging racism, both from staff as well as students and their families. Baked into all line management culture, 1:1s with staff, meetings with students and their families, should be the ability to have meaningful dialogue that is sensitive and courageous, so that racism can be named and framed without those raising the issue fearing being silenced or disciplined for their words.
Curriculum matters Here again, if your curriculum doesn’t reflect the reality of both modern Britain, the global world and an accurate picture of history and the diverse voices which have always been part of our country, you cannot be a school which will be fertile ground for diverse voices to be heard and valued. Take a look at your curriculum offer, and draw on the huge number of resources available to support decolonising the curriculum and how it is taught across all departments. We speak volumes to our staff, students and the school community through our curriculum choices.
Optics are important but not as a stand-alone You need to see it to be it. If you’re hoping to attract staff members who are from a wide variety of backgrounds, you need to make sure that they can see themselves as valued in your school website, on the walls around the school, in the prospectus, the curriculum and more. When looking for diverse imagery, be mindful that you aren’t unwittingly perpetuating damaging stereotypes though. It’s all too easy to fall into this without some work on your bias. As Adrian Rogers, CEO of Chiltern Learning Trust, says, “ensure anyone considering applying looks in on your organisation (websites, social media) and sees that it welcomes diversity in its leadership and management. It isn’t tokenism, but it’s about making sure that the outward signal is ‘its good to work in this place, they value me as a person and a professional, regardless of colour or protected characteristics’”.
Remember, if you are early on, in your journey towards diversity in the school staff and leadership team, be upfront and honest about this. You know that candidates will check your website and may be confused by your statements of intent around diversity not matching reality when they see your all-white, mainly male governing board, or senior leadership team. Be prepared to have that conversation from the get-go in an appropriate way.
Get out Not only do you have to ‘be it to see it’, but you have to ‘see it to be it’. Leaders of any organisation, multi academy trust or school should make a huge effort to attend community events. This is also an opportunity to learn more about the communities you serve. Again, in his experience from Chiltern Learning Trust, Adrian Rogers says, “BAME is a very broad term, and not all communities are the same – there will be huge religious, cultural and ethnic differences. However, if you are a white leader, in a school with a high percentage of Black or Asian pupils, it is even more important to show you care about that community and want to work with them and want the best for the young people in that community. In turn, this means you will gain the trust and friendship of that community and break down barriers – with the spin-off that people from your local community will want to work for you. This also extends to delivering CPD and supporting BAME leadership courses and development even if you yourself are white – it means you network with ambitious staff.”
He goes on, “as leaders, make opportunities to speak about BAME staff in your school in terms of the knowledge, skill and expertise that they bring to your school. It is easy to fall in the trap of seeing BAME staff as simply representatives of the ‘community’, rather than talented individuals in their own right. Leaders, governors and trustees should be restless and relentless in asking ‘is there more we should be doing?’ or ‘can I ask someone why we don’t get BAME applicants’. Leaders should be curious and reflective. A great way of demonstrating the accessibility of leaders is providing an open day for local people that may be seeking employment, and senior leaders meet prospective candidates without the formality of an application or interview.” It’s also a great way to test out the scoping of the roles you may wish to recruit for.
Advertising the role
Scoping Now you are ready to advertise the role, start with scoping. Often a role can be carried out by a broad spectrum of levels of experience and expertise, qualification and commitment to learn. Make sure the recruitment panel has clearly mapped out a continuum of possible imagined candidates from the finished product to the ‘grower’. Be clear which bits are non-negotiable must-haves and which bits, if missing, can be solved through coaching, training or further on-the-job qualification. This will help you with the wording of your advertisement and will also make you hold yourselves to account to recruit for what you say you need, and not go on “feel” at the end of the day.
An important part of scoping is to map out which parts of the process will really test fairly what you are looking for. Assuming there are several stages to the process, from written application, a task-based assignment, a face to face interview and perhaps a chance to see that person in action, have you covered off every element you say you are looking for in your recruitment pack? Can each element be seen in more than one way?
Placing your advertisement If you do things the same way, you will get the same result. So think about where you would like to place your advert and what other methods you can use to recruit good candidates from a wide field. Advertising is key, if your community and school has a diverse population, advertise locally and you will probably get a diverse workforce. This support in your community shows you embrace both the community and its diversity. If your community is not diverse, think about publications, platforms and other ways to reach further.
From his experience, Adrian Rogers suggests asking BAME leaders either in your organisation or that you know, to actively support your recruitment – they are role models and could be most effective in promoting your organisation to people of colour. This may help people of colour feel comfortable about applying to your organisation, and see they are valued. Use different and wide ranging social media or media to advertise on. Local radio, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn can be good places to advertise. Test what works for different groups and tweak accordingly. Adrian Rogers’ MAT is in Luton, and they found, for example, that local radio and LinkedIn helped them get a significant number of Black or Asian applicants. On the other hand, they noted that applicants through Facebook were predominantly white, and Twitter wasn’t significantly different for any group. Aureus School in Didcot was a brand new start-up secondary school. The headteacher at the time, Hannah Wilson, managed to recruit her entire leadership team without placing one ad, and instead used Linked In and Twitter to attract not only a wide-ranging diverse and highly skilled team, but many of whom re-located in order to work at the school and with the team she brought together.
Your diversity statement matters It has become standard practice to place a generic diversity statement on job ads. Think about what yours says that accurately reflects the place you are in now. Be bold about addressing the elephant in the room if this will be in fact your first person of colour to join an all-white team. Writing this diversity statement should be exciting and easy, provided you are well on your way with the work described above to make your organisation friendly to all humans.
The recruitment process
Seen, felt, heard The most important thing during the recruitment process aside from ensuring that you have tested for all of the elements you hope to get in a new recruit, is how you make people feel. Too many organisations make the recruitment process overly bureaucratic and impersonal, and also don’t offer flexibility over how they engage with candidates. This in itself can throw up unnecessary barriers for some candidates. Many organisations are not cordial and respectful about people’s time, often making them come for several stages of an interview at what seem like random times, when these could be rolled into one day. Consider also that women may often be juggling child care, or if they live in intergenerational households, may have responsibility for elder care and therefore may not have flexibility on what time of the day they can attend. This may sound sexist and of course men may face this issue too but statistically this remains stubbornly the domain of women in most cases. This might act to exclude them from the process unless you are openly discussing the best times of day for them to attend a face to face interview.
‘Blind’ recruitment Many organisations employ ‘blind’ recruitment of varying degrees to the process. This means removing elements which may identify the person’s gender, age, heritage, where they were educated or previous employers. You can either ask candidates to do this themselves, or get your HR department to do this before sharing applications to be sifted. There are pros and cons to doing this:
Blind hiring can promote greater diversity in the workplace because you can’t screen for candidates who look like you
It is considered more “scientific” because it provides the same assessments for every candidate. The more the interviewee is in situations where they reveal personal information, the panel makes subconscious decisions based on biases. If those selected for the final interview process are selected fully on the objective assessments, the top 3-4 candidates will actually be those on top of the job requirements
Blind hiring eliminates the “who do you know” practice that is often used, and, instead, opens up the field to other candidates who may actually possess higher skill levels
Blind hiring can be seen as just a fad and that, in the long term, will not have staying power
It can actually hinder diversity in hiring. Many organisations seek out BAME candidates in the hiring process as part of their commitment to diversity. When recruiters do not have the option of knowing personal information, they cannot actively pursue diversity
Blind hiring does not take into account the type of work environment in which a candidate has been successful or unsuccessful previously
Blind hiring could wipe out the often-used practice of referrals. Many organisations announce within their networking associations that they are looking for someone to fill a position. They put great value on the referrals they get from colleagues and usually interview such individuals. Of course, that referral alone provides a bias so should be treated with due caution
Written applications One trap that many organisations fall into is judging candidates on their ability to write, when the job itself may not require you to be an excellent orator or writer. Aside from writing ability, the panel should be clear with themselves and each other on what is a non-negotiable and what can be solved by training, coaching or on-the-job qualification.
