Category Archives: Racism

Colour-blindness, cats and cucumbers, and cycling

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From Margie Warell

Why is my curriculum white vs. why, is my curriculum white?

I was telling a friend of mine about the BAMEed Network and was surprised by her reaction when we started talking about a podcast I had listened to called ‘Why is my curriculum white?’ She suddenly sounded really annoyed as she said, “you know, we don’t need this pitying, dumbing down of the world on our behalf, thank you. Of course the curriculum is white, this is England. I don’t mind adding a black or Asian philosopher into the mix but it’s not representative and it is artificial if there’s more than one or two isn’t it?”

I wasn’t sure how to react. She said, “All you are doing with this BAME thing is segregating and categorising people – I don’t want to be seen as a brown woman when I walk into a room or representing brown people or women when I am on the school governing body. I just want to be me”. I love my friend, we often holiday together as families, we feel so at home together but we are completely opposed in terms of politics and many aspects of our world views. But we can talk about things and trust each other completely. We also don’t try and change each other’s minds about things. We find the middle ground. Still, I said to her, “colour-blindness, that’s not actually real you know?” She was resolute. It would be for her.

Test yourself if you dare

It gave me pause for thought though. I am not trying to segregate the world, I am trying hard to be aware of my unconscious bias. I start from the standpoint that we are so culturally socialised by certain viewpoints that it is unrealistic to pretend to be colour-blind or neutral. I have been challenging myself recently by trying out some of the Harvard University unconscious bias tests available online. If you are brave you will give them a go too. It makes me squirm but it reminds me that this difficulty exists and the key is to be aware and to not deny or enact the consequence of your initial unconscious bias.

My husband and I keep comparing our results with great curiosity and some mirth. We are such opposites in some ways too. His experience starts as an Israeli-Iraqi Jew brought up in Jerusalem, where he is seen as mixed race and a second class citizen alongside the Ashkenazic, European Jews. He is an immigrant to this country since the early 2000s and that makes him feel an affinity with certain populations more than others. He sees how ethnic minority students, and staff members, are treated differently in his workplace, a university setting, and it makes him incredibly frustrated. Having spent over a decade living in Israel myself, being constantly reminded that I am a foreigner, I know how he feels to some extent. Back in England now, in my relative position of white privilege, but still sometimes finding it hard to assimilate back in, my experience sometimes feels so extreme that it feels disingenuous to do anything but recognise that the way we see the world and are seen by it differs depending on many factors.

Three popular internet things that make you wonder

Every day, things I see online make me think more about this. Three very different ones have made me think. The first is the story of a five year old white American boy who wanted to get his hair shaved short like his black American best friend so that their teacher “wouldn’t be able to tell them apart”. This is a stark reminder of the fact that we don’t seem to be born looking for differences and aware of skin colour that much. It is culturally constructed over time and is a part of our education. You can’t culturally un-construct it just by declaring yourself colour blind. All culturally constructed notions are deeply engrained.

Secondly, the news interview where a white man is speaking to the camera and in marches his small daughter, shortly followed by his other child in a baby walker. They are pursued by a woman who rushes in on all fours grabs them both and hustles them out of the room, returning briefly, still on her knees to shut the door. The assumption online was that this was his wife. Others speculated that it could be the childminder. There was backlash against presumed racially charged assumptions that the woman was a childminder and not the children’s mother and the white man’s wife – she was Korean. She was his wife.

Thirdly, isn’t it human, – and animal – ancient, learned behaviour to break the world up into categories of like me, not like me, threat and non-threat. You only have to see what happens to a cat when someone puts a cucumber behind it. Why would a domestic cat that has never seen a snake, have it so engrained in their ancient cat-bias, so as to be afraid of a vegetable that has only a vaguely snake-like appearance, is completely inanimate but seems to have sneaked up on them? Could this be true also for us human folk? Does it go that far back?

