The dual pandemics of racism and Covid 19 dramatically collided in Spring 2020, bringing a sense of urgency and declarations of “we must do something” from many white-majority organisations far and wide, ranging from village schools to high street fashion outlets, national charities to global food chain stores. In some cases, there’s been an organisational equivalent of the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – that could be translated to the stages of workplace commitments to change, emerging over this period. Social media has been instrumental in amplifying and making public much of this phenomenon.
How did antiracism become EDI?
Anti-racism was the clear and urgent priority following the murder of George Floyd, and over time, this seems to have been re-routed to a more generalist approach. Although it is not exactly the same as declarations that ‘all lives matter’ or the ‘whataboutery’ often deployed to what is perceived as a need to counter prioritising one injustice over another, it’s hard not to sense that this might be a softening, as anti-racism work becomes increasingly tricky and demanding when the dust has settled on the public announcements and the work begins. One crucial question often seems to be, ‘If you are saying you want your organisation to be ‘anti’ racist, does this mean you are ready to accept as fact that it is in fact structurally racist at present?’ People of colour (usually in roles in the existing hierarchy that lack power, influence, a budget, or agency precisely because of the racist structures they seek to disrupt) have been hired within their own organisations only sometimes to find themselves isolated or abandoned to do the work, feeling they are token, powerless and exposed in an elaborate game of hide-and-seek. In some scenarios, the role has been discontinued in favour of some training, and pledges to do better. In other cases, having lifted the lid on it, working on racism is said to seem ‘combative’ or ‘unduly negative’. The logic goes that since there are actually Equality Duty objectives which hold us accountable to demonstrate equality for all of the nine protected characteristics, it seems inequitable to just give oxygen to the one: race. This can be further explained by those who have heard that since inequity is intersectional, we can legitimately work our way through all of the protected characteristics with that in mind. This problem has been acknowledged by Miller (2019) who tells us that “”issues to do with ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ in education have been subsumed in wider discourses around ‘diversity’, the result of which is the subsuming of ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity issues under a single diversity banner is contributing to the invisibility of the quotidian experiences of ethnic minority people’ (p.223). Miller’s observations are consistent with Kimberle Crenshaw’s entreaty to engage in intersectional anti-racism work, but not in place of actual anti-racism work.
Social media has also colluded with the situation to create an army of freelance Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) experts with varying knowledge and practice experience, of all ethnicities. Whilst the market is large enough to accommodate all these experts, organisations must be discerning so their spend in this area can take them forward in knowledge and practice. It might come as a surprise that despite the intention and activism of staff and leaders there is only limited evidence EDI programmes are in fact increasing diversity. Not much has changed during the various waves of EDI work since the 1960s, aside from of course some new technological advances to help gather and track data. Organisations still rely on ‘diversity training’ to reduce workplace bias, and ‘anonymous recruitment practices to try and improve attracting and recruiting new candidates. Whilst these important actions, without organisational and individual ownership of anti-racism, meaningful change is quite possibly further away than imagined or believed.
There’s almost always an elephant
One unintended outcome of the fragmentation and marketisation of EDI work and the associated social media noise, is that it might actually be driving a shift away from focus on anti-racism to one centred around a more generalist diversity agenda pointed out above. ‘Diversity’ can be a way to sanitise what was seen as a great urgent concern two years ago, and perhaps now still feels deeply uncomfortable – and therefore attract more business. It feels more fair and equitable, and it opens the door to people who perhaps feel they don’t have skin in the game to rely on as their driver for change to find their ‘in’, and can perpetuate the notion that racism is a ‘Black problem’, as opposed to something firmly rooted in the structures of whiteness. Furthermore, EDI professionals need to ensure that diversity management is a strategic priority for those willing to employ their services and by setting out the ‘moral and business’ cases for diversity. Organisations are guilty of overriding the moral case and not sufficiency engaging with the business case, leading to a zero sum game.
The elephant in the room of course is unpacking what we mean by diversity and how it is used. Language is important, after all. Firstly, people cannot be ‘diverse’. And yet we hear EDI specialists and the general public talk of ‘diverse candidates’, ‘diverse teachers’, even people referring to themselves as ‘diverse’. But the use of the word diverse in this way, actually reinforces the status quo and normalise a notion that default and standard is one thing (white, male, heterosexual, cis-gender, able bodied, middle class), and anyone who falls outside of this is ‘diverse’. Similarly, ‘diversifying’ the workforce, or ‘diversifying’ the school curriculum is often talked about as if there’s a trunk road of normal, and some small lanes of scenic routes we could add in to make the journey to our destination perhaps more scenic and enriching. These notions are as problematic as they are important.
The most significant elephant in the room, we find, is that of power. On a grand scale we need to contextualise power within the framework of capitalism and the necessity of inequalities to create the power structures for the system to work in the first place. On a smaller scale, diversity practitioners themselves often overlook the centrality of power in the equation, and in doing so fail to reposition organisational discourse, practice and the responsibility for leading change towards those with the power to do so. As Miller (2020) sets out, “leaders have the power to establish and influence cultures; to influence race relations positively; help reframe problems, ameliorate conflicts and inform strategies; secure buy-in and create an institutional multiplier effect, and to influence practice outside their institutions” (pp. 5-6).  As Professor Paul Warmington said recently, ‘racism is everyday, it is not a glitch in the system, it is the system’ – a situation which makes it even more urgent for anti-racism to be done, and to be done by those with appropriate knowledge, skills, and lived experiences.
Another outcome of the furious competition and fragmentation of EDI work is that it plays straight into the hands of capitalist market forces and creates a situation where true collaboration and powerful alliances become difficult. There becomes an ironic mirroring of the power dynamic of having the owners of the means of production and those that generate the profit for them through their work inherent in the capitalist model. Noisy self-appointed EDI celebrities create what they refer to as collaborations through drowning out the perceived competition, effectively colonising the space and co-opting others’ work, allowing them to grab onto their coat-tails in exchange for ‘exposure’. While this can be useful for both parties, if examined through an educated lens of diversity, equity and inclusion, it should be problematised and openly critiqued for a space to be created for truly reflexive and emancipatory work.
Keeping an eye on EDI and anti-racism
Racism lies at the centre of society as a powerful tool with massive reach. We absolutely must think of the nine protected characteristics detailed in the Equality Act 2010 and work towards our duty to make workplaces and society friendly to all humans. It is also important to not lose sight of the fact that when we consider race, we are talking about peoples upon whom the greatest genocide in human history was enacted and which was systematically justified through flawed and carefully manufactured logic of race and racism. A logic which is still embedded in our psyches today, and by which society is still ordered in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. In short, people of colour are still paying the price for the fact that “racism as a tool for ordering society is bigger than any weapon of mass destruction” . We need to keep a critical eye on EDI and antiracism work, and ensure that we are not falling foul of the structures of inequity and systems of division that nurture inequity through our own work. We need to build equitable alliances and collaborations to ensure that our work is powerful, agile and enduring. We need to generously showcase counter-narratives to the status quo that show pockets of hope and examples of activism, wherever they can be found. We cannot afford to allow apathy, a lack of trust or competition to railroad both EDI and antiracism efforts, wherever they are taking place.