The interview itself
Watch for performance over ability Similarly, many organisations come unstuck when they employ someone who performed impressively at interview, but then proved lacking in motivation, skills, confidence or ability in the day to day once they take the job.
Think also about how to put people at ease during the interview process. If there is an element of observation, many schools will now find going to the candidate’s school to see them in front of a class that they know and have built rapport with, tells them much more about the person, than bringing them to perform in front of a class of strangers. When a candidate comes to interview face to face, think about how you make them feel the warmth and reality of day to day life – some organisations will organise a cup of tea and an informal chat with a member of staff, where they can ask any questions they like. That member of staff will not have seen the candidate’s application or know any information, but can spend 20 minutes in friendly conversation and give the inside track of what it’s really like to work at the school.
How you invite the candidate into the interview room, the make-up of the panel and the positioning of the panel and the candidate can have a huge impact on how people feel and perform in the interview. The candidate should be comfortably seated, offered refreshments, the room should be adequately heated and ventilated. If you are conducting a remote interview using video conferencing, make sure that time is given for technical support, and to get used to the situation.
Think about how you probe on the candidate’s actual qualifications and what they entailed. We can exercise huge bias by assuming that someone who went to a Russell Group university would be better equipped, without asking what they actually learned that could be useful now in their job. Similarly, we are often quick to dismiss qualifications that are from abroad without knowing anything about the quality or content of their studies.
The interview panel Make sure that your panel is diverse. If you can’t for some reason, you had better be extremely alert to your own bias, and be able to have a robust, challenging discussion about this when deliberating about the candidates! Be honest with the candidates, whatever their background, that you are lacking in diversity in terms of race and gender and this is something that you know is unsatisfactory and which is being addressed.
While interviewing, the panel should take notes and be ready to discuss, explore and explain their reasoning around why they found a candidate suitable or unsuitable. Agree in advance that in your deliberations, you will not accept statements without evidence. So, no mention of “getting a good feeling” or the candidate being “likeable” without acknowledging and recognising where bias may be creeping in. This will aid not falling prey to “mirror-tocracy” or hiring in our own image.
After the interview
Unsuccessful candidates Remember that you want candidates to feel excited, included and positive about your organisation. They should come away from an interview feeling that they had ample opportunity to show themselves at their best. They may apply for another role at the school if they were not successful on this occasion, and they may tell others about the school if they liked what they saw, thereby becoming a valuable ambassador.
Consider how you let people know that they were not successful in their application. Try to personalise this as much as possible rather than firing out a generic email. If your interview notes were robust, you should be able to have a few useful pointers to talk through on the phone and capture that in a paragraph of feedback for any candidates that would like it. Make sure you offer the chance for verbal feedback.
Successful candidates Let the candidates know as soon as you can, and gauge their level of excitement carefully. If you have the right candidate, they should sound pleased! Be clear about next steps and make sure you have a clear and supportive system in place to ensure their success. This will include a staff handbook, an induction process, a buddy who can support them to get orientated and perhaps some kind of first day introduction and mini-celebration.
Make sure the team is informed clearly about who this person is, what role they will have and what their strengths are that they will bring to the team. Create as much opportunity for this person to feel wanted, welcomed and part of the team. This will be the test of all of the groundwork you have done in the organisation to make people aware of bias, committed to being reliable allies and anti-racist in every way.
Learning and growing
For your own learning as an organisation, capture throughout the process, what went well and what could be “even better if…” Capture useful statistical evidence to see how well the different places you advertised perform, to explore at what stages candidates drop out and are rejected and to ensure that you are gathering learning and checking your own biases throughout the process. Consider getting feedback from the candidates that didn’t make it as well as those that did so you can learn and improve the processes going forward.
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 email@example.com to secure your place now.
It is not the responsibility of people of colour to educate white people about race. It is not the job of people of colour to fix racism. It is especially exhausting when people of colour are faced with resistance to the idea that racism exists, and to the wide range of denial, fragility and distancing that often happens when many white people encounter discussion of racism. Through my work with the BAMEed Network, I often find myself being challenged by white people about racism or in more amenable situations, asked by white people to help them understand why they find engaging with the concept of racism so difficult. I am on my own journey of understanding, regrettably probably often being clumsy and crass myself, through my own ignorance and learned bias. I will continue on that learning journey forever, of course. Interestingly, much of it involves unlearning. I feel that as a white person, I can work with other white people, where they are open to discussion, in ways that a person of colour might not find appropriate or worthwhile to engage.
The following are some examples of the terms and concepts that many white people find difficult when talking about race and which I have often found myself engaged in discussion about.
The idea of race itself is seen by some as racist
For many white people, the mere mention of the concept of race incites the he-who-must-not-be-named kind of terror you might see at Hogwarts when Harry Potter says ‘Voldemort’ out loud for the first time. There’s a kind of superstition that just saying it out loud is going to result in letting an evil spirit escape from a jar.
Many people believe that talking about race is in itself racist. I believe this may be because the idea of race is perceived as separating people into crude groups based on colour and broadly-defined physical and/or ‘cultural’ characteristics and that this is somehow disrespectful and better ignored in the way a baby ‘hides’ by putting her hands over her eyes. It may also be linked to the idea that grouping people in this way is somehow tantamount to ignoring the personal experience, the individual and the uniqueness of the person. In a way, this is exactly why it is important to acknowledge race and racism, as although there are no clear biological grounds for race, it is absolutely the case that there has been a centuries-long effort to promote the idea of superiority of some so-called races over others. Throughout recent human history, there has been a huge effort to try to ‘prove’ that whiteness is the embodiment of superiority genetically, in terms of intelligence, and in terms of rights to power. This is not just relegated to the past, there are some quite prominent self-appointed education experts whose books, blogs and news items you probably have read, and whose talks you have been to, that are fans of eugenics. I kid you not.
Have you ever asked a white person what their race is? Ironically, most white people don’t acknowledge themselves as belonging to a race. Somehow, white is not a race, it just ‘is’. Angela Saini explores this and more in her fantastically detailed, descriptive and compelling book, Superior. Through these efforts to convince us of the purity of whiteness and the inferiority of Blackness, white people have been able to accept the horrific mass incarceration and genocide that was enacted through colonialism and slavery.
What is important therefore, is that race exists insofar as it is a social construct through which people are discriminated against both explicitly and implicitly, through blatant acts of racist abuse, but also through systemic, institutional, and inherent structures which act to exclude, oppress and limit people of colour. It is important to get to grips with this and accept this as fact to get anywhere when engaging with race and racism.
Saying ‘I don’t see race’
One way to try to distance ourselves as white people from appearing racist, is to say that we don’t see race and that we are ‘colourblind’. Even if the intention is considered to be good by the person uttering this phrase, this actually serves to ignore the very real ways that racism has existed throughout history and how it continues to exist today – both systemically and for individuals in daily interactions. By saying you don’t see race, you are part of the problem rather than being part of a solution. By saying you don’t see colour or race, you are also acting to erase a person of colour’s lived experience and identity. Racism, both the interpersonal kind and the systemic kind, isn’t triggered by the visual cue of someone’s skin colour. Racism is about the social value we assign to people and their actions based on their physical attributes that have over time been ascribed with a number of assumptions. Studies have shown that even actually physically blind people can be racist, drawing on other cues to create an understanding of someone’s racial identity.