Cycling and gender-biased aggression

On a personal note, as a cyclist in London, I am now clocking up 45 minutes each way on my commute to and from work. I have always been bothered by the amount of abuse I get, although my cycling style is pretty mellow and non-confrontational. I have cycled for years and a while back now, I complained to my husband that as a woman, I get called all sorts of vile names and people can be unduly aggressive towards me. He said he never got any abuse and put it down to the fact that I can be bloody-minded and belligerent with my opinions so I am probably the same on the roads. One evening, we went out together locally and I suggested we cycle there together. On the way, I asked him if he would be willing to do an experiment with me, and to cycle some distance behind me and watch what happened. Sure enough, he was shocked by the different treatment I got compared to what he has been accustomed to. I had the usual array of cars beeping, or deliberately overtaking dangerously close and shouting as they passed, making me jump. There was also unwanted interaction with swearing pedestrians, heads down in their phones while they were weaving between the cars pausing for a moment in traffic, and from other (male) cyclists even.

Due to the air quality of central London, I have taken to wearing a pollution filter mask while cycling in recent months. It has been quite cold so with the mask, gloves, helmet and all my waterproof gear on, you can’t tell if I am a woman or a man or even what colour I am. It’s amazing. It’s as if I have been granted a completely new status. No-one bothers me at all. Bingo.  I can see why it would be amazing to reach a place where we don’t automatically treat people in certain ways based on deep seated and learned bias.

Dare you consider, how might unconscious bias affect your relationships at school?

Let’s assume then that unconscious bias does exist. How might this affect your relationship with your students and other staff members? Here are some all-you-can-eat, food for thought observations I have heard played back to me by school staff I have spoken to:

Have you noticed that BAME staff members tend to be in charge of certain subjects and the further up the hierarchy you go, the whiter it gets? Any BAME senior leaders that do make it in schools tend to be in charge of discipline or PE. What’s that about?

Why is it, in some schools, that the majority of kids that are in detention at the end of the day are black? Why do teachers of all races treat black children’s misdemeanours differently?

Why is it that schools which serve predominantly BAME areas, in parts of London for example, often deploy a military style discipline regime and refer to this as being appropriate for “these kinds” of students? The claim is that they are entrenching bias towards certain groups being subordinate to the ruling middle classes rather than promoting a socially mobile, lifelong learner expectation for children of ethnic minority backgrounds.

What about the teachers who are surprised when their Chinese heritage students educated in this country are not maths whizzes, when the black kid can’t run and their white working class boys love to read?

What of the Asian British pupil who wrote that he lived in a terrorist (terraced) house, and then ended up facing an investigation by police?

Why is it that more ethnic minority people get university degrees than white people in Britain and yet in the workplace they will be still more likely to be unemployed and paid less?

What about assessment, what elements of that is geared towards certain socio-economic and ethnic biases? What about the recent Year 6 SATs test and the dodo question for example?

Can you join me in learning more?

Please ask yourself these questions, try the Harvard online tests and let’s start to discuss what this makes us feel, what we could do differently and where the issues might lie. We will be holding a BAMEed Network conference on all aspects of unconscious bias on June 3rd. If you have ideas for what other issues should be covered, let us know and make sure you are there on the day!

Educolour: change begins with you

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There seem to be several ways that people tackle the issue of diversity in the workplace as far as I have experienced it. Having occupied various positions in white, middle-class dominated work environments, the issue of diversity has exercised me for a long time.  I have been regarded as “the ethnic minority” in some places by virtue of the fact that I am of Jewish heritage, am married to an Iraqi-Israeli and my kids were born abroad. I have seen the almost visible domino effect of assumptions that click into place when people find out these facts about me. But, better out than in I say. If people can tell me what they assume about me, at least then I can work through the stereotypes with them and isolate what is right and what is not. One of the most destructive things is to ignore altogether race, identity, culture, colour, whatever it is that makes for difference between people.

Whether or not I can lay claim to be classed as an ethnic minority is immaterial. I am wholly and passionately committed to doing what I can to break down barriers that exist for people based on the sex, gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, whatever the multifarious categorisation that exists that causes these barriers. This is why I am shoving my white-privileged nose into the group of people now committed to forming the #Educolour movement in this country. And I trust each and every one of them to speak truth to me at any point.

One of Stonewall’s diversity champions once told me, when I was concerned whether I could effectively look out for the rights of others, that there is no better advocate for diversity in a workplace than someone who might outwardly represent the accepted norm. “People might listen to a black guy talking about racial equality in the workplace, but if a white person is a passionate advocate, that will get people’s attention for sure”.