 Miller, P. (2019) ‘Race’ and ethnicity in Educational Leadership. In T Bush, L Bell and D Middlewood (Eds) Principles of Educational Leadership & Management (3rd Edn), London: SAGE.
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.
Just when we thought that schools couldn’t possibly absorb any more of society’s most complex needs being driven through their already heaving agendas, the crisis associated with the Coronavirus pandemic over the past 6 months suddenly focused a more harsh spotlight on the way in which increasing divisions between the haves and the have-nots determines outcomes for children and their families, not only in terms of academic achievement at school and beyond, but now in terms of health, employment and life-expectancy in the face of a global pandemic. Stark divisions which have already become entrenched during prolonged austerity, have become even more acute in the face of national lockdown measures, forcing many families into precarity they never imagined would touch them, and pushing the already vulnerable deeper into poverty which seems fitting for Victorian England, not 2020.
We have seen schools step up to the challenge without hesitation, sourcing food parcels for the families they serve, reinventing teaching through online lessons, providing devices and internet access for those that need it, producing work packs for home delivery where technology just isn’t going to be an option, rallying round and making sure that everyone is okay, learning, connected in one way or another to the school community. On the backdrop of so much activity, care, and action, the gross injustices of racial discrimination seemed to suddenly rear up into focus as well, as the brutal murder of George Floyd at the hands of police in the USA resonated with so many people worldwide, as a sign that enough is enough.
The grassroots organisation, The BAMEed Network, has been working with schools throughout the pandemic to ensure that the needs of staff from Black and Asian backgrounds in particular, have been adequately taken into account through producing a risk assessment and guidance document specifically for these staff members. Although statistically, Black and Asian colleagues are at higher risk of illness and death from Covid-19, nothing had been produced to safeguard them as frontline workers in schools, in the way that the NHS had accounted for their staff members’ needs as key workers. We were glad to be able to close this gap and produce the guidance for schools ourselves in a timely manner. Part of the guidance document’s purpose was to support schools to do more to see the needs of their staff members that are from Black and Asian heritage, and to start a conversation with them more widely about their lived experience of class, race, and discrimination within our schools, workplaces and society as a whole. The focus on racial justice by the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of George Floyd’s murder has made this conversation even more relevant and important and it has helped to bring a new lexicon and new understanding of the issues for many, that were oblivious.
It is one thing to consider the importance of racial and social justice on the workplace conditions of adults in our education system, but how do we ensure that this extends beyond ticking boxes of the legal duties of the Equality Act and takes the form of meaningful change over time? Where do we start to ensure that we all improve our awareness and education on these important matters? When is it the right time to start to learn about racial and social justice? One thing that has come to light as a result of the focus on inequities and structural racism endured by Black people and other minoritised people of colour, is that our education system has somehow simultaneously been seeing itself as a great equaliser, while perpetuating structural inequalities through its own practice. Part of the cause for this is the focus on quantifiable, measurable outcomes to come above the more intangible and yet vital ‘soft’ skills of critical thinking, empathy, a sense of collective social responsibility.
It was interesting to see the surge of emotion and the subsequent urgency to take action that ensued from the George Floyd incident and which emulated from the education sector. The BAMEed Network inbox has been inundated with requests for support from every level, be that CEOs of major education organisations, leaders of teacher unions, senior staff at local education authorities, multi-academy trusts or diocesan boards of education, as well as from headteachers and leaders from individual schools, and individuals from within the junior ranks of school staff, or parents, governors and even young people themselves. Across the board, people are looking for answers and seem ready and willing to take steps to ensure that their own practice is inclusive and actively anti-racist.
There’s nothing new here, so what has changed? Questions of race, racism and teaching are not new and have been debated for decades. One primary site for anti-racist practice is to consider the curriculum. The MacPherson Report, published 6 years after the racially motivated murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993, strongly suggested that inclusivity and diversity in the curriculum can improve social cohesion, prevent racist attitudes taking hold and instil the value of cultural diversity from an early age in young people. Improvements in the content of the curriculum is vital for many reasons, not least to provide a balanced view of history, and of the contributions of people from a variety of backgrounds who have lived side by side in Britain as the result of migrations from far and wide since the middle ages as well as more recent migrations as a result of our colonial past or the displacement of peoples connected with our involvement in wars in more recent times.
Looking beyond formally taught subject matter, discrimination in education is also enacted through disciplinary practice. For the decades since the MacPherson report recommendation to do so, schools have been dutifully recording racist incidents, monitoring the numbers and self-defined ethnic identity of excluded pupils, and these are published annually on a school-by-school basis. There are a range of practices which underpin Black students’ exclusion and which impact on their educational attainment for example, which are starkly detailed in the DfE Timpson Report on school exclusion of May 2019 and which result in Black British children of Caribbean heritage being more than 1.7 times more likely to be permanently excluded as compared with their white British counterparts.
What seems to have shifted, and potentially divided educators along the way more recently, is the notion of institutional and structural racism which is inherent in every element of society and not least, school life, and which runs like a stick of rock through our practice unless we make particular efforts to seek it out and adjust what we do, accordingly. At the end of the academic year of 2019-20, two major Charter School chains in the USA, Uncommon Schools and KIPP, denounced their own use of ‘carceral’ or ‘no excuses’ discipline techniques as racist. These were practices that had been the cornerstones of their educational philosophy. These techniques have been much lauded by a number of schools in England, and these schools have not subsequently re-evaluated their position, adamant that any less of an iron grip on children’s bodies, gaze and mouths will result in destruction of their lives as disadvantaged young people. The interesting thing is that both camps in this schism around discipline, believe that they are acting in the best interests of the young people from disadvantaged backgrounds that they serve. However, what is clear from one methodology, is that it is about ensuring that young people get the grades, sometimes at any cost, that will take them onto educational pathways for the future without questioning, disrupting or skilling up young people, or their teachers, to see or tackle the socio-political causes for the disadvantage, inequity and structural discrimination which creates such deep divisions in society in the first place – or indeed why the the gap between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged students has stopped closing. And this is the key dividing line that has seen the initial surge of interest in making changes go through a further self-selection process. After the public statements of intent were posted on websites, or circulated by letters home to parents, some driven by guilt or alarm, and others by an emerging or enduring understanding of racism, it is clear which organisations are willing and able to see that structural racism needs to be dismantled at every level, and which organisations have retreated to tinkering around the edges, at most perhaps creating some better optics and remembering some more pressing issues they might focus on right now. And there are many pressing issues for the education sector right now.