Not all white people…
Anyone who has tried to engage with discussion about feminist issues will have probably heard the rebuttal “not all men…” Similarly, white people will often say that other people might do or think these things, but not all white people i.e. not this white person…This is not helpful, but instead comes from a need to distance ourselves from blame or being implicated. A fragile white view of racism is that it is associated with bad people committing racist acts, rather than the tapestry of complex power relations woven over time that it is. As a white person, I am learning to recognise and acknowledge both my own inherent bias and the systemic and institutional racism which surrounds me. Once you start to see it, you can’t unsee it, believe me. And when you truly accept racism as real, you can see it in yourself without needing to be defensive or feel blame. It is learned in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. It can be unlearned, but first it has to be acknowledged. Again, if the feminism analogy is helpful, as a woman I have to acknowledge my own learned confusion of standards to which I hold myself which are entirely rooted in patriarchal and sexist expectations of me as a woman, a mother, a professional person and so on.
At the last BAMEed conference, one of our speakers said in his opening few sentences, “I don’t like the term white privilege, but I know I have it”. The concept of privilege can trigger such discomfort and gets people tying themselves in knots as it often forces us to acknowledge race, class and gender all at once. White people who might have grown up in underprivileged working class families can become outraged trying to deny that they have enjoyed greater access and privilege than a person of colour, as if it’s some neat spectrum or Top Trumps points system. If you can learn about and accept the roots and pervasive narrative of systemic and institutional racism, you will understand what the concept of white privilege is all about. Of course there is an interplay of gender, sexuality, class, race, disability, and so on, but it can be helpful to think about privilege in terms of a place in a queue. There are many circumstances in life where you as a white person will get a place nearer the front of the queue simply because your whiteness affords you the status of seeming more credible, appearing more ‘fitting’, considered better educated or better spoken to those that grant access to the particular destination you are queuing for. Privilege is about gaining access to things that you may not have earned and that are granted to you based on a series of assumptions. Of course you earned your degree, and you have worked hard, but there are others in the queue that worked just as hard, got a better grade even, and yet you are further up towards the front.
Power to the people
Racism, whiteness and privilege are all about power and who holds this power. There are power relations in all aspects of human interaction and relationships – if you look carefully and honestly you will see that this includes power relations between you and your employers, that exist between you and your students, it’s even there in the relationship you have with your life partner. You can’t solve power imbalance or the anxiety you might feel when power is unfairly wielded over you, by pretending it isn’t there. Nor can you shift that power imbalance with your partner or your employer or the state by just saying you will be nice to each other. It needs to be examined, understood historically and contextually – and acknowledged. It also needs to be addressed head on. This can be through dialogue, it can be through practical measures like policies or laws, but it must be done for the power imbalance to be dismantled and one day for power to be fairly re-distributed.
If you’re interested in joining the BAMEed Network and working with some fantastic colleagues towards a more equitable education sector, you will be warmly welcomed, whatever your background and experience. If you’re interested in reading more about race and racism you might find the ideas below useful. And if you want to talk some more, you know where to find me.
DiAngelo, R (2018) ‘Why “I’m not racist” is only half the story’, (You Tube)
The following post is a summary of a keynote presentation I gave to close the WomenEd Bexley event in July 2019. The theme of the event was Leadership: doing it differently. For my slides, I used a series of Calvin and Hobbes cartoons for illustration.
Leadership: doing it differently
I was a playworker for 8 consecutive summers from the age of 16, and found myself leading a team of 15 people over four sites by the time I was 18. My first taste of leadership – until I left to go travelling at 24 and didn’t return until I was 37. During that time away, I was a qualified teacher for over ten years. Following my move back to the UK with my family, I took up a role at The Key for School leaders and went on an incredible journey with the then government-funded pilot to the Fast Track 100 company it became, serving nearly half the schools in the country. I spent 7 happy years on the leadership team as Director of Business Development.
Following that, I have been in various leadership roles including at a small social enterprise and at the national charity, Challenge Partners. After a year working with a number of organisations in the education sector on their journey from start up to grown up, I am now Director of Engagement at the Finnish organisation, Lyfta Education.
In my spare time, I am on the steering group for the BAMEed Network, Chair of governors at a Tottenham primary school and on the Inspire Partnership Trust board. I will set out some of the learning and the developing thoughts I have on leadership and the concept of doing it differently, based on several years of leadership in both paid and unpaid work, and many years of feeling “different and differentiated”.
Doing it differently isn’t a choice
Doing things differently isn’t often a choice we make. Quite often, it is a gradual realisation or a sudden change of circumstances that makes us feel we are different and therefore going to have to do things differently. Our personal narrative is important and can help shift the feeling of difference from a deficit model to something that includes our own values, needs, and moral purpose.
It’s also important that this narrative includes a contextual social, historical and political understanding so you can zoom in and zoom out of your personal experience within the context of the world we live in, and within the context of where you are now on a continuum of where you have come from and where you are going.
Know your narrative in context
It’s really important to engage with and understand the societal and structural factors that impact on our being successful leaders and that includes factors that impact on the people that we lead. WomenEd has been set up to address some of the structural challenges that hold women back. The notion of ‘10% braver’ could be problematic if it assumes that what is missing is women’s bravery and that it is all about us lacking in confidence. But perhaps its saying that despite all we know about how the odds are stacked against women, in a world that is conditioned to see leaders as white, middle class and male, we need to gird our loins and go forth anyway.
Angela Browne’s Chapter 6 in the 10% Braver book sets out how bias and discrimination hold women back. The BAMEed Network is about addressing the issues around race, structural racism and the bias that holds back men and women of colour from progressing within the profession. Being a Black woman for example means an intersectional double-whammy of disadvantage and an exhausting struggle in a predominantly white, male system. If you need to be 10% braver as a woman, how much braver do you need to be as a woman or man from a Black, Asian or minority ethnic background? We mustn’t lose sight of this in WomenEd, lest we become a ‘white feminists first movement’
As a woman racialised as white, I know that I have enormous privilege and that I have a responsibility to ensure that I can act as a reliable ally. This means recognising my own privilege and taking the time to listen to my colleagues from BAME backgrounds, to do the work MYSELF to learn about structural racism and to do everything I can to be actively resisting this. I need to understand that I have been socialised into a society which sees women and sees people from non-white backgrounds as inferior. No amount of pure thinking and pretending I don’t see difference is going to change this.
As a leader, your personal narrative is important but you need to know your context beyond your own personal story and you need to know how your own personal story fits into the societal and political context of our times. And you need to contextualise your and other people’s narratives within this. That’s difficult, but vital to do if you want to lead differently.
What would Beyonce do?
Understanding others’ narrative is essential to leadership. We all too often try to lead people, especially if we are doing it differently, knowing they aren’t going to like what we have to say, or worse, being surprised when they raise objections. Too many people try to ram through decisions anyway, or blame those above them, or the system, when delivering messages that others might find difficult to hear.
People who have worked with me will know that I absolutely believe in objection-handling as an essential component to the leadership toolkit. I’ll explain what I mean. You know those people in the leadership team who say “ just playing Devil’s advocate here…” or worse, fixate on a particular issue, making your strategy, idea or suggestion seem unworkable. And how many times did you see that coming and just hope they would be ill or inexplicably mute on the day?
It’s foolish not to do the work ahead of time and do some objection handling. Imagine that person who likes to put a stick in your spokes and think, what would X say at this point. Force yourself to think about the questions you least want to be asked and have answers for them. Address them head on, name them and pick them off one by one in your initial presentation of the proposal. Use research, clear rationale, previous experience to back up your handling of the possible objections that you think will be on people’s minds.
This is not a tool to help you get YOUR way more often, it helps you to see, hear and appreciate the diversity of thought and opinion within your team and to take a small piece of this into your own practice rather than resenting people who have different opinions and world views to you. It makes decision-making faster and easier as you have done the work ahead of time to think up all of the reasons why your plan may be less easily accepted by others. It helps your colleagues trust you and know they are heard, seen and felt. It actively promotes including diversity of thought into your own leadership practice rather than simply making sure you have a top trumps team of diverse people sitting in front of you not actually being included at all.