The biggest problem I have encountered is that people don’t want to talk about it. This is probably mainly because they are worried about saying something wrong and causing offense, But many don’t want to accept even the basic fact that subconscious bias and racism is rife within our society. Or worse still, people pretend to be “colour-blind”. Unless each one of us is willing to admit it is our problem, nothing at all will change. Unless each and every one of us just connects with the places where we do assume, discriminate, overcompensate, skirt around, feel uncomfortable, behave differently to people, then we will just perpetuate the problem.

Here are some uncomfortable moments I have had while on recruitment panels that might make your jaw drop:

Situation 1: 

Panel of two white women, one white man. White, male, middle-aged, middle-class interviewer goes off script and asks young, Asian woman: “Are you spoilt?”

She, unfazed, quick as anything says: “No, but my brother is! Have you met an Indian mother who doesn’t spoil her son?! He is her sunshine. I don’t get to be spoilt!”

We all laughed and moved on to the next question. I died inside. When we got out of the room, I challenged my senior colleague. “What was that all about? Why on earth did you ask that?”

“Oh” He said, completely nonplussed by my obvious disdain. “I once knew an Indian woman who was really spoilt. I didn’t want you to have to deal with that on your team”

I liked her, I wanted her on my team. She is personable, she has already proved herself to be quick-witted and feisty. She has got through to a face-to-face interview based on passing several stages of the recruitment process including three written tasks. The standard of her writing is excellent and she has displayed a creativity of thought in her responses. The second woman on the panel is worried about her ability to represent the organisation because she has a lilting, Delhi accent. I remind her that according to the job we have advertised, she needs to be able to write quickly and accurately, using a high standard of English. She has proved to be able to do this and moreover, seems like she could fit in really well with the rest of the team, our values and so on. “Some aspects of writing are just there, they can’t be taught” I was told by my colleague by way of explanation of her doubts about this candidate.

I can feel myself fighting for this person and fighting through assumptions, prejudice, all dressed up as genuine concerns but moreover, all based on subtle discrimination and not on the facts before us. She turned out to be one of the best members of my team.

My colleagues weren’t bad people. They saw themselves as very open-minded and committed to diversity. But there are boundaries to all of our ability to really challenge ourselves and ask honestly what subconscious bias could be playing out here.

Situation 2:

A white, male colleague and I are waiting for two candidates to show up for an interview. One has what could be described as a non-English, Arabic name, the other has a very “English” standard male first name and surname. The first to arrive is a black man, and we both assume this is the one with the Arabic name. It is only when the second candidate shows up for the interview that we realise that we are wrong. She is a woman and cannot possibly be the one with the standard English male name.

After the interviewees have left and knew nothing of our silent confusion, I can’t contain my embarrassment and say to my colleague: “Woah, massive racist assumptions there from both of us!” He claps his hand on his forehead and said “How many discriminatory stereotypes went into that little misunderstanding?!” Awful, but at least we were aware that this actually happened and at least we could openly talk about it and think what we would do next time to ensure this doesn’t happen again.

Situation 3:

Some years ago, I keep hearing some of my colleagues declare proudly, openly and frequently that we have a team that is predominantly made up of young, Russell Group university-educated men and women. It takes me a while to understand why this makes me angry. I challenge them on this and ask why this makes us a good place to work. I am not young, nor Russell Group educated, and I am the only person to have recruited not one, but two people onto my team who don’t have a university degree at all. The first hire sparked consternation when my boss realised that they didn’t fit the ideal standard, but once they had proved themselves to be superb at their job and display a lot more intelligence and resilience than some of our more “thoroughbred” members of the stable, it was easier to get the second one through. They both had a maturity and solid work ethic that ensured that we got things done and to a high standard.

My challenge to my previous workplace was a challenge to this idea that having people who have made their way through a path of privilege means that they are necessarily better at their jobs than others. In my experience, some of the best-educated and holders of the highest accolades from Oxbridge were the weakest staff members in terms of their teamwork, resilience, creativity and initiative-taking. I was told time and again, “we need the best candidate for the job, and the easiest way to see that is through their qualifications and work experience”. What is not clear here is that there are so many barriers to people who don’t have access to the level of privilege needed, that they may not be getting a shot at the places of education and work that others may be able to just glide in to.

