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.
I remember several years ago now, I went to hear Reni Eddo Lodge speak at a podcast event in a London branch of Waterstones. This was just around the time of her blog post that led to her long read in The Guardian and later to her book ‘Why I am no longer talking to white people about race’. I cringe when I think back to it, as I think it was me that was that white woman who put up her hand, eager to signal my virtue and readiness to help, and asked a question: “Thank you, I really enjoyed your talk, and can you tell me, what can I do, as a white woman, that would be useful?” To which Reni responded something along the lines of, “Herein lies the problem, if you are asking me what you can do”. I now understand what that was about, but at the time, I felt shame and an intense need to understand why what I had said was so unhelpful.
Just recently, in the space of the same week, I was asked to join two separate organisations’ inner circles to discuss the concept of the white ally in anti-racist work. One was a union Black, Asian and minority ethnic leaders network grappling with some questions about their next steps in their strategy, and the other was a lunch and learn session for a large education organisation which, in their own words, is not very diverse but committed to changing that. Although I went willingly, I didn’t go comfortably with the notion of the white ally or as someone who would be somehow held up as an example of success in this area.
I have been on a journey since my question about what I can do, and if there is one thing I think that I can do it is to put learning, listening and unlearning before rushing in with ‘doing’. One organisation which has influenced me in exploring this idea of being a white person developing their understanding and committing action to anti-racist work is WhiteAccomplices.org who have developed a website to support white people wanting to act for racial justice. I find their explanation of the difference between the actor, ally and accomplice really helpful. I will summarise my understanding of their ideas, but do spend some time reading for yourself on their website.
Why should white people care in the first place?
I get asked this question a lot. Many people find it hard to understand why someone who doesn’t experience racial discrimination would be fighting for change. I think that this has become increasingly legitimised in my lifetime, that one only needs to care about things that we perceive to have a direct and immediate effect on us – I hear this a lot when people consider their voting preferences for example, selecting the party which has policies that benefit them directly the most, rather than thinking about protecting the interests of those most affected by inequity.
The truth is, that while any of us are oppressed, none of us are free. But more than this, if you understand how structural inequality works, as a white person, to not act to dismantle racism we are in fact complicit with upholding the status quo. WhiteAccomplices.org explains that there are three states of being:
Actor – An actor doesn’t challenge the status quo, and is more like a spectator in a game. The actions of an actor do not explicitly name or challenge racism, which is essential for meaningful progress towards racial justice to happen. While there is oppression, we all stand to lose. WhiteAccomplices.org cite an excellent quote by Lilla Watson (the indiginous Australian artist, activist and academic) on the need for actors to shift to accomplices: “If you have come here to help me, you’re wasting your time. If you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
An actor might go to demonstrations, change their profile picture to a black square on social media, release a statement on their website about Black Lives Matter, or do other performative acts of beings seen to be ‘with’ Black people. Actors might even join their workplace diversity discussion group, attend an event or read a book on the issues.
Ally – Being an ally is a verb, it is active. Most importantly, ally is not a title you can give to yourself, you may be regarded as an ally by others through your actions at times.
Your actions as an ally are more likely to challenge institutionalised racism and you will have a good understanding of terms like white supremacy and whiteness. An ally is a disrupter and an educator in white spaces – unlike the actor, the ally sees something inappropriate and interrupts, explains and tries to educate those present. WhiteAccomplices.org is careful to point out that being an ally is not an invitation to do this in Black and brown spaces to be seen to be performatively “good” or “on side”. You would not tell someone else’s story of experiencing racism from your perspective of how you helped them tackle it. But you would disrupt a conversation taking place in a predominantly white space that is inappropriate and take the opportunity to educate those present. Allies need to constantly educate themselves and do not take breaks from this work.
Accomplice – The actions of an accomplice are meant to directly challenge institutionalised or structural racism, colonisation, and white supremacy by blocking or impeding racist people, policies, and structures. This is where you can absolutely use your proximity to power and your white privilege in your workplace and spaces that you occupy.
This is the stage where you fully understand that our freedoms are intertwined, dwell not only in what people say but are enmeshed in structures and institutions, the way we recruit, develop and retain people, the way people are treated at work, in public spaces, by healthcare providers, and so on. This is where you know that retreat in the face of oppressive structures is not an option.
Accomplices actions are informed by, coordinated with, and sometimes even directed by, leaders who are Black, brown, minoritised, or who identify as people of colour.