And as a school leader, don’t forget to extend this to beyond the leadership team. Do you know what your teachers, teaching assistants and catering staff think? Students? Their families? Local businesses and the wider community?
To succeed as a leader, you need to know what your strengths are and you need to see the strengths of those around you as complementary and not threats to your authority.
Good leaders have the confidence and wisdom to surround themselves with people that are far better than them at a myriad of things. They build the right team and draw on others’ expertise without feeling this threatens their ability to lead. Quite the opposite. If you have the right people rowing your boat, you can concentrate on navigating the choppy waters using your skills and expertise properly deployed.
Strengths Finder is an excellent tool to do this. Use it across the organisation and it shows a commitment to find the leading strengths in each person and gives you an opportunity for dialogue around and deployment of these strengths. Things you thought were quirky personality traits might be revealed to you and others as your unique and essential leadership qualities. E.g. I’m a person collector and a people connector. This has been integral to my leadership since Strengths Finder made me realise that this is a hugely valued and massively enjoyable strength I have.
When you are under threat or being made to feel inadequate, revisiting your Strengths Finder profile can be very affirming. It’s something that should be revisited regularly as you will see that you tend to take things for granted and even leave some strengths behind rather than developing them.
Identified Strengths should be developed. We spend too much time trying to get better at things we hate and are crap at in the name of being leaders. Much of what we do with performance management is ridiculously wed to this. This is nonsense. As long as you know where there are gaps and where you have the support, you will be fine. You need basic competencies at a range of things and you shouldn’t be building dependencies that are irreplaceable – I’ll say more about institutional knowledge in this context next.
Knowledge is power and institutional knowledge is powerful
When building your dream team of people cleverer than you at myriad things be careful to not build a wobbly Jenga tower. They say the mark of a good leader is when everything runs smoothly when they are there and when they are not. However, it is easy to rely on capable people too much and you can come unstuck:
When you take your eye off the ball and lose any link with the detail
When they leave and take valuable institutional knowledge with them
In organisations I have led in, it has been really important to ensure that knowledge, where possible, is institutional knowledge and that our systems and processes capture essential information. This means that if the worst happens, and someone leaves, they aren’t going to leave you high and dry, unable to function.
This can be as simple as knowing the code to the science cupboard so that when the science teacher is suddenly taken ill, you can get in and support the practicals that students need to do that day. But it also means capturing the “way we do things here” so that they can be used effectively to empower new starters in their induction period, and that they can be co-created, reviewed and embedded into everyone’s practice so that you feel certain that everyone is rowing in the same direction, understand the values and moral compass that steers your ship and keeps a happy crew. Values are much, much more than a poster on the wall.
Working in a role which requires much relationship management, I am not losing ANYTHING if I leave clear and useful records of contacts, interactions and next steps for the organisation. I can also take away with me my professional relationships without taking anything away from the organisation and clear in the knowledge that I am doing both parties a favour by ensuring the good work they do doesn’t collapse because I am leaving. They will both remember me kindly for this.
Be outward facing
Part of the call to action around engaging with the social, political and cultural experiences of yourself and others, can also be answered by being outward facing. Schools are insular places. Many teachers don’t engage with what is going outside their own classroom, let alone collaborate across departments, local schools, nationally or internationally.
Social media platforms like Linked In and Twitter are an excellent way to broaden your personal learning network. They can highlight things you need to read, think about and do differently as leaders. But I challenge you to engage with people who don’t look, sound or express views that are like your own, as well as with the usual mirror-tocracy of connections. It’s important. It could be the start of a way to change your world and change the world in general. Do an audit if your twitter connections, your professional connections, Linked In. Does everyone look like you or could belong to your family?
Every leader, whether you are a classroom teacher leading learning for 5 year olds or a MAT CEO, should have a mentor or coach that puts them through their paces. This should be someone neutral and you should consider paying for them, as you would a therapist or someone who does your eyebrows.
Every leader should be sending the elevator back down and lifting others in their networks. You learn as much through supporting someone else as you do through gaining support from others. Make time for it.
Go to events. Get business cards made and set yourself goals for events you attend. Scour the list of event speakers before you attend and hang about at the end of their talk to give them feedback and exchange contact details. Reach out to attendees ahead of time to arrange to meet for a chat in one of the breaks. Be proactive, people are friendly and want to connect. Twitter celebrities are a figment of everyone’s imagination. Be clear on what you have to give and what you would like to gain from connections. Follow up after you have met with a clear action if you can genuinely think of one.
Know your shelf life
It took me a long time and several jobs to realise this. I have never been the one to leave a lover or a job. I have resilience, developed from childhood, which is actually like Teflon to abuse and neglect. That’s not the type of resilience that does anyone any good. This means it never occurred to me that if things weren’t working out, I should actually get up and go. It felt like failure to me. If I just tried harder, worked smarter, was good and likeable, it would all pan out. And gosh, when things were good, why would you EVER consider leaving?
Well, this is what I have learned and it is incredibly empowering. I now know that my work with any organisation has a shelf life. I know that I can lead well for a specific leg of the journey we need to go on. I work with organisations on their journey from start up to grown up and I now know exactly the point where I can enter to add value, where I need to bring on team members and work with them to build capacity, co-create institutional knowledge, expertise and sustainability, and where I need to get the hell out of the way.
Rather than living in fear of being found out, or worse being driven out, or getting bored, I can have a frank conversation with any organisation I work with about my shelf life, what they would like to get from me and how and when we speak about the journey towards exit. Working with younger people, it is really obvious to them that two to three years is ample time in one role and they will be looking for a change of role or change of scene within that time period. As a leader, you need to know your shelf life and those of the people you lead and prepare for it accordingly. Too many leaders hang on forever, long past anything that is dignified. Too many leaders are offended when people move on to pastures new.
A good leader leaves at the right time with a bounce in their step and leaving empowered team members ready to keep pushing forwards. A happy employee leaves feeling empowered for the next step in their journey and taking a small piece of the great culture, values, systems and processes you established, into their next role. Like a small piece of your leadership DNA ‘infecting’ for good and making a dent on the universe by proxy.
I gave a presentation at a session on Pupil Voice alongside Joe Pardoe from School 21, chaired by Ed Finch at the NEU Celebrating Education conference on Saturday 30th March 2019.
I knew that Joe Pardoe would most likely be outlining the fabulous work done at School 21 on pupil voice and so I wanted to take the conversation to a different direction and to try and ask some provocative questions of the attendees. The following is an overview of my presentation.
As educators, we need to ask ourselves some challenging questions about the voices that are heard in our schools.
Children and adults need to see a range of people and voices. The curriculum needs to reflect a diverse range of voices, and that includes a diverse range of speaking styles and opportunities. We might need to practise switching from Shakespeare to slangspeak and back again, depending on the situation. (But should we be switching Shakespeare into slangspeak? Probably not.)
Children need to experience a diverse range of speaking styles and opportunities, and they need time for reflection and discussion that is built into the school day. This is exactly the sort of thing that is the golden thread that runs through School 21’s head, heart and hand curriculum for example.
There’s a lot of emphasis on teaching children vocabulary (or more cynically, teaching year 6 children the vocabulary we think will come up on the SATs paper, or technical terminology we think is needed for GCSE exams). But what about engaging children in etymology, and exploring where words come from, as part of our curriculum, and how they got there in the first place. You’d be surprised how many every day words and phrases have come into our language as a result of our colonial past, for example, let alone the myriad migrations to Great Britain over the centuries. (If you want to know more about this, I highly recommend the Our Migration Story resource put together by the Runnymede Trust here). We desperately need to decolonise the curriculum!