We really have to create a recruitment process that both sorts people’s ability to do the job advertised but that also can sort between things that are trainable skills and things that are essential to have inbuilt. This is where we have an opportunity to halt the assumptive wheels of institutional prejudice and actually create a step for people to take.What I mean is this. Faced with two potential candidates, I must look to see where I can challenge myself and my own assumptions. I must also look to see if with a small amount of effort on my part, I might be able to provide an opportunity for someone who has proved that they can do the job well but may not have the standard set of traits of privilege that we lazily may assume make them the “best candidate” for the job. If I can take someone on and invest an extra few hours of training in them to fill any gaps, which may cost the organisation slightly more, I will. I know that through doing this, I have diversified the workplace, shifted the accepted norms about what pathways people need to have followed to land here, and have broadened my own and my colleagues’ horizons about where good people can come from, I must do this. And if I need to fight a bit to do it, I will.

There are simple things that we can all do, and that we all must do. We must embrace our own prejudice and never avoid an opportunity to delve deeper into it to understand it better. We must call out prejudice when we see it (including our own!) but not in a confrontational and aggressive way, we need to champion growth-inducing challenge and whenever possible model a better way through as many channels as possible – such as recruitment processes as I have tried to illustrate here. This is what I mean when I say, change begins with you.

If you are serious you have to go hunting

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The Festival of Education list of speakers is out

The  initial list of speakers proposed for the Festival of Education 2016 is out. There are some great names there and I’m really excited to be going again this year, as I have every year since it started. As I scrolled down the faces, it really stood out how many of them were white and male (not to mention that five of them are called Andrew/Andy!) I pointed out this white and male bias on Twitter and was met with the inevitable flurry of likes and retweets and a couple of push backs.

The main thrust of the small amount of resistance I received to my pointing out that there is an imbalance seemed to be that this was a self-selecting group. To become a speaker there relied in part on people putting themselves forward. 300 people did, and none of them were turned away. I think I understood my Twitter colleagues as saying that if people don’t put themselves forward that aren’t predominantly white and male, then they are just making the balance the way it is. It was hard to explain myself in little 140 character snippets so I want to set out what I feel needs to be said here.

Who should speak?

As a teacher in the classroom and later in my professional life as a leader running meetings, I was always aware that everyone in a group should have a voice. It’s easy to get this wrong and through good intentions to crush those that are naturally outspoken and enthusiastic and swoop down and ask someone what they think while they quietly die inside from having all eyes on them. But we do have a responsibility to make sure every voice is heard and to find a way that works for everyone to have those voices included in the debate.

These days I often take part in meetings and discussions in my day to day life. I know that I have no problem speaking up most of the time. In fact, I know that I have a duty to be very attentive to how much of the group’s time is taken up by my own voice. It was a breath of fresh air to be in a management meeting recently where we discussed exactly this and decided how we would ensure that everyone has space, time and the awareness of their colleagues to help get this balance right so we can make good decisions together. It can make people who are outspoken feel just as anxious as those who are not, if the balance isn’t right. No-one wants to feel they are contributing too much or too little. The best environments are where everyone takes equal responsibility to get the balance right and it is recognised that there are certain inbuilt imbalances that need to be watched for carefully and which can change depending on the issue at hand. If we want to get this right, we have to hunt out these imbalances and actively address them. If you are serious, you will whether that’s in a small meeting or you are scanning the proposed list of speakers for a major event.

The problem with self-selection

Self-selection on the face of it seems like a wonderfully fair and open way to organise an event. It clearly invites people who think they have something of worth to say, to have a platform to say it. You might ask what the problem is. You are guaranteed to get some really enthusiastic, responsible people coming forward who will consider carefully what they are going to say, how and why – lest they make fools of themselves in front of everyone who is anyone in education – because everyone who is anyone tends to rock up to the Festival of Education. (If you haven’t been, imagine an extremely civilised education equivalent of the Glastonbury Festival – without the mud, the terrifying toilets, the noise, the drugs etc).