Looking at whether a sharper focus on racial justice in the form of anti-racist practice should be enacted in schools or not is one heck of a question. There are a growing number of programmes, awards, charter marks, organisations, formal change management structures and guide books which are emerging that can support schools to map their pathway to dismantling structural racism in their curriculum, employment and staff development policies and practices, discipline, hair and uniform policies, and in supporting teachers’ professional understanding and practice in the classroom and beyond. However, alongside these developments, there seems to be growing pressure on schools not only to not disrupt the status quo, but with what some educators see as sinister suggestions that doing so may be treading a fine line between enacting the Equality Act and breaking the law for standing up for equality in a way many witnessed during the time of Section 28 only 30 years ago. At the start of the academic year 2020-21, new DfE guidance on the teaching of relationships, sex and health education has become the site of specific instruction to schools around the potentially extreme political stances held by the very resources and external agencies they seek support from to deliver this statutory curriculum area. In this document, such extreme stances include: “divisive or victim narratives” and “selecting and presenting information to make unsubstantiated accusations against state institutions”. Around the same time that this guidance was published, a letter to headteachers and SLT was circulated by a new organisation which sees itself standing up to anti-racist discourse, and specifically Critical Race Theory, as divisive, rife with so-called victim narrative, and potentially illegal, supposedly going against the 1996 Education Act and Teachers’ Standards which state the need for teachers to maintain political neutrality. By shifting the focus in this way, the anti-racism narrative stops being seen as about creating greater race equity, and instead about anti-white sentiment, or is seen as an expression of political leanings rather than a desire to understand the historical and societal causes of inequalities which have played out over generations in terms of educational progression, health outcomes and life-expectancy for Black and Asian British citizens. This group advises teachers that to regard the acceptance of structural racism as fact, to challenge inherent bias, or have any association with Black Lives Matter is politically motivated and therefore should be viewed as indoctrination. In their view, discussion of anti-racism will make teachers, children and their families feel guilt and that actively seeing race is a way to divide us.
What’s the core purpose of education? When considering whether teaching racial justice and equity has a place in our primary schools, we need to think carefully about the core purpose of education. For the proponents of the ‘no excuses’ education and the charter schools movement, it has been about moving children through the testing process with as much skill and knowledge necessary to ensure that they compete with their more privileged peers and reach the next stage of their education with comparable test scores. Until these tests explicitly contain questions about racial justice and equity, there is no place to learn about it. Our testing system in itself is inherently flawed as it requires one third of children to fail for the two thirds to succeed. In the words of Daniel Koretz in The Testing Charade, “When test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways. That is exactly what happened when high stakes testing became the core of education ‘reform’”.
In modern complex society such as ours, we need to be able to give children something that will serve them as powerful adults with agency in their own right. Learning is as much about agency as it is about knowledge retrieval, and there is a strong body of evidence to suggest that the work that schools do now to prepare their students for the 21st century, should include a consistent and high quality focus on knowledge and understanding, skills and attitudes. Gert Biesta’s work suggests that what we do in the classroom can make the biggest difference to children while they’re in our schools and the way in which we guide them to ‘meet the world’ will serve them now and beyond their schooling. We need to connect education to our core purpose, which cannot simply rest on passing tests.
There are several good examples of schools serving the same kinds of underprivileged cohorts which may receive no excuses, rote-based learning in some circumstances and yet which deploy an entirely different framework for learning and discipline. School 21 in Newham for example, is an all-through school which educates the ‘head, heart and hand’, seeing the aim of school to educate for knowledge, values and attitudes and also manual skilled tasks such as craft and handiwork. Inherent in their curriculum will be what they call ‘Real World Learning’ about social justice, and developing the critical skills to know, think and to talk coherently about history, politics, societal structures, inequalities and more. Students are engaged in answering complex questions in partnership with organisations such as the Justice Department and the Metropolitan Police, such as ‘With the continual restrictions on legal aid, how can we ensure wide-ranging and fair access to justice?’ and ‘Does the Met Police effectively engage with young people and what could we do differently?’
At primary, Inspire Partnership Trust serves disadvantaged areas Greenwich, Medway and Croydon. Their curriculum structures itself around similar lines to School 21 with a focus on the cognitive (head), affective (heart) and psychomotor (hand) domains of learning. Academic engagement is rooted in relationships, and is about students’ own commitment to being a learner, social engagement as an active participant in school life and intellectual engagement in the learning. The curriculum framework is rooted in core texts which have been carefully selected to be contemporary enough to allow pupils to engage deeply and critically with a range of complex issues, linking to an outcome which has a social justice element and supports children to make sense of a modern complex society with strong and robust knowledge which will help them develop the skills they need to navigate some of the challenges they will encounter in life. For both these examples, the journey of learning is what makes the outcome strong and there is absolutely a place to give the children the knowledge they need to understand the past, the present and to imagine a more just and equitable future, which they will be active agents in creating. In this way, providing children a way to make sense of themselves as learners, a focus on themselves as meeting the world but not the centre of the world, gives them and their teachers the opportunities to be trusted to explore complex societal problems such as inequity, race and racism, gender, climate change and more. Schools like these should and absolutely do see themselves as equipped and adept at teaching racial justice and equity, without fear of straying from their core purpose. In the words of Paulo Friere, “Education is a political act. No pedagogy is neutral… Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world and with each other.” And so it stands that while racial injustice and inequity exist in the world, so must learning to dismantle them exist in the education of both teacher and student.
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.
Kindness is a buzzword we hear a lot nowadays. It takes its place alongside mindfulness, the search for happiness, and other misappropriated concepts that have been borrowed from spiritual traditions and co-opted, reduced and repackaged by the self-improvement industry. Hang on though, what sort of cynical or heartless sub-human would have a pop at kindness when our world seems to be so tragically unkind? The kindness agenda does indeed seem attractive when acts of kindness can be used to counterbalance the efforts of some individuals who spend time cyber-bullying, tormenting, racially abusing and parading their cruelties to others so openly on social media for example.
The glaring flaw of the kindness agenda seems to be that acts of kindness are in danger of being selective, almost transactional and certainly fleeting moments meted out to people we deem worthy of our attention at a given time. Furthermore, they seem to be more about us than the recipients of the kind acts. The feeling of warmth we gain from acting kindly somehow doesn’t equate to the same level of relief from hardship or misfortune that can be gained from someone on the receiving end of an act of kindness. In fact it has been proven that being kind makes us healthier, but doesn’t have the same impact on those subjected to our kindness.