Diversity is good for business We know from the McKinsey Report that diversity works & is good for business – so ensuring there are diverse voices being heard within the staff team, from our clients, the children, and from the local community, will lead to a more productive and happier school. The McKinsey Report found that diverse teams make better decisions, are more productive and the more diverse the voices included in the decision-making process the better. That includes a range of voices from the shop floor right up to senior management – which is why we need to include children’s voices in schools’ decision-making around policy and practice where appropriate.
Lack of diversity is dangerous – seat belts and space suits Up until far too recently, women and children were suffering massive injuries or dying in car accidents despite wearing seat belts. This is directly related to the fact that the people designing these seat belts were men, testing them on themselves, and not considering others outside their own assumed “neutral” position, not realising that women and children would also be using these seat belts while not being the same height and weight to benefit from the design.
If you can’t see it, you can’t be it – role models for children and adults A lot of people like to say that Black children need to see Black role models in schools. I do agree with this adage that if you can’t see it, you can’t be it. But I also strongly believe that white people, those people that are traditionally used to holding positions of power in our society, need to see people of colour in positions of power and authority too. We are socialised to believe that the logical leader is a straight white man. We can’t unlearn this without ensuring that we all have experienced role models that aren’t white and male.
There are ways that you can ensure that you challenge your own biases, and the simple first step would be to join the activity of grassroots organisations like the BAMEed Network, WomenEd and LGBTEd.
We are all so conditioned to accept the white man in charge that we become immune to, or at least tolerant of, incompetence when it is plain to see. How many times have you waited for someone to step up, and then wondered why they are in charge when they are obviously completely under-skilled and overconfident? This short explanation shows just why incompetent men fail their way to the top and what we can do to stop being complicit in this.
We need to change the narrative about what a leader looks like. We need to change the narrative about what people in power look like. We need to change the narrative around who gets to be heard. We are peddling a narrative that “neutral” is white and male. Have you ever tried to buy a plaster? What colour are they? “Skin” colour? Whose? Back to those seat belts and space suits, the lack of plasters, make up, hair care products, lack of understanding by healthcare professionals and more…
We need to give opportunities for children to identify what they have in common and what is different, to look at different possibilities for identity and to identify with people who are the same and different. One way to do this is through the excellent resource produced by the Finnish organisation, Lyfta. You can see a short clip here that explains how this is used at Aureus School in Didcot, for example.
Politicise them. When do children learn about politics except if they do Politics A level or if we absolutely have to, for example when there’s a general election or we need to explain to them about Brexit (not that any of us know much about that except that it is an absolute ominshambles). Schools like The London Academy of Excellence in Tottenham oblige their students to spend a compulsory half day a week on social activism and community work as part of the curriculum.
Socialisation and stereotyping should be explained and unpacked for students at as early an age as possible, and should be revisited regularly.
Enquiry-led models of learning like the Finnish phenomenon-based learning, or the Canadian Spirals of Inquiry can help students to understand about making choices and taking informed risks.
When we speak to our students, what do they hear? When we include or exclude things in the curriculum, what does that communicate? When we talk about pupil voice and we talk about the curriculum, we need to understand how inherent bias works too. Bringing Black role models for Black children is important but it isn’t enough. Teaching all children about stereotyping and prejudice is one step, but it doesn’t take away the damage that is done by implicit bias i.e. what is communicated to people of colour, for example, in explicit and implicit ways throughout their lifetime. The Doll Test is a painful and real expression of how strongly these messages are heard and internalised by children from a very young age. You can watch it here
This is one of the many pictures from the newspapers on the children’s climate change march that happened recently. The condescending attitudes to children who went on strike and marched for climate change by the media, by some adults, and among them educators, was mind blowing and yet a true reflection of our disdain of young people and youth in general.
Compare ours with social attitudes to youth and childhood in Finland and you will see a country whose youth are consistently told that they are the next leaders, that the weight of responsibility to learn today what is needed to run the world of tomorrow lies with them.
In our system, education is about numbers and letters, not even whole sentences any more.
Try taking the questions I posed at the beginning and conduct a one-day exercise using them as an audit tool at school.
Check your own bias! Be honest about where your own starting point is and think about how you build your own curriculum of learning to get to a point where you can start to implement some changes, and for the right reasons. You might find the resources on the BAMEed Network website useful.
Think about recruitment practice in your school, especially to senior leadership positions and put in a plan of action to ensure that there is diverse representation at every level in your school.
Sign up to Lyfta and the British Council training for free. You can find out more about that here
Join BAMEed, WomenEd, LGBTEd and take action. Develop your own voice on this, be heard and amplify the voices of others that need to be heard loud and clear.
When we were setting the agenda and theme for this year’s BAMEed Network annual conference, I have to admit that the idea of a theme of the habits of highly effective people felt like it could stray into contentious territory. I don’t buy into the ideology that promotes a view that hard work breaks all barriers if you just put your mind to it. I do believe that our world is inherently racist, our institutions are structurally racist and that many white people, when faced with challenge on this are prone to being fragile and defensive, often crying out the case for colour-blindness instead of taking responsibility and committing themselves to join the call to be agents of change. We will need to all work extremely hard as a society to make meaningful changes for people of colour, Gypsy, Traveller and Roma people, the working classes, women, people with disabilities, LGBT people and the many marginalised people in general. We will need to understand that these changes need to take place, not out of pity or do-goodery which creates further ‘othering’ people of colour. Change needs to happen for the good of us all.
One of the strong themes of the day was to explore the reasons why diversity and anti-racist practice, in all its forms, is good for everyone. After all, diversity is actually good for business. In our increasingly materialistic and managerialist world, employers in all sectors and business people alike should be aware of the impact of ignoring the issues. It might seem cynical to overlook real human experience in favour of putting the business case for equality, but it might also be a good way to make people start to engage with the issues. Where you can’t first change people’s attitudes, perhaps you can change their actions.
A healthy workforce is a happy workforce
Mental health and wellbeing is a good place to start. The evidence is there, cumulative exposure to racial discrimination has incremental negative long-term effects on the mental health of ethnic minority people in our country. Studies that examine exposure to racial discrimination at one point in time may underestimate the contribution of racism to poor health.
I think what is hard for people to understand is that when we refer to racial discrimination it is not confined to outrageous and obvious racist abuse, it is confined to these small acts, daily reminders, constant and seemingly subtle markers of territory which white people are prone to do. White people too are victims of constant, deep and consistent conditioning that we will need to work hard to free ourselves from.
A person who is consistently made to feel that they do not belong, that they are not fully British, or they are Brit(ish) as Afua Hirsch so powerfully explains in her recent book of the same title, is exhausting. The impact on health, both mental and physical, is tangible and has been researched, written, documented and spoken about extensively. The incidents of micro-aggressions and denying people of colour an equal place in shared spaces is imperceptible to most white people’s consciousness. As a Jew, I know these micro-aggressions all too well but as a secular, white Jew, I can choose to expose my ‘otherness’ and don’t wear it as obviously as many marginalised people do.
The ‘innocent act’ of taking an interest in someone’s heritage is a prime example and in many accounts I have heard, it involves this simple but powerful way to show someone their right to be fully British is under question:
Q: “Where are you from?”
A: “London/Birmingham/Dorset/[insert any part of the UK]”
Q: “Yes, but where are you from? Where is your family from originally?”
Diverse teams are 35% more productive
Diversity in the workplace doesn’t mean having a bingo card full-house of ‘minorities’ or marginalised groups. What it does mean is diversity of thought. If you have a diverse group of people they will differ in the way they approach situations, think things through, perceive challenges, view the issues, come to solutions, work together, articulate themselves, network and collaborate. This leads to higher rates of productivity in all sectors and of course profitability in the private sector, according to a recent McKinsey study. You can’t have diversity of thought if everyone in your organisation has the more or less the same background and experience.