To my mind, while this self-selection is a good way to get some initial ideas for willing presenters, if it was the only way of selecting speakers, it would be lazy and the same as standing in front of a class and saying, “if you know the answer, shout now”. I must point out that because this shout out for speakers by the Festival of Education was done on Twitter, it is like standing in the furthest corner of the classroom whispering or texting a couple of people saying, “if you know the answer, shout now”. Most educationalists are not on Twitter. Hard as it is to comprehend this fact, I have to keep reminding myself of this daily. And many educationalists that are on Twitter and who blog have ample platform to say what they think.

I know this isn’t the only way that the Festival of Education organisers are looking for speakers, so this is not an attack or an accusation. So again, if you are serious, you need to go hunting using a wider method than shouting out on social media.

Event organisation and programme management is a serious business

I have quite a bit of experience of event organisation. This is from all angles as a delegate, an exhibitor/sponsor and as an organiser thinking through balanced programmes for events. It’s not easy. You need to do a lot of research and talking to people to find the right speakers and to get the right balance that reflects the sector you are operating in and the issues you know for a fact need to be covered. You need to include known names and people that will pull in an audience in the first place or no one will come, but you also have a unique opportunity to bring in some people that are perhaps lesser-known and have much to say that could be of benefit to the community you know will be present at your event. And you will need to work hard to find these people, to describe what they are going to say and why others need to hear it.

It can be even more difficult to get speakers that are actually good at speaking publicly. Some people have great experience and probably much to say, but they aren’t great at speaking. And others can be very entertaining or very well known, but don’t really have anything new, interesting or relevant to say any more. There were some grumbles last year at the Festival of Education that one extremely well-known education speaker was flown in at vast expense and was frankly a bit ‘meh’.

I went to two events on social mobility recently – one had a panel of young white, entrepreneurial, middle class, mainly men who spoke of their experience of trying to create a more socially mobile environment for students through the various charities and social enterprises they had set up. They were really enthusiastic, obviously wanted to make a change for the better and were consciously able to use their place of privilege in society to do so. But I felt a bit like they had a very them-and-us view of the world and that they ticked off a great list of boxes, almost saying, “it’s okay guys, we’ve got this”. I wanted more enquiry, more challenge. The other event I attended had a panel that was well-balanced with regards age, social class, race, experience, and included people from education, business, social care and other sectors. It also included people young and older people who felt they had been able to be socially mobile and those that felt they had not. I felt truly stimulated and that I had learned a lot from the second panel. My eyes were opened and I was left feeling uplifted but also thinking about some really uncomfortable truths about my own society and my place in it in relation to others. That, for me, is a good balanced panel and a good experience.

After finding this balance, a good event organiser must almost choreograph the dance of themes, issues, ideas, take-aways and calls for action that will take place on the stage in front of participants. Furthermore, a good event often needs to be both accessible to anyone with a passing interest and simultaneously stimulating to people who have been living and breathing the issues for years. If you are serious, you need then to both go hunting and to choreograph what you bring into the mix.

Social responsibility and amazing opportunity

There are so many situations where we have a social responsibility to be self-aware and aware of the context within which we are operating. I mentioned it earlier, in some situations I speak loudly and often. Therefore, I need to be aware of those that don’t and listen out for them. I need to know when I can speak up for others and I need to know when to shut up. As a parent governor for example, I had to perform the excruciatingly difficult balancing act of being a representative from the parent body but not a representative of the parent body. I had to look out for the interests of all children and that included my children but my frame of reference should never be through my children but rather all children belonging to the school community.

I often tie myself in knots with these kinds of levels of awareness. I feel the same awareness about my class, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, my age and more. I don’t always get it right. In fact, a lot of the time, I feel that we are all trampling about stepping on each other just by virtue of our attempts to not do precisely that. And so I feel that the organisers of the Festival of Education are going to face the same difficult task of making way for the many voices, issues, interests and debates that need to be heard. And they have a social responsibility and an amazing opportunity to make this as balanced, fair, interesting, challenging and inclusive as possible. To the organisers I say, you made a good start with the initial self-selection but I know you are serious, so happy hunting!

 

 

Living the dream: what the heck is social mobility anyway?

After I left The Key I worked briefly with a social enterprise whose perhaps audacious goal is to try to guarantee social mobility for the young people on its four-year programmes. My role was to get them up and running to sell their programmes more effectively to schools and to help them inject more clarity into what schools might need by way of evidence that these programmes do indeed work. It certainly got me exercised about the whole concept of social mobility and in my previous blog post I look at how schools might start thinking about their own engagement with issues of social mobility. The first of many questions to consider though is always the big one: what the heck is social mobility anyway?