An accomplice listens with respect and understands that oppressed people are not all the same in their needs, tactics or beliefs.
Accomplices are not emotionally fragile or motivated by guilt or shame. They recover fast and reflect, aware that they have been socialised into structural racism and the unlearning process is iterative, constant and consistent. They need to be accountable, will build trust through consent and act collaboratively for that accountability.
An accomplice might do much of their work without fanfare or seeking public recognition. They will be looking for opportunities to amplify and elevate their Black and brown comrades’ good works and to challenge and dismantle structures and systems that uphold inequity. There is a personal cost to this. Some spaces will no longer be open to the accomplice because of their perceived disruptive nature. Similar to, but not at all the same as, the fact that some spaces are not open to people from Black, Asian, and minoritised backgrounds because of the colour of their skin. Once you see, you cannot unsee. It’s not about being ‘comfortable with the uncomfortable’, or about “diversity” as a broad catch-all term – it’s about being absolutely unable to accept or condone the status quo and acting to dismantle it.
So how do I move forward?
It should already be clear that there is no formulaic way to ‘get there’ and ‘there’ isn’t a destination but a constant journey. But here are some things you can think about that can take you beyond the actor, towards something that is meaningful for your own awareness and action:
Educate yourself – Read, listen, watch, develop a critical mind and commit to change your habits so that you are not consuming things that uphold racist stereotypes, or that exclude voices from a range of backgrounds. This might involve giving up on a lot of things that you consume on screen! Join a reading group, or set one up.
Change your view – Do an audit of your LinkedIn, Twitter, social platforms, actual friends and acquaintances and you will probably find you live in an echo chamber of people who look, sound and have had much the same experiences as you. Seek out and follow people that perhaps work in the same field as you, share the same interests as you and that don’t share the same worldview or background as you. Listen to what they have to say.
Change your spending – Raise money and donate to causes that benefit people of colour. Seek out and use your economic capital to support businesses owned and run by people of colour. Use your privilege and access to capital to channel that towards people of colour and grassroots organisations that benefit people of colour.
White communities – Start the conversation with white family members, colleagues and friends about racism and whiteness. Encourage others to engage with the issues. Encourage your workplace to engage in training and anti-racist action. Disrupt white spaces and create discomfort where white people and whiteness would otherwise remain a pillar of white supremacy.
Advocacy – Make calls, send emails and sign petitions advocating on behalf of policies being advanced by racial justice campaigners. Amplify voices of colour. Attend meetings, hearings, public events and add your voice in solidarity. Bring other white people with you.
Your work – Make sure your job involves organising internally or externally to fight against institutional racism. Use your job position to actively seek out people of colour to interview for a job, for development opportunities and promotion within the organisation. When seeking external people, employ people of colour to provide services, training, as speakers.
Volunteering – Consider volunteering as a mentor, a tutor, at a food bank, for a local racial justice focused organisation, join an organisation with the explicit aim of naming and disrupting racial injustice.
Confronting injustice – If you see violence, intimidation or harassment, stand close and watch, interrupt and film confrontation, engage white people in conversation about their actions when you see or hear racism or microaggressions (focus on the intent vs the impact), call for help where necessary.
Vote – Use your voting powers for the benefit of anti-racism and policies that will make a difference. Support candidates of colour, donate to campaigns, actively fundraise and canvass, use your energies to mobilise white communities to get behind candidates and policies that will make a difference to people of colour.
Your children – Educate your children about power, privilege, race, intersectionality. Send your children to state schools where they are in the racial minority if they are white. White children need to see people of colour in positions of power and leadership as much as children of colour need to “see themselves”. Take your children and their friends to events where people of colour are speaking about racism, their lived experience and things of cultural importance to them. Talk to your children explicitly about the issues and what they can do to disrupt and be change makers. Talk to your child’s school and get involved in parent committees or the governing board with a view to disrupting and reframing deficit narratives and moving towards inclusivity.
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.
It is clear that there is an acute and snowballing issue around recruitment and retention of staff in our schools’ workforce. Schools are considering many proposed solutions, including promises to reduce workload, challenging the traditional reticence around flexible working practices and job shares, and the DfE has even launched a jobs board platform aimed at reducing the costs for recruitment that are often crippling for schools. Successive education secretaries have declared that far more teachers from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds are needed in schools to be role models for their pupils. Since the recent brutal killing of George Floyd, and the subsequent soul searching that seems to have happened for many white people around their relationship with the structures and systems which impact on Black people’s life chances, the BAMEed Network has seen a flood of requests from schools and multi-academy trusts asking for support to diversify their workforce.