The best way to ensure diversity is to change recruitment practices. Too many employers say that they struggle to recruit a diverse workforce because the diverse candidates just don’t apply. Anyone who attended his workshop or has spoken to him, will know that Roger Kline’s work with the NHS is a fascinating insight into how simple changes in practice make a huge difference. The interesting fact is that while you can’t oblige people to believe this is the right thing to do morally, simple target-setting can certainly be a huge motivator for people to reach the levels of diversity, and therefore productivity, that workplaces should strive to achieve. It’s a two-pronged attack of targets and educating managers that works best of course. It’s not enough to believe, you need the tools and sometimes the carrot and stick approach to make change happen.
But Roger’s work shows that it doesn’t just stop with getting the team in. It also extends to treating people well. His research shows that it is 1.56 times more likely that BAME staff will enter the formal disciplinary process than white colleagues, while in London it is twice as likely. We see this also with punishment and exclusion of our students in schools. We should learn from Kline and colleagues on what works and what doesn’t in promoting equality for our staff members and our children.
Change always begins with me
There is a place though to consider what measures each of us can take to promote change, point out inequality where it is taking place and to position ourselves as best as we can to mitigate the effects of structural and inherent racism in our society.
For me as a white person, I know that I have a moral responsibility to keep reading, learning, listening and educating myself so that I can open doors, send the elevator back down, and share my privilege where I can. As Peggy McIntosh so rightly points out, white people have a ‘knapsack of privileges’ which we are encouraged to not even recognise or see as inherent to the experience of ‘whiteness’ and white privilege. She says, “As a white person, I realised I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage…I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious”. I was pleased that this year, our conference included more white delegates than ever. We are yet to be blessed with ‘the great white male’ among their number. Next year, our conference will be in Brighton on 15th June and I hope that we can do better on this front.
My fears of even a hint of victim-blaming or ‘just try harder’ message coming across in our choice of theme transpired to be unfounded of course. One workshop I attended, further helped me reconcile my original worry. Issy Dhan’s session explored how we can make our work and achievements more visible in the workplace. He was sensitive to the fact that culturally, especially those not socialised and conditioned in the way our white, British, male colleagues may have been, can find the whole concept of potential immodesty, extroversion and trumpet-blowing hard to stomach. However, some simple processes and actions can go a long way to helping make ourselves more visible as credible people in the workplace and the knock-on effect can be to raise the profile of our perceived minority group, whether we like it or not.
One great and relevant piece of advice came from one of the participants in this particular workshop. She said that where your workplace still isn’t convinced of your strength and worth, consider making your impact outside of the workplace. Get involved in things you can lead, organise, be active in. Show your professional abilities and leadership qualities. Blogging, writing for professional publications and getting involved in movements like the BAMEed Network are prime examples. We’d be delighted to see your blog on the event and to hear what impact it had on you. We are looking for more regional leads who can ensure that across the country we are making change happen. Just get in touch, we’re waiting to hear from you.
There has been a public outcry recently about the idea of baseline tests for Reception-age children in English schools. Children seem to be increasingly reduced to data points. In general, we seem to be having a gradual realisation that all is not well with how data is being used about us, as seen with the Cambridge Analytica and Facebook debacle this week.
I have been thinking a lot about statistics, data and childhood from my own experience as a parent and thought it might be an interesting exercise to do a chronological walk through of some of the insights I have had. My basic understanding is that we use statistics and data to make all sorts of decisions, often guided by professionals, that sometimes seem to make no sense at all and at worst make us conform in a way that is simply wrong.
Conception and birth
If you know anything about conception and birth, you will know that statistical information guides so much of the experience in the Western world. Given my childhood experience, this started with my attention being drawn to the stark statistics around divorce. Since one in three marriages end in divorce I made a grim decision that whatever I do with regards relationships and family, I should never embark on anything that I can’t sustain alone should my relationship not succeed.
I was lucky enough to not have to think about the stats around being pregnant post-40 or have any particular difficulty getting pregnant, which would mean the heartache, angst and combined prayer and number crunching involved in IVF or similar assistance with getting pregnant and staying pregnant to term. But what I did experience with my second pregnancy was alarming enough.
In Israel, where I lived at the time, there are quite a large number of tests carried out during pregnancy, with the option of doing more should you wish to. I had all of the usual ultrasounds, and a blood test to determine the likelihood of certain genetic issues. I won’t go into all of the intimate details but from the get go, I wasn’t entirely sure that the calculation of what week I was in during pregnancy was correct. This became more acute when I had the blood test for common genetic disorders, which was cross-referenced with the latest ultrasound scan – and I was subsequently called to do a further blood test and finally to speak with a specialist at the genetic abnormalities clinic. All I knew before going into the appointment was that they had deemed the statistical chance of me having a baby with genetic abnormalities to be higher than average and they recommended amniocentesis. If you don’t know what this is (and I didn’t and had to quickly read up on it at the time), the basic information you need to know is that a trained medical professional will insert a long syringe through the abdomen into the womb and extract a tiny amount of amniotic fluid so that they can do analysis on the genetic make-up of the developing fetus.
What has all of this got to do with statistics? So here goes. The information that you glean about amniocentesis contains two sets of stats that you need to weigh up before you go ahead. One is the level of accuracy of the outcomes of the test, and two is the likelihood that you will miscarry as a result of infection or disturbance to the pregnancy. These were two scenarios I was going to be asked to consider when attending the consultation with the specialist. But a third, pivotal variable struck me. Was their original data on the likelihood of my unborn fetus having some kind of birth defect correct in the first place? And if it was, did it have any bearing on the statistical analysis they had presented me with?
I went into the meeting alone. My heart was pounding and I listened as best I could as they repeated that they advise amniocentesis and that the stats show that the situation doesn’t look great. I was determined to get to the bottom of how they make these calculations. I didn’t profess to know much about statistics, genetics or even pregnancy at this stage, but I knew that it was important to unpick the evidence and reassemble it so that I could make an informed decision.
They agreed to walk me through the methodology and that’s when the light went on. I asked questions and we ended up agreeing that a lot of it hinged on the calculation of the age of the fetus. My instinct was that the fetus I was carrying was in fact older than they had assumed by possibly up to two weeks. I had proof for this and asked the specialist if she could do some modelling based on the fetus’ age being one week and two weeks older. She disappeared for about 15 minutes and returned with a new spreadsheet, while I sat biting my nails waiting. Lo and behold, the statistical evidence showing that I should be having amniocentesis and that the baby could be born with genetic birth defects suddenly reduced and there I was again, safely within the ‘normal’ risk band.
I can’t really convey the drama of this experience but while it was happening, I felt like my life (more importantly that of my unborn child) absolutely hinged on getting this right. Imagine if I hadn’t questioned the statistics, hadn’t tried to understand where the evidence had come from and hadn’t insisted on interleafing it with contextual and qualitative personal evidence.
My daughter was born healthy, thank goodness. She arrived what was assumed to be a month early, jaundiced, but otherwise fully developed and not in need of specialist care other than invasive daily heel-prick tests for haemoglobin levels for two weeks. That made me think that I was probably right about the pregnancy being further along than assumed and that she wasn’t really that premature at all. We will never know.
Birth and the first year
The politics of childbirth needs a blog post in its own right – it’s nearly 13 years since I last gave birth and I am still psyching myself up for that one. There is much written about it based on research and real-life experiences of millions of women worldwide. It’s a statistical minefield combined with variables such as shift changes, risk management and more. One thing that I hear time and again, and was tripped up by myself, is the use of statistical tables to place newborns into percentiles. You only have to spend time with the people who have had babies at a similar time to you, to hear the competitive edge of statistics, measurements, milestones and comparisons being flung about right into their second and third year and beyond. “The baby’s in the 95th percentile!” (There’s always problematic gender-related subtext in there too – massive equals good, strong if it’s a boy, and nagging worry if it’s a girl that she might be obese, into childhood and adulthood).