In fact, what I am driving at is not even about the act of kindness in itself. What I am trying to get to is deepening the motivation, and the impact, behind it. Even shifting the agenda from kindness to compassion is a step closer to something that has much more impactful value than kindness can ever have.Let’s take a closer look:
/ˈkʌɪn(d)nəs/ the quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate
/kəmˈpaʃ(ə)n/ sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others
Even through putting these two definitions side by side, you should be able to see a shift from something that is more performative to something that contains a further step of ‘putting oneself in another’s shoes’. You are moving from a way of acting to a way of thinking about others.
Collective social responsibility
There is, to my mind, a stage beyond either of these two, which we seem to have lost sight of and which should really guide all human interaction, especially in these strange times we find ourselves in recently. This is known as collective social responsibility.
Collective social responsibility is not just a way of acting; or even just a way of thinking – it is a way of being which includes a depth of thinking we can’t take for granted from kindness or compassion alone. Through collective social responsibility, we see our relationship with society and the environment as an opportunity to create shared value and we act upon that shared value in a way which is inclusive and promotes the wellbeing of all as collectively valued. It is something that requires broad knowledge and specific interest. It is ever evolving and iterative. It doesn’t set people on a continuum based on value judgements and a meritocratic hierarchy of the deserving and the undeserving.
I am an adult who grew up during the selfish era of Thatcherism. Since 2010 we have seen the rise of policy that seems to be aimed at benefiting the few and not the many. On this backdrop, I am keenly aware of how much the agenda of individualism, self-efficacy and so-called meritocracy guides many people of my generation’s world view. Kindness fits into this, and is a moment of performative softening, from time to time, of what could be seen as a ruthless focus on individual needs and goals.
Let me illustrate how being kind can be differentiated from collective social responsibility and how an act of kindness can be contextualised within a wider collective social responsibility agenda. It could be seen as a kind act to stand and give up your seat for someone else on a bus, because they are elderly or struggling with heavy shopping and have asked you to, either verbally or non-verbally. It is compassionate to be able to see that someone standing near you seems to be uncomfortable and could use your seat and for you to beckon them into your seat. For me, collective social responsibility would be, as an able-bodied person to make sure I sit upstairs ensuring that the seats on the bus downstairs are free for those that need them most. It is for me to explain this rationale to my children as many times as is needed, so that they understand their collective social responsibility to get out of the way, to climb the stairs of the bus even if they would rather stand by the door for the five stops they need to travel than suffer the faff of climbing the stairs. It is not enough for me to instruct them to give up their seat, I must contextualise this and frame it as collective social responsibility. It is that same collective social responsibility that is lacking when we enact a first-come, first-served attitude to the accessible area on the bus, or when a parent sits their child on a seat that could be taken by a vulnerable or frail person instead of putting that child on their lap.
It goes deeper still for me. Kindness could be perceived as a blanket of niceness, that can be delivered in the guise of treating people politely. Collective social responsibility can be about redressing imbalance of resources, power and privilege in simple ways that come from a place of consciousness and conscience. Which is why I become agitated when people divert discussions around social activism, anti-racism and so on, with the suggestion that we just all need to be kinder to one another.
In the context of being a parent of school-aged children, I was sometimes really struck by other parents’ lack of kindness or compassion towards each other, and certainly of the complete lack of collective social responsibility. They were not pointedly unkind as such, just completely unimaginative about other parents’ experiences, needs and life situations. As a parent governor, for example, it is important to try to see the perspective of all families and to try to champion the needs of those who might be least heard or seen, not just to protect and champion the needs of your own child. I would assert that as parents (regardless of whether we are on the governing board or not) that are part of a school community, we should all push ourselves to operate in this way and to enact our collective social responsibility to others in the school community wherever we can.
As the child of a single-parent family myself, I was very aware of the lack of collective social responsibility enacted by others towards my mum. She was so isolated coping with even some of the seemingly simple parts of the parenting malarky that after a while she just gave up trying to do it all alone. So with this in mind, when my children were at primary school, my partner and I talked about how we could enact our collective social responsibility towards those that don’t have our privilege and level of stability, and those that could use a practical additional pair of hands now and again. We had our struggles with stress, money, and as renters suffered some injustices and difficulties around feeling insecure as tenants. Not everything was smooth, stable or safe in our own lives, but we knew that there were compassionate acts we could easily undertake, rooted in our deep sense of collective social responsibility, that made us both want to extend ourselves a little in support of other parents that could benefit from that. I’msurethere were also many times when Iwas as ignorant and indifferent toopportunities where I could have been kind, compassionate or acted as a socially responsible person to other parents. This isn’t about judgement but about trainingoneself to see more clearly when possible.
So, how does that manifest itself? Tapping a parent on the shoulder in the playground and offering to collect their child on the way to school some mornings so they could get off to work sometimes a little earlier or a little calmer – we all know how fraught those school runs can be at times. (And aren’t these moments all the more difficult when you don’t have a partner or another adult to confess your anxiety to about being shouty or terse on the school run?) Or maybe offering to have their child overnight at the weekend so they can get out and not have to think about what time they get in and the expense of a babysitter. A small shift in our routine for us can make a huge difference for someone else, for their child, and even in the long run for the community as a whole. Imagine the power if this was hard-wired into all of us in a school community. Think of the impact on school lateness and absence for example if all parents took it upon themselves to see that all children got to school on time and if we found ways to share the school run as our collective social responsibility…
So, next time you think of something kind or compassionate to do for someone else, please don’t think I am trying to stop you from reaching out and being kind. I’m not. However, if we can find a way to contextualise another person’s experience within the social, societal, and collective, imagine to what extent our actions may lead to something closer to social justice than a feel-good act that has more benefit for the giver than its impact on the wider social good.
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.
In light of Oxford University Press’ #positiveaboutnumbers campaign, I have been inspired to share my own journey about maths anxiety and the impact it had on me growing up. As a child, I struggled with maths, as did everyone in my family it seemed. There was no-one to turn to at home – it was clear from the way my mum counted on her fingers, and whenever maths was mentioned shuddered audibly “urgh, not maths, I can’t do maths”, that she would be no help at all.
As I progressed through nursery and infant school, I wanted to like maths and remember feeling the incredible awe and excitement of being able to count to higher and higher numbers. The feeling was similar to taking off the stabilisers on a bike when I could count up in 2s and then in 5s at faster and faster speeds. But in primary school, when it came to subtraction and the dreaded division, I was lost again. My maths teacher once wrote in my report that I was the only child he knew who was so bad at anything mathematical that I couldn’t even draw a straight line with a ruler, let alone plot a line on a chart. The humiliation started to set in for real with times tables. I could get some of them – the 2s, 5s, 10s and some of the 3s, 4s and 11 times tables were just about in my control but to this day I still don’t have adequate command of all of them. I felt crushed as little gold and silver stars appeared on the reward charts in class next to everyone except me. It was only in my 40s when my own children started learning them, that they showed me the finger technique for learning the 9 times table and was delighted!