The fact is, when you delve just below the surface, the whole concept of social mobility is problematic – for some to move up, others must move aside and make room. And yet some organisations working with young people from deprived backgrounds, schools included, might be tempted to think it starts with telling students that, as Lawrence Samuel put it The American Dream: A Cultural History, anyone can, “through dedication and with a can-do spirit, climb the ladder of success.” We might therefore feel justified in telling our students that anyone can be anything they want in life, they just need to want it badly enough, keep their noses clean and work for it. And there is some truth in this but it’s never that simple, is it?

All too often, being socially mobile or even being a ‘success’ seems to be equated with a rapid acquisition of huge wealth. The media often screams messages of quick ascent to fame and fortune so long as you are ‘in it to win it’. I hear it a lot from teachers, parents, youth workers and the like that young people often need a swift and intensive crash course in the actual reality that isn’t found in the ‘reality’ TV shows and celebrity lifestyles readily available to them as role models. Unpack these celebrity footballers’ and famous personalities’ lives and you see how short-lived, fraught and insecure their riches really are. In fact when you look at the statistics for these outliers, you begin to understand that many young people (and probably an equal number of older ones too) will clearly see this dream crumble before their very eyes when you start to unpack the odds for them. I can’t tell you how many times the team I worked with started conversations with their Success for Life programme participants with helping them understand that becoming a premier league footballer might not be a viable all-eggs-in-the-basket first option (especially considering you aren’t even in the first team at school and aren’t training more than a couple of times a month).

This isn’t to say we shouldn’t encourage young people to dream, to be aspirational, and to set their goals high. But our role as educators is to, well, educate. Are we clear ourselves on the way in which our society seems to reject the notion that social mobility might be determined by forces which are beyond our control? With twisted pseudo-meritocratic themes coming through loud and clear around the undeserving poor, benefits cheats and scroungers have we lost sight of the noble desire for equality of opportunity as a starting point for all our young people? And in practical terms, is there even space in the timetable for existential enquiry around politics, society, history and democracy unless they are part of the curriculum of your chosen GCSE and A level subjects?

Sussex University sociologist Peter Saunders has written extensively on social mobility and on the question of how meritocratic Britain really is. He defined an ideal meritocratic society as one where “each generation would be recruited to a different class position on the basis of individual intelligence”. And schools seem committed to this notion that intelligence is the defining factor in fixing our intellectual and professional status as adults. This is reinforced by the fact that schools are judged by academic outcomes in particular for our students from deprived backgrounds, and ‘closing the gap’ is what it is all about. It seems that we do mean well and that this is embedded in our educational and societal structures. If this is the case, schools don’t necessarily need to see beyond the confines of their contribution to a student’s future success. They are doing everything they can and in that sense, the mantra of ‘work hard and you can get anywhere you want’ does seem appropriate when you are referring to gaining the grades that buy you a ticket from school to the next stage.

But if knowledge is power then there are two things young people need from their education and we need to take responsibility for the fact that it can’t be covered by simply selling the American Dream. The first is a commitment to fearlessly educate them about social mobility itself, the divisiveness of our society and how inequality is embedded at every level. This is not to demotivate or disincentivise our young but rather to empower them to perhaps even be the agents of change. And secondly, we need to ensure young people have a chance to explore their own personal story, their roots, their feelings, and assumptions about themselves as actors not just within a classroom and a school, but as a family member and as a member of wider society and even the global community. This intertwined story of ourselves as both social and personal beings, and as products of and actors in society is one that is not easy to unpick but unlocking it as a concept can be the key to achieving real, enduring success, for life.