There’s nothing wrong with this in itself and knowing ‘what’s normal’ is something we all find useful when trying to benchmark and make decisions accordingly – especially when you have no prior experience of a fragile newborn. But what I see time and again with new parents I know is this scenario:
Baby is born, the couple tells everyone two key pieces of statistical information – how long it took and the baby’s birth weight
The health visitor visits you at home and tells you the baby has lost too much weight after the birth and is now in x percentile
Health visitor says the baby probably ‘isn’t getting enough milk’ and that you should supplement with formula to hurry along replacing the lost weight
You are alarmed. You didn’t know babies lost weight after birth and it doesn’t sound good
You feel frustrated, the baby seems to be feeding constantly and the health visitor is now describing a path were your baby is in danger of slipping into the wrong percentile – perhaps this isn’t normal and you should speed them along as suggested
You acquiesce and start to bottle-feed between breast-feeding, which is a shame as you are just getting the hang of it. You are feeling a little inadequate and worried that your insistence on breast is best is naïve even though your NCT class said the statistics tell us this
Complications start, your baby seems to want bottle-feeding more than from source, fusses on the breast and does seem to sleep better and feeds less frequently when you bottle-feed – and baby is now climbing up the percentile charts again
A new statistic is born – not everyone can breast-feed and it is shown to be better to switch to bottle if the baby is ‘not thriving’ i.e. not staying within the percentiles that the health workers are using to benchmark your baby with
Faced with this information that my baby was shrinking, I was anxious but also wanted to know the facts. Where does the information come from for these percentiles? What about qualitative and family-specific information that we can cross reference with? What about the fact that the baby seems happy enough – or in my case not happy all the time but demand-feeding frequently and eventually became huge. Many health workers will supplement explanations like the baby is ‘lazy’, has a ‘weak latch onto the breast’, needs to be woken and fed and not demand-fed. We followed this waking and feeding advice and ended up with a huge, well-fed baby who had massive sleep issues potentially exacerbated because we were interfering with her sleep patterns to stuff her with mummy milk at every opportunity. Afterall, the percentiles were what we were trying to comply with.
If you scratch the surface, you can see where a lot of the data we use with regards babies, is deeply flawed. In this case, much of the percentile charts that are used, can come from the United States where babies are born bigger and are more likely to be bottle fed, or from WHO statistics or indeed locally produced versions. What about common-sense factors like the physical make-up of each of you as the parents, your parents’ experience of you as a newborn, and so on. And what about time? Who says that these percentiles are accurate in terms of the time it takes to regain the weight lost by the baby after the birth and the time it takes to move up the already flawed charts?
One of the major factors that disturbs me with childbirth, newborn growth and later into schooling is how much of this is directly related to the health visitor, medical practitioner and education practitioners’ own performance management, and the statistical evidence that is provided as evidence of them doing a good job themselves?
Schooling and beyond
It’s no secret that our education system has become increasingly informed and driven by data. And like the health worker, educational professionals’ performance management dictates what is deemed success, more often than the practitioners’ own professional judgement. Evidence-informed decisions around what works are useful. But we haven’t really answered the question about what ‘what works’ actually means. In its most reductive sense it means, what gets them passing the tests and getting the set of qualifications that will best position them to earn well in adulthood.
Let’s start with choosing a school and the way in which many parents use publicly available evidence and data to do this. I wrote previously about this in my post about choosing a secondary school here. It is clear that the statistical evidence that parents use when choosing a primary or secondary school is deeply flawed in many ways. Let’s look at each in turn:
Ofsted results – this is a snapshot in time and the numerical result is usually where most parents start and finish. Delving into the last two or three reports is probably more useful, and then cross referencing the areas for improvement and quizzing the SLT about it when you visit the school might yield a much clearer picture. The truth is that most Outstanding and some Good rated schools haven’t had an Ofsted inspection for anywhere between 3 and 10 years. The leadership might well have changed at least once since the last inspection, or it might have stayed the same and potentially stagnated – and who knows what Ofsted would rate the school as today? At best, it’s a guide as to how well the school was able to get itself to the place where they were graded as such on that specific day in time and that is it.
League tables – it has been written about recently by Education Datalab that many selective schools are propped up by an entire army of private tutors. I believe that if we look into it, we might see that many Outstanding-rated primary and secondary schools are similarly reliant on parent-funded tutoring and extra-curricular activity to support a proportion of children reaching higher standards in their SATs, and GCSEs, as well as to keep them in top sets throughout their secondary education. It’s worth understanding if this is the case, that any decision you make will potentially require a financial investment if the levels of achievement aren’t being gained actually within the school day. Can you know this from looking at league tables?
Another thing about league tables is obviously the background information about cohort, intake, whether exam specs changed that year. League tables are based on one year of test and exam information. Who is to say that the school is able to repeat this year on year, and how are you able to know whether your child will be one of the successful top performers? And the key question is always, at what cost? Not just to your pocket but to your child’s own experience of learning as joyful and broad rather than stressful and narrowly channelled to SATs and GCSE success from the get-go. You only have to look at what is happening from year 7 and 8 in schools now as schools move to a 3 and 4 year GCSE pathway to ensure they get the results and hold their place in the league tables.
GCSE results – even if you feel comfortable with the different lines of reporting on secondary schools and delve into things like value added, are you able to discern what this actually means in terms of the qualitative journey of individuals within the school? Are you cross-referencing with exclusion levels, levels of deprivation, in-year movement of students, outcomes for different marginalised groups, what the outcomes are for all children – especially those of different socio-economic backgrounds to your own? Do you even care? Can you have any impact on this – by perhaps becoming a school governor?
The big question for me with all of the available data is not just what are my child’s chances of reaching their potential at the school of our choosing, but also what are the issues on a societal level that affect the school population and what can we do to help counter them for the good of all children at the school? Aside from this, I can see clearly that the data that people are relying on is too simplistic to be useful. This is especially so if the information is not cross-referenced with qualitative evidence only gleaned by visiting the school, getting involved in the local community and making a subjective guess-timate based on your knowledge of your own child now and what they might be like in years to come.
Data which informs and data which makes us conform
The problem with data is how we use it, and how it uses us. In many cases, use of data is a quick, lazy way to make decisions. Yet cross-referencing data with qualitative information is difficult to do if this is not available. We need to rely on our own enquiring minds, imagination and pushing the boundaries of what we think is true because it is fed to us by the media and political agendas. Data is useful, but extremely dangerous when not used to just to inform, but instead creates a systematic evidence base to make us conform for potentially the wrong reasons as explored in this post.
In the case of the newborn, our decisions can be narrowed down to a choice to hurry our baby along to the detriment of our own freedom of choice on feeding and submitting to a choice of pace that is dictated by statistics, or a health visitors’ success-ranking criteria, rather than the facts before us. In the case of choosing a school, I believe that data use and school choice can make us stunningly narrow-minded, selfish and irresponsible. Choosing the best for our child doesn’t often include a moral decision to ensure that through sending our child to their local school we can essentially be part of ensuring the success of the school for all its students.
Increasingly, we see a situation where data was once useful and ‘that which can be measured can be deemed important’, can quickly creep to ‘only that which can be measured is deemed important’ in decisions we take regarding childhood and education.
It’s not by chance that I got the name Penelope, I am convinced of it. The more I learn about her and the more I live my life, the more I see the resonance. This weekend I took part in @WomenEdBookclub’s slow chat, hosted by Mary Beard and inspired by her book, Women and Power: a manifesto. In her book, she refers to Penelope, wife of Odysseus, who is silenced by her own son, Telemachus. She refers to this snippet from Penelope’s story as a “nice demonstration that right where written evidence for Western culture starts, women’s voices are not being heard in the public sphere” and how “growing up, as a man, is learning to take control of public utterance and to silence the female of the species”.