Playing the shame game
The growing feeling of shame and anxiety only increased as I progressed through to secondary school. In my first year at my new secondary school, the huge gap in my knowledge and mastery already firmly in place, I was naively determined to have a fresh start. But this soon unravelled. Our teacher liked to play a game with the whole class, it was meant to be a fun challenge. She would invite us to jump up onto our feet, take our places behind our desks and off she would go with some mental arithmetic for us. When we lost count, she instructed us, we should sit down. The last one standing was the winner. My heart was beating hard when she started with, “2 times 3, plus 3 take away 1”. My fists were screwed up by my sides, I am keeping up, I can do it….divided by 4 times 9, plus 17…” I sit down. There’s a snicker from the other children in the class as they carry on standing. What seems like hours pass until another girl sits down, then a span of time when a cluster more sit. And it continues until there are three, then two standing. The teacher stops. “What did you get?” she asks one of the two last students standing. “142” the penultimate one says. “And you?” she turns to the last one. “168”. Well done both of you. It was “142”. You win.
The next week, we did it again. I sat down after the first two questions “9 times 8, plus two..”, the class snickered. The teacher shot me a disapproving look. I am the class clown, fidgety and disruptive in her lessons. I don’t know my 9 times tables or my 8 times tables, what can I do? I think to myself. That afternoon, I go home determined to learn them but they just won’t stick.
After a few weeks of this maths game, I had noticed that while it was going on, the clever, confident ones were whispering to themselves, looking up at the ceiling or off to one side as they calculated. The next lesson, I stood up with everyone else as usual and decided to save face by play acting. I stood tapping out imaginary sums with my fingers on my thigh, eyes upward, mouth muttering quietly pretending to be concentrating, in command, keeping up. The plan was to sit down later on in the rank and file and avoid being seen as stupid yet again. But getting carried away with my oscar-winning performance meant it was too late when I realised I was one of the two still standing at the end. The teacher narrows her eyes at me suspiciously and asks, “Well, Penny, what did you get?” My heart sinks, the tears welling in my eyes…”Um….” The teacher insists, “Yes? We’re waiting…” I panic, “I forgot!” The teacher pushes me again, “You must know around about, was it above 100? Closer to 10? Well?” I look at my feet and the class erupts with laughter. The tears are cold on my hot cheeks. I am sent out and reprimanded for being disruptive and disrespectful.
The next week, we stand. The teacher starts, “ 7 times 12…” I sit down immediately, glaring at the teacher, angrily. They snicker. Every week for the rest of the year, we stand, she starts, I sit. Some days she sends me out to stand in the corridor in disgrace.
Making the grade
And so continued my soul crushing relationship with maths. Everyone in my family was struggling. My brother did his O’ levels, and got a U in maths. Three years later my sister got 10 O’levels all As and Bs – and a U in maths. The following year, I took my O’levels and got a U in maths. But something in me was determined to break the family curse. I went on to college for my A’ levels and decided to do maths again while I was there. I was at a Further Education college and in my class were people my age and also adults, trying to return to the education they weren’t able to complete when they were my age. I found this inspiring but also it made me ever more determined. Imagine if I’m still here in my 20s, 30s 50s trying to get this cursed maths pass! My teacher was kind and empathetic to us all. I felt a glimmer of hope at last. August came round, the brown envelope arrived. Again, a U. My heart felt crushed when I opened it with the results in. My teacher said, “not to worry, one more shot next year and you’re there”
The following year was the first year of the new GCSE exams that replaced O level, I was studying for the final year of my A levels, and had a weekend and holiday job that earned me enough money to get a private tutor for maths. I was entered into a GCSE paper for which the highest grade I could score was a C. My new private tutor was a taxi driver by day, but loved maths and had been tutoring a friend of mine for his A level, so he came recommended. I went to his house every week and he would puff away on his filterless cigarettes and walk me through the things I found impossible with such patience and in such a matter of fact way. The exam came and I felt I had at least some control, that I knew what to do, even if I wasn’t sure if my calculations were correct. I still had to count out numbers on my fingers and use techniques to add and subtract, and work around the dreaded times tables and division with methods that were long-winded and time-consuming. But I finished the paper, and I felt less out of control than usual. The long wait ensued and when the date came around, and the brown envelope arrived, I was amazed and delighted to have scored my C! I am the only one in my family with a maths GCSE. My parents were teachers, my brother is a composer for films and my sister works in documentary film. They have all had to duck and dive around the question of the missing maths qualification, but they are hugely successful in their own ways.
If you can’t do it, teach it…
Fast forward nearly a decade and I was now training to be a primary school teacher. The programme I did was focussed heavily on our own development as people as well as on the craft of teaching itself. In the second term, as we started to teach in the classroom for 2 days a week, we were asked to confront something in childhood that we felt had held us back and that perhaps could have been supported better by our teachers. I decided that it was time to tackle my maths problem. With coaching from one of my tutors, I was encouraged to teach maths to year 3 for a term. I was terrified that they would find out that I don’t know my times tables, and that I can barely add and subtract. But I did it, and I actually enjoyed it! I created resources and curriculum ideas that worked and that had enough in them to stretch the maths wizards and engaged those less confident.
Later in my teaching career, I moved to work in a secondary school and specialised in teaching English instead. As part of my training, we did a course on learning difficulties including dyslexia and dyscalculia. The consultant leading the course had expertise in diagnosing and supporting pupils with a range of difficulties and disabilities. She got us all to do part of a test for dyscalculia and dyslexia so we would know how the children are diagnosed. And the end of the session, she approached me and asked me how I was feeling. She asked about my sense of direction, my knowledge of times tables and other key mathematical functions and techniques. She told me that it was pretty clear that I am dyscalculic and that this is why I couldn’t retain my times tables. This was also why while I wanted to like maths, and indeed some parts of more abstract maths I could really run with, like algebra for example, there were parts that would always confuse and baffle me.
It was quite affirming to get this actual diagnosis. I was able to understand which parts of mathematical thinking I struggle with, and this facilitated me to develop techniques to deploy mathematical reasoning in my daily life, rather than avoiding it altogether. I will never be confident that I have the right answers when I have to use maths, but I know which parts I will need to double check and get another pair of eyes on and I feel confident to ask for this as an adult in the workplace without feeling childish and ashamed.
Breaking the family curse
My children often describe themselves as hating maths, despite my attempts to lightheartedly engage them in the beauty of maths through things like Numberjacks on YouTube when they were small, and other workbooks and fun games I found. I thought this might mitigate any creeping infection of the family maths issue that had started with my own mum’s lack of confidence and negative attitude to maths. My children are both girls and themselves attribute some of their lack of confidence to the boys in their class that are quick, vocal and withering to others. “I know, I know the answer, it’s eeeeeeeasy! You’re so slow and stupid!” they would shout out as my daughters plodded through. Unlike me, my girls have made their way to the top set in secondary school, but their lack of confidence and general distrust of maths did not diminished even so. This term my youngest, who is in year 9 said “my teacher thinks I might be dyscalculic but I’m still going to stay in the top set and I’m doing statistics GCSE next year. I won’t let it get in my way”. My oldest has just completed her GCSEs and summed up by saying, “I will always be rubbish at maths, but one thing I am really happy about is that I finally started to enjoy it, and I am even a little sad that I won’t ever be doing it again!”