Four things to help students to think big:

  • Don’t ask students what they want to be when they grow up, but ask them who they are and what makes them excited. Students need to know what sparks their passions and need to build on their strengths. We spend too much time in life trying to improve things that we can’t do well, when we should be spending more time building on our strengths.
  • While we are on the subject of self-knowledge and self-worth, it’s important to make sure that students can not only look inwards and understand themselves – the personal, and the political. They need to know how to articulate what they feel, think, believe and hold dear. Students need opportunities to put across their case and promote themselves as worthy beings with much to say. They need time to develop and differentiate their world view and they need opportunities to try out these thoughts and beliefs on different audiences for different ends.
  • Make sure students know about a variety of people and their professions, from the mundane to the specialised, to the generalists and the quirky. Ensure they understand the skills sets, interests and pathways that led people into these professions. Bring these people into school, take the students out into the world, use low-cost options through social media or the Internet. Get them into the habit of asking people about their journey that led them to where they are now.
  • Help young people to understand that hard graft and dedication are essential and that good grades are your ticket to greater things, but that there is more than this that determines success. And some of that is deeply entrenched prejudice, inequality and injustice. A thorough understanding of society, the barriers and the opportunities we all face in different ways can help empower students to be the agents of change and to build a better future. How good is that?

You can see my article in Teach Secondary here http://www.teachwire.net/news/in-their-dreams-young-people-need-to-be-taught-about-social-inequality

Four things for schools to consider when thinking about social mobility

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Beware the American Dream
Many organisations working with young people seem to sell students something similar to The American Dream – all you need to do is work hard and want it badly enough, and you too can reach the highest heights. This is reinforced by media depictions of ordinary people’s quick ascent to fame and fortune. TV channels are flooded with shows pitting people against each other, the promise of celebrity and copious wealth within pirouetting distance. Many a student buys into these myths (and a surprising number of intelligent adults too). The American Dream crumbles before their very eyes when you start to unpack the odds for them. I can’t tell you how many times we have helped our participants understand that becoming a premier league footballer – even if it’s your biggest dream – might not be a viable option especially considering you aren’t even in the first team at school and aren’t training more than a couple of times a month. But it goes beyond explaining the odds. Knowledge is power and there are things young people need from their education that isn’t covered by the American Dream. (A few TV channels might also like to take on the challenge of educating the masses on this too). My vision would be to ensure that no child leaves school without a clear understanding of themselves as a member of and a product of society, and without questioning what they want to be going forward – and how they might make that happen. We should want our young to be aspirational and reach for the sky and I don’t believe debunking the American Dream will demotivate them, but will rather empower them.

When grades aren’t enough
Social mobility pundits are seemingly preoccupied with making everyone middle class. To achieve this aim schools, and a plethora of education charities aimed at improving students’ university applications, can be seen to push some students to get into a top university and seemingly to urge them to denounce their background and become a banker or lawyer. It might be controversial to say this but attending an elite university without adequate support is tantamount to sponsoring a life of feeling inadequate, developing imposter syndrome and being left caught between a rock and a hard place. I know this all too well, being the only one in my single-parent, free-school-meals-eligible family with a degree. There is also the danger of giving young people messages that their often aspirational and supportive family are inadequate losers. You can see where this leads – you don’t fit in anywhere in the end. ‘Posh kids’ have social and cultural capital that comes with rubbing shoulders with an array of professional people. Schools do their utmost to try to address this with high expectations for all, free music tuition, debating, rowing, fencing and more. But what of the fact that middle class students will have access to culture, professional contacts and support throughout their journey in life? Again, packing off a young person to an elite university having helped them gain great grades at GCSE and A level, taught them violin and rowing is a start but it doesn’t plug the gap of social and cultural capital. Whose connections do students tap into for job opportunities and to fund an internship? What more can we do to narrow the gap on these life-long inequalities of opportunity?

Metacognition, political and social awareness and self-knowledge in bucket loads
It’s troubling that there isn’t the space and time in schools to ask the question not of ‘what do you want to be when you grow up’ but ‘who are you, what are your interests and skills, where are you willing to invest your effort? What kind of lifestyle are you after? Do you know anything about the people that have that lifestyle? Are your preconceptions even close to the truth?’ My husband always wanted to be an academic. He has worked hard and now he is one It’s a far cry from his 1980s style dream. In fact, he says he has read that there is a direct parallel between academia and drugs cartels. Apparently even the salary is about the same too. And you might be surprised that in neither profession is it very high for anyone but the very top dogs.