Mary Beard goes on to explain how this plays out in the modern world too, and uses the thirty year old cartoon by Riana Duncan, also shown above. “That’s an excellent suggestion, Miss Triggs. Perhaps one of the men here would like to make it.” It resonates, because it is my lived experience. And it should have all of us scrolling back through a mental catalogue of similar meetings where this may have happened before our very eyes – eyes and ears that weren’t trained to spot it perhaps, and a mouth that wasn’t able or willing to call it out.
One of the things that troubles me, is how we manage to tackle these issues without polarising into men and women, good and bad, feminist and sexist, and without alienating people. I think that the starting point has to be from a place of trying to understand socialisation, conditioning – the deep process we go through in our lifetimes and that builds on centuries of accepted wisdom, the process of being taught explicitly and implicitly what the world means. You have to accept that this happens, and you can’t believe that you were somehow brought up to be beyond the influence of wider society, no matter how “woke” your upbringing was.
Categorising, characterising, conditioning
By example, from the moment my children were born, I did as all good mothers of all animal species do. I drilled them on simple categorisations: day and night (if anyone knows my story of sleepless babies, you’ll know that one took forever!), good and bad, hot and cold, edible and not edible, acceptable and not acceptable. The categorisation process gets really sophisticated early on and we learn to group things into concepts like seats and not seats – you can sit on a low, square stool but you shouldn’t sit on a coffee table that looks to all intents and purposes to the untrained eye like a low, square stool. There is a catalogue of animals that make you go “awwwww” and those that make you go “ewwww” and so on.
We also categorise people by gender, race, age, weight, how they move, talk, and more. This is the way we learn what is safe and unsafe, what is socially acceptable and not. How many times have you told your children not to speak with strangers and then later berated them when they don’t greet a stranger politely that you have deemed to be worthy of their respect? You should have seen the uproar in my house when I invited my Twitter friend to stay the night before our BAMEed conference when I don’t really know who she is and I have never met her face to face before, having drilled my children on internet safety and who they can legitimately call their friends!
It should be noted that this is also the way that we subtly start to embed the concepts of who has the right to power over things like speech and more. Mary Beard uses the Penelope example to start the discussion about men’s historically accepted rightful place as orators and women’s seeming deficiency in this arena. I strongly believe that no-one, no matter their declarations of gender or race blindness, is exempt from being the product of their socialisation and conditioning. And even if they deem themselves to be absolutely pure from any contaminating effects of this societal conditioning, no-one can be accepted as truly equal just by virtue of the fact that they deem themselves to be worthy of being treated equally. Finally, unequal treatment, bias, whether it be sexist or racist in its form, is not something that is always clearly defined, binary and explicit. I don’t agree that people can be categorised into racist and not racist, sexist and not sexist like some kind of Harry Potter sorting hat defines your house.
I have to clarify here, that of course, there are some people and their actions that put them squarely and without dispute into the racist and/or sexist category. But what I like about Mary Beard’s book is that it explains how the subtle and not so subtle power struggles between men and women are perpetuated in ways that are so deeply entrenched, that it is not a switch we can flick, a decision we can make or a quick change we can implement. We need to question ourselves and those around us to see where this is playing out in our own lives. One last thing to point out, at the risk of being really obvious: just because you are a woman, doesn’t mean you are pro-women, feminist or not prone to perpetuating gender stereotypes just as being a man, doesn’t make you automatically pro-men, sexist and ignorant about power imbalance.
I got the power!
All discourse about women, about race and so on is about power. It is about the balance of power and why it sits where it does. Mary Beard gives us a Western historical whistle-stop tour of why power lies squarely with men and how this plays out in her own lived experience as a woman, albeit a woman with much power compared with others, both male and female.
Here’s a story from my lived experience which might illustrate some of the power imbalances mentioned above. I’d be fascinated to hear what you think:
One of my previous male bosses back in the day, commented quite vociferously and negatively on my choice of footwear. I was wearing admittedly clompy, comfortable shoes on a freezing cold, wet day where we were attending a meeting with external stakeholders. He was wearing brown, lace up, brogues, not too dissimilar. It knocked the wind out of my sails and made me self-conscious throughout the day that we spent together travelling to and from the meeting. Ironically, a female stakeholder spontaneously commented on how much she loved my shoes the same day.
Said male boss also liked to hold up one of our female colleagues as an example, often commenting on how she is “always so well turned out”. He correlated her consistently “smart” appearance to the quality of her work. My experience of her was indeed as someone who always wore a full palette of make-up, straightened her hair, changed into impossible-looking heels from her walking-to-work trainers every morning, and was very vocal about her need to restrict herself from enjoyment of food in order to maintain her very thin figure. My male boss saw this as a commitment to discipline, rigour and a visual sign that the quality of her work was also of this same calibre.
My experience of myself and from feedback I have consistently had, is as someone who is also very committed to my work, to quality, rigour, creativity and a certain flexibility and resilience. This could be reflected in my sensible shoes, my all-weather cyclist mind-set, and the fact that make-up and hairdos are just prone to becoming a mess anyway so why bother? I wash my face and brush my hair and also change from my cycling gear into my office get-up to indicate my readiness for serious work. Mentioned once, this comparison might have passed me by, but mentioned regularly, it began to bother me and I spoke out on more than one occasion to see if my boss understood that his bias was potentially shaping the way our work and worth would be regarded. Blank looks. Suggestions of being over-sensitive. Hints that I was dissing my female colleague for her sartorial choices and that because we are all feminists, we can all wear what we like. “I wear these clothes/heels/make-up for me” is what is often said. But can we divorce our choices from conditioning and accepted beliefs regarding acceptable female attire? Is there really freedom of choice when all choices seem to come with a raft of associations?
This clothing preference boss thing has become linked in my experience to another incident with my most-feminist-friend at work. It should stand to illustrate that even as a self-declared feminist and ‘bloody difficult woman’, this colleague could also be prone to bias resulting from deep and subtle conditioning. We all are, that’s my point.
This is how it happened. During a period, when perhaps subconsciously I must have felt it might be interesting to test out whether a leaning towards the more ‘power dressing’ end of the spectrum might serve my interests and have my voice heard a little more seriously, I started wearing smart black, navy blue or grey, tailored dresses and heels around the office. After all, the boss had made it clear time and again that a woman who is well turned out is a woman who means business and demands respect for the quality of her work. My most-feminist-friend noted my changed wardrobe choices, sidled up to me at the sinks in the ladies loo and uttered between hushed lips: “are you having an affair, Penny?” Remember the story of Penelope and the affair she also didn’t have?
How would you interpret this? The way I saw it was this: she had hit on something I was perhaps not fully aware of at the time. I was indeed trying to please a man – my boss. The attempt at pleasing a man by a heterosexual woman, must have been interpreted by my colleague as connected to a woman’s sexuality, hence the conclusion of an affair and my newly heightened well-turned out/sexually attractive state. I wasn’t trying to hit on my boss but I was trying out what it felt like to be wearing the uniform of accepted feminine work wear and must have been keeping an eye to see if it altered attitudes to my work.
The missing piece for me was having the opportunity to sit down with all the players in this great story and to spend some time working together to deconstruct and analyse what was going on here. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to get together as a group of people, all of whom I know would say they believed in equality of the sexes, and read up on, analyse and discuss this very dynamic that played out in our working relationship all that time ago. Now that would be a satisfying experience I’m sure.
Postscript:My dear partner has pointed out that all of this is an example of white-woman, privileged, feminist discourse and that it doesn’t cover anything meaningful around race, inter-sectionality and other important issues. I hold my hand up and once I have spent some time educating myself further on this, I will get back to you. I’m reading is “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge to keep me moving on my journey. You can read this excellent Guardian Long Read by her here. All suggestions to help me learn are gratefully accepted.