I’m pleased that across a generation, we may still not be a family of maths wizards or super confident, but to know that this generation has managed to overcome the soul-crushing feeling of incompetence and the panic, gives me some comfort. And who knows, maybe the next generation might not even know that it’s possible not to feel positive about numbers. It is also great to see an organisation like Oxford University Press sharing their insights and resources to support those struggling with issues that I experienced. You can find their latest toolkit here
This toolkit is designed to be a starting point for event organisers. Whether you are part of a grassroots organisation putting together an event as a volunteer, or if you work for an organisation where this is part of your paid work, you will want to ensure that your event is high quality, represents the people and the issues that are important to the sector you serve, and that you are not consciously or unconsciously doing things that may perpetuate a narrow view of the world or that may exclude voices from typically marginalised groups being included in the programme. Similarly, if you are asked to speak at a conference or to take part on a panel, there are proactive things you can do to ensure that you are part of the solution and not part of the problem. Intentions are important, but outcomes are what matter most.
The toolkit will comprise of the following parts:
Detailed challenge and support around the likely issues you will need to consider and overcome when organising an event
A short checklist summarising the actions you might take to support your event and with space for you to set out your next steps
Reading and resources to support further thinking and learning
A flowchart designed to help map out things you will need to consider (This is still work in progress and will be included here as soon as it is ready)
Challenge and support
This section will feature some of the questions you may ask, may be asked by others, and some possible responses or things to consider. There are also links to further reading and where appropriate, data and evidence to support the responses.
Why is it necessary to be inclusive and have representation?
At a time when the UK ranks 57th in the world in terms of women’s representation, men outnumber women 4 to 1 in parliament, Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) school leadership is at around 3%, and government cuts mean that disabled and marginalised voices are even harder to hear, it’s only right that we celebrate diversity to create a more inclusive, representative and inspiring events programme in the education sector.
We live in a diverse country and we serve increasingly diverse student populations in our schools. We also live in a diverse, global world, and should be integrating a range of voices in our events, regardless of the population we serve locally.
If you are looking for high-quality and stimulating content for your event, you will need a wide range of voices. Research by McKinsey and Company shows that having diverse voices in your organisation is great for productivity, creativity and decision-making. It creates diversity of thought and action, which is a goal any education event should be seeking to work towards in order to cater for a diverse range of attendees working in a variety of contexts.
What does diversity of thought and action mean?
This means that although it may feel comfortable working with people who are like you, you will achieve more if you work with a group of people who have had different experiences from each other, especially in terms of their socio-economic background, their race, gender, education and political outlook. If we all look, sound and think the same, and have had broadly similar experiences, we may be operating under the false assumption that this is what reality looks like for everyone. We will also be in danger of recycling the same old ideas and action; perpetuating our existing biases and remaining unaware of the blind spots in our thinking and action. Please watch this animated explanation by the Royal Society.
Thinking the best person for the job happens to be a white man
“If you only play football with the same ten people, your idea about who the good footballers are, will be limited.” Amjad Ali
This is not an easy one to summarise in short, but there is a vicious cycle which can make people think that white men are the best voice of authority on many if not most matters. We are conditioned to think that white men are the best fit when it comes to speaking authoritatively, because we are accustomed to seeing white men speaking authoritatively. This means that there will also be a larger number of white men who are authorities on a subject and are well-known, as they are the ones that have been given legitimation as voices of authority. We need to break this cycle so we don’t only draw on this narrow pool of people. This means it is crucial to look beyond those that have been used a lot at events and start to promote a more diverse range of voices, that may be unfamiliar to you. You may even need to be brave and choose someone who may be for now less famous, and yet really knows their stuff.
When is it tokenistic?
It would be tokenistic to choose someone onlybecause they are from an ethnic minority group (or global majority, which is more accurate terminology) and/or a woman, for example. It would also be tokenistic to choose someone to talk about a subject they are not an expert on, or who is not a good public speaker, or not qualified for the job because they are Black and you need to fill a quota. This would also be counter-productive, as if they were less than convincing, the vicious cycle is further reinforced by doing this.
What does balance look like?
Balance means intentionally and purposely looking for a range of opinions, as well as a range of routes to getting to a certain opinion. It means thinking creatively about who is speaking and what they are speaking about. Because the accepted norm for authority is typically a white man, you will want to challenge that and think carefully about how to include a range of voices that are not only white men.
Balance also means what is on the programme, not just who
Thinking about balance and diversity means considering the programme contents as well as the people who speak on stage. Therefore, you may need to think carefully, do some research or ask/seekout a critical friend to help you consider how to widen your perspectives when planning the programme. For example, if your event is about curriculum design, have you included something around decolonising the curriculum? Are all your curriculum examples from a traditionally white canon? If your event is about recruitment and retention, have you included something about women, people of colour, disability, parents, flexibility, class, age, and so on?
Ensure people from diverse backgrounds are included as experts
“Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance!” Verna Myers
Balance also means ensuring that you have diverse voices speaking about issues that they have expertise in within the education sector, and not (just) being asked to speak about their identities. This means that you will not want to annexe people into talking only about their race, gender or other marginalised aspects of their person, unless your event directly deals with these issues and/or these are their explicitly stated areas of interest, experience and expertise. A Black man or a visibly orthodox Jewish woman should be able to be seen as an expert in curriculum design or data analysis if that is their field of expertise.
Quota systems to explain why your event is all-white doesn’t work either
Ensuring people from diverse backgrounds are seen doesn’t mean that they should only be seen in areas where schools typically serve diverse student populations.
Saying that your event is taking place in an area of the country which doesn’t serve a diverse population and/or that there are no diverse teachers in that area is not acceptable. People can and do travel if necessary. Representation doesn’t mean an exact science of like for like. It is about a range of voices. It would, in fact, be sensible to be even more committed to diverse representation in an area where this isn’t seen much, as we are prone to the white man bias described above unless we actively disrupt this and provide more variety of voices and views.
How do we reach diverse people if we don’t know any?
You may find that your social, professional and social media circle doesn’t include people that are from diverse backgrounds. Aside from the fact that this should indicate to you that you need to broaden your own echo chamber of professional acquaintance, there are ways that you can get help to find speakers if you are not familiar with anyone outside of your own narrow pool.
Organisations like the teacher unions, universities, local networks of schools, The Equalities Trust, the Runnymede Trust, the BAMEed Network, WomenEd, DisabilityEd, LGBTEd can help.