In the 1990s, a teacher studying for my Masters in education, I took my whole class on a journey of exploration into the (now discredited) world of Learning Styles. This year-long action research project culminated in my class substantially improving their achievement across the board. The take-away lesson for me, regardless of whether or not there is any substance to Learning Styles, was that my students became engaged in understanding for themselves how they learn (metacognition). Each developed techniques to concentrate, engage, relate to and retain what they learned, giving them ownership of their learning and making them masters of their own choices. They could harness this and use it wherever and however they chose, not just in my English class. The results were stunning.

We should be similarly committed to fearlessly educate our young about social mobility itself and how inequality is intricately woven into the tapestry of everyday life. Just as young men and women need to know about homophobia, racism and feminism, so too do we need to help young people to understand the simple facts about class differences in society.

And as mentioned above, there needs to be space and time for young people to unearth their own personal story, their roots, feelings, and assumptions about themselves not just within a classroom and a school, but as a family member and as a member of wider society and even the global community. This intertwined story of ourselves as both social and personal beings, and as products of and actors in society is one that is not easy to unpick but unlocking it as a concept can be the key to achieving real, enduring success.

Sustainable solutions should be the only solutions
We’ve all heard about schools kettling groups of borderline students into the A*- C safety zone or punting the pupil premium on interventions that make low-level disruption, serial absenteeism and exclusion rates disappear in a puff of lavender-scented smoke for the prized Ofsted outstanding. We assume that means that students are getting a high quality education and gaining the grades they need to go on to the next stage of their journey in life. But how many school leaders have the longitudinal vision to say, hand on heart, that they are pledging public funds to kick-starting their most disadvantaged students’ journey on the path towards being socially mobile and successful no matter their backgrounds? When our education system is so dominated by politicians whose concerns are short-term and, well, political, are school leaders really able to see beyond their place on the league tables? Some believe schools and universities should be held accountable for what happens to their students once they have graduated and entered the world of work as a way to enforce a longer-term vision. But I like to think that some school leaders, regardless of the ever-changing trends and official requirements, are keenly committed to making sure that as many of the young people in their care as possible get everything they need to be successful in life, whether that be as a core part of the curriculum, an extra level of support from public services or bought-in opportunities that otherwise would never come their way.

There is a glut of organisations operating under the banner of social mobility. My visits to nearly 40 London schools recently has got me thinking about services schools buy in and about charities, social enterprises and businesses. I have spent some time over the summer reviewing the services available and there is a veritable mosaic of ideas, methods, outcomes and claims – not to mention groovy branded jackets, highly designed logos and flashy websites. I have heard from many school leaders that they are suffering from ‘interventionitis’ and are unsure of how the many external services actually integrate, duplicate or make sense in their own school. The collapse of Kids Company has made this all the more relevant. There have been some insightful pieces on this issue highlighting that a ‘good idea’ will result in a charity in response. I am the last to advocate for privatisation of the education sector, but I do believe that unlike a business model, charities often don’t check if their offer is commercially viable, responds to a market-tested need, or is duplicates something existing. Charities aren’t even really required to guarantee their offer is high quality, particularly in their experimental start-up stage. They need to identify potential donors, compete for funds and persuade schools to take them on. And schools will be interested because they are already working their socks off for their students, every little helps, and the charity offers services for free – surely there is nothing to lose. And yet, there is so much to lose. Some of the charities working to help deprived young people, work with only a handful at a time and are not necessarily going to survive if their funding dries up. And most worrying is that they may see that demand exceeds capacity and they could end up in hot water, unable to sustain their activity or scale up according to demand. What happens then?

I personally like the social enterprise model – it has to be self-sustaining as a business but has social responsibility firmly at its heart rather than the often distasteful for-profit mantra of ‘return for share-holders’. To know they are spending public money wisely, schools will want to see regular impact reports, a contract and to hold the organisation to account for the quality and completion of the work as described.

I would appeal to all schools to think carefully about what they can do to help guarantee success, for life, for their students. Schools should do their due diligence and be certain that whatever they choose for their students, whether it be paid for or free, that it really delivers the outcomes it says it does, that it puts the schools’ and the students’ long-term interests at its core and that it has a solid past and an equally promising future.

This post is the longer version of the article I wrote for Schools Week http://schoolsweek.co.uk/put-the-students-interests-at-your-schools-core/