The BAMEed Network has a page on its website with a list of diverse speakers on a range of topics https://www.bameednetwork.com/speakers/ for example, specifically for the purpose of making it easier for people to find who they need.
The BAMEed Network, LGBTed, and WomenEd are planning to work together to create a directory of credible leaders, speakers and experts that can be called upon – or at the very least, link to each other’s websites once these directories are up and running on LGBTed and WomenEd websites. It would be good to work with DisabilityEd on this too.
How do we ask people to take part in a way that doesn’t feel awkward?
As mentioned earlier, be clear on what you want people to talk about and make sure you know what their expertise is. If you don’t know, ask them first to tell you what their expertise is, and what they would be best speaking about. Tell them about your event and ask if they see themselves as someone who would be happy to speak at it, should there be an opportunity to do so.
A woman from an ethnic minority background who is an expert on leadership development, being asked to speak about curriculum makes her know that you want her for her colour, not her expertise. This is tokenistic and insulting.
“We’re a grassroots organisation and don’t have time to organise ourselves like this”
There is only one response to this. If you can’t do it well, don’t do it at all. There are plenty of grassroots organisations that are run by people who work full time in other jobs and have families, studies, and other volunteer roles on top. Their commitment to doing it well is not compromised by this and there are many other grassroots organisations that will be keen to support yours to get it right. In the words of Spiderman, “with power comes great responsibility” and as a conference organiser, whether you recognise it or not, you have great power.
“We ask people to volunteer themselves so we can’t control who comes forward”
Again, taking into account the fact that your own circle of acquaintance might be skewed towards a certain demographic, this is problematic as the only way to recruit speakers. Think of other ways to reach deeper into schools and other institutions – perhaps create a poster or flyer on a document that can be shared, printed and put in staff rooms across the country. Reach out to large organisations to help you circulate these either by email or in their newsletters to their members e.g. the unions, Ambition Institute, Chartered College of Teaching, Teaching School Alliances, WomenEd, BAMEed Network, Challenge Partners, Teach First and so on. For help with this, please get in touch, or contact The BAMEed Network who will be happy to connect you and support you with your strategy on this.
Think also about where you advertise the event. Getting beyond Twitter can be tricky for some, but using Linked In, Facebook and even Instagram can be excellent quick ways to still use social media platforms, but widen the pool of people that will see your call for speakers. If you use a platform like Eventbrite, this will also ensure that people find your event.
Widen your network and start with an ‘over-subscription’ of diverse people
The most commonly-heard excuse for events that have all-male or all-white speakers is “we had a woman/person of colour on one of the panels but s/he dropped out at the last minute”
What would happen if you started building your speaker preference list and started with an ‘over-subscription’ of people from typically underrepresented groups? Try it, and see that this will help you to stay diverse throughout the planning and execution of your event.
Attracting a diverse audience is important
“You can’t be what you can’t see” (Marian Wright Edelman)
Having a diverse range of speakers on the programme may boost the number of people from marginalised groups that attend your event. However, many events in the education sector, especially those aimed at leadership, will see few people from BAME backgrounds in attendance. There can be reasons why this may occur, and there are a few things you can do to ensure that it doesn’t happen at your event.
The cost of tickets and getting away from school can be factors for some people from BAME backgrounds, especially if you consider that these will be the people who are less likely to be progressing into the higher paid and more autonomous roles that allow event attendance. You may wish to offer a travel subsidy or early bird rate for people to take advantage of should they wish to attend but find it financially difficult. There is no shame in offering a bursary for early career teachers or aspiring leaders from BAME backgrounds and/or other marginalised groups alongside your statement around commitment to diversity and inclusion. Some people feel uncomfortable about the prospect of being the only person of colour in a roomful of people that they don’t know, so group discounts or two for one offers are also useful so that a delegate can extend the invitation to a colleague they feel comfortable with.
You have responsibility if you are taking part in a conference as a speaker
If you are asked to speak at an event, to facilitate a workshop or be on a panel, you also have a responsibility to ensure broad and balanced content and representation. I will repeat that, as this may be an alien concept to many people on the speaking circuit: you too are responsible for the diversity of speakers at an event if you are invited to speak at it. Even if it’s not your event, you don’t know the organisers and you were just asked to take part, you can and should take responsibility for the diversity of voices included if you agree for your voice to be one of them.
When you are approached, you can ask “I’m interested to know a little more about your event, who else is speaking, how did you come to ask me?” There is a growing number of white men who do this and will decline to speak as a white man on an agenda full of white men. They will of course do this cordially, and will offer solutions and suggestions of other people. This can be hard to do if you would quite fancy speaking at the particular event, and if you would like to get some exposure for yourself. But this is also an active commitment to anti-sexist and anti-racist activism that is powerful and effective. Chances are also, that you will get to speak after all since your suggestions will have helped the organisers to create a better balance and your presence isn’t going to be part of an identical line up now.
What if we can’t afford to pay people? “I asked a Black woman and they asked for payment, when other speakers are doing it for free” is something we have heard.
There is a complex system of privilege in place in society which means that in some cases, a senior, white, man, may be able to generously give their time to speak at your event for free. Many women and people of colour may find themselves less able to give of their professional expertise free, without personal financial sacrifice, and in some cases, that includes having to pay not only for travel, but also fees to carers for dependants while they travel to and take part in your event. In many cases, a man may not be expected to take on these roles and will be freer to use their time as they wish. They are also more likely to be on a higher pay scale, as white men tend to reach leadership positions with greater ease and more frequently, which affords them the luxury of giving their time for free. You only have to look at the data on gender and race pay gaps to understand why this is fact.
Grassroots conferences and how to pay your speakers’ travel costs
There are ways to ensure that you can at least pay travel costs for your speakers.
The first way is to charge attendees a minimal fee for attendance and explain that this covers speakers and refreshments. There is a direct correlation between attendance numbers and charging, which is good for your event as well. When people pay, they show up. And if they pay and don’t show up, they have at least helped cover the costs of your event and the travel costs of your speakers so it is win-win – see above section ‘Attracting a diverse audience is important’ for suggestions on scaled costs to allow for a diverse range of attendees
Ask for donations from local or national organisations – consider your local university, the TES, or a local business that would like to see their branding on your event page acknowledging their support
Have some professional exhibition stands and ask for a fee from them. If you get 5 stands all paying £300 to have a few minutes with your attendees that visit them, that can cover travel costs for a good number of speakers. This doesn’t have to bring down the tone of your event – quite the opposite, a useful interaction with an organisation that can help your attendees is an added bonus to attending the event. If you need help getting a list of potential exhibitors, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or consider using Innovate my School to deliver a speed dating session at your event, that they will usually organise themselves and which will fund your event nicely
Crowd-funding is an option. Explain what you want to achieve and why you want to repay your speakers for their time. You never know, you might get more than you need to put on a fabulous event
Committing beyond cosmetics Gold standard event management includes the way that you treat your speakers, including how you brief them for their part in the event. How you prepare your speakers, panel members and workshop facilitators so there is a level playing field of experience on the day is extremely important. You should try to let them know what to expect in as much detail as you can, as well as who will be there, with a view to breaking down class and culture barriers. There is nothing worse than showing up, not knowing that there is a dress code, or that lunch is not included and you have no cash with you and so on. You can cover this by issuing a one page outline of what to expect specifically for speakers and panel members.
A word on panels
A good panel session will be dynamic, may have people chosen for their deliberately opposing views, and may have some controversial or even provocative elements. However, be very careful about setting people up for humiliation, or failure, or pitting people against each other in a way that is unfair. Ensure that panel members know what is going to be discussed, who the other panel members are, and who the chair will be. And again, make sure all participants are briefed well, and have an opportunity to accept or decline your invitation in good time. Although it may lead to lively debate and good entertainment for your audience, you need to avoid a discussion which compounds stereotypes, marginalises already marginalised people and so on. As above, don’t ever invite someone from a marginalised group to represent that group unless that is what they want to do, but do include a diverse range of voices who are experts in their field. You can read more about one panellist’s experience here
This Saturday, I was fortunate enough to attend the Portobello Festival of Learning in Edinburgh. I am writing this while the train home carries me hurtling through green fields and northern cities, with a feeling I haven’t had for quite some time. It’s a mixture of deep pain and uplifting joy, both are the direct result of feeling connected to a shared narrative experience. The golden thread running through the event was around storytelling and narratives as pivotal not only to learning but to the human connection which makes learning sticky, memorable and even a deeply happy experience. Nina Jackson’s incredible hour-long keynote was as harrowing as it was hopeful. Like a phoenix from the flames, she took us deep into the fire of her experience in childhood and early adulthood and right through to the colourful and whole person she is today. The intensity of 300 pairs of eyes tracking her glide around the centre stage was visceral. Her ability to tell her story, to elicit gasps, laughs, to have us leaning in and then recoiling again, was phenomenal. Her pulling together the themes, tying them into clear strands and using minimal visual inputs at carefully timed intervals was clearly craftwork.
When I refer to storytelling and narratives as a tool for learning, it is clear to me that this is not just about teachers telling stories that make learning happen in the classroom, although the inimitable Hywel Roberts’ session definitely reminded me the power of a carefully prepared narrative containing dramatic development, coupled with a deep understanding of sound pedagogy, to activate the senses and make engaging learning take place. As he led us through some of the methodology he uses in the classroom with teachers and children alike, I had a physically and emotionally intense response to the suspense and drama he created. The group was positively bristling with excitement and childlike willingness to enter into an adventure with him. We mustn’t forget as teachers that our ability to facilitate learning in others is most powerful when coupled with our own commitment to lifelong learning as a human being. Part of this learning means seeking out the human stories of those around us, so that we can expand our view of the world, the possibilities and similarities and differences. Prior knowledge means that we have anchors and reference points to draw on, but alongside this is also the fact that what we often class as prior knowledge is often deeply flawed, contextually irrelevant or even just plain learned bias. Lyfta’s workshop took participants on a journey to immersive storyworlds with embedded human documentary stories. Opening the session, Serdar Ferit started with the fascinating contextual framing that led to the Lyfta concept being born. Guiding the group around the storyworlds Lyfta has created, and before playing each human story documentary, he asked, “what can you say about what you can see, and how do you know?” We’re all willingly sharing our assumptions as our eyes scan an Ethiopian village, a Palestinian family living room, a Finnish ballet studio and we hazard a guess, only to be gently redirected as we watch the short film that follows, and as we listen to real human beings telling us their story. By the end of the session, teachers in the room spoke of what sounded to my ears like a renewed commitment to treat what we have learned with the challenge it rightfully deserves. One of the powerful yet simple learnings I have gained from reading about race and class in recent years is the toxic nature of the presumed innocent question we often ask people we meet, which is along the lines of “where are you from?” or “what do you do?” This can be loaded with racially stereotypical and classist connotations and assumptions. One way around this, which is also faithful to the importance of storytelling and narratives is to ask “what’s your story?” – giving people the opportunity to respond in as narrow, wide, personal or generalised way as is fitting for their own contextualised narrative journey of the current moment.
Paul Dix reminded us of the importance as educators to lead on the co-creation and at times to own the narrative for our young charges. The simple process of reframing the narrative can diffuse potentially disruptive situations in the classroom. He laid out carefully why we as adults need to be clear on our part in the story that is unfolding right there in our own classroom. We may need to retell the story to include perhaps a historical context that allows a potentially volatile young person to rewrite the story in real time. Instead of entering into a battle of wills, trying to get a child back on task, you can say for example, gently but with conviction, “remember last week you helped me clear up when the lesson was finished, and you stayed behind to make sure everything was in place? That’s the person I know, and that’s the person I want to see here now”. This reminds the young person that this positive element is still part of their story, and is included in the whole story. Paul used dramatic demonstration and emotionally engaging dialogue to help us understand that as responsible adults, we can reframe, redirect and take charge of the narrative so that behaviour is guided back on track leaving both your and the student’s dignity and self-respect in tact.
Aside from learning about others through taking an interest in their narrative and on their own terms, is the important work of learning to connect with our own narratives. By this I don’t mean to endlessly hone the story we tell others about ourselves, which we often defensively beaver away at to show ourselves in the best light. Learning one’s own narrative means being able to zoom in and out, and as we gain greater perspective and distance, weaving in the contextual, socio-historical backdrop to give more rich and layered meaning to our own pinhole camera view. Parts of the day were personally resonant, and therefore profoundly painful for me and I’m sure many people in the room. But I know that I am also increasingly able to understand my own childhood experiences firmly within the political backdrop of Britain at that time. I contextualise my parents’ decisions and behaviours that led to some serious negative outcomes for their children within their class-based economic constraints, educational achievements and resulting restricted opportunity, and the contemporary gender role expectations – as well as the commonly-held beliefs about childhood of the time. This helps to ensure the story I tell is iterative and nuanced, based on my own emotional growth and psychological bandwidth to zoom out from the pure hurt to an external packaging which humanises the chain of events without betraying my own experience.
Whatever our narrative, and however we weave storytelling into our professional, pedagogical and personal life, perhaps we all need Nina Jackson’s reminder of the Japanese practice of Kintsugi – repairing broken ceramics with gold. Kintsugi wisdom says rather than disguising the broken pieces, you recognise the story of the object and visibly incorporate the repair into it, while outlining the places which are whole and in tact. By outlining the places that broke us, or where the story changed, we can also remember the beauty of the process of retelling and rebuilding that resulted in who we are now.