Teachers from BAME backgrounds have been marginalised in a system that seems to have changed little since the 1980s, back when theSwann report identified that ethnic minorities were underrepresented in teaching. Research since has confirmed that BAME educators are consistently the victims of systemic racism, which sees them overlooked for promotion and undermined. This is enacted not only through policy and practice around curriculum design, recruitment and performance management, but also through daily examples of microaggressions and behaviours from their colleagues – all of which serve to discredit them as teachers and leaders. We are all becoming familiar with the term “unconscious bias” to try to explain why this might happen, but we have seemed less committed to finding ways to seek out and cull the practices which perpetuate this bias. Structures of disadvantage in education are untouched and continue to perpetuate stereotypes of ethnic groups. Saying it is “unconscious” has proved to even give us an excuse that it may not be within our power to change. This is, of course, a damaging fallacy. Acknowledging the forces of socialisation can be a start to bringing the seemingly unconscious into the conscious domain and ensuring that the outcomes of our behaviour and actions, policies and practices are not damaging.
Why recruit for diversity? It may seem obvious especially now, but it is surprising how many schools and other organisations are still not clear on the reasons for their own commitment to diversity. Many colleagues believe in the mantra “we just recruit the best person for the job” and won’t question why those so-called best people all seem to look and sound the same. While we must always recruit the best person for the job, in doing so we are often blind to our own inherently biased perception of what that person looks and sounds like, what background and experience they should have had, and rule out the best person not for lack of skills and experience, but for other, more insidious reasons that are masked by seemingly innocent statements like “team fit” or “team culture”. The bottom line is, that if your team is not diverse in its make up, you most likely have not recruited the best person for the job. Excellent recruitment practice will naturally lead to a diverse range of backgrounds, experiences, styles, perspectives, opinions and so on, and that can’t possibly mean a cookie cutter version of the same person. A word of warning here, no-one wants to be recruited for the colour of their skin, their gender or sexuality to fulfil a Top Trumps spectrum of perceived diversities that look good. However, just as addressing the bias that holds women back in the workplace shouldn’t be left exclusively to women to champion and work towards, so too must colleagues, school leaders and system leaders from all backgrounds educate themselves around the unnecessary barriers that face their marginalised counterparts. It is the recruitment practice, coupled with a commitment by the organisation to learn, iterate and change that practice that will lead to recruiting and retaining a successful, diverse team.
Another practical reason to recruit for diversity is that it is proven to be good for business. We know from research such as theMcKinsey Report, that having a diverse workforce leads to better teamwork, and more successful decision-making. If we are to see a change in attitudes and the subtle and not-so-subtle trappings of systemic racism, we need role models from Black, Asian and other minoritised groups for our fellow colleagues of all backgrounds, for governors and trustees, and for students from non-BAME backgrounds too. If we are to accept people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds as credible teachers and leaders, we need to see these colleagues at every level in our schools’ workforce.
Finally, many schools believe that they should recruit staff that reflect the population they serve, if that population is itself seen as ‘diverse’. While it is true that children should be able to see themselves in the people who are their role models, there are two important points to highlight here. The first is that the colour of someone’s skin doesn’t make them able to understand all humans that have a similar skin colour. Diversity is intersectional – it includes class, gender, heritage, and more. Be careful with assumptions here. Secondly, it could be argued that schools that serve a predominantly white population will also absolutely benefit from seeing strong and capable role models from stereotypically undervalued and marginalised communities – this will be of benefit to staff, students and the whole school community alike.
If we want to address the recruitment issues we face, and if we want to retain and develop our best leaders from diverse backgrounds, there has never been a better time to commit to this.
Preparing your organisation to be friendly to all humans
Looking inwards before looking outwards For a campaign to ‘recruit for diversity’ to be successful, it’s worth taking an honest look at your organisational bias, and seeing why it may not yet be friendly to all humans. This is important because the last thing you want to do is recruit new people from more diverse backgrounds than you are accustomed to, only for it to be experienced as a hostile environment lacking the self-awareness to understand why only certain people will be able to thrive there.
To do this, you will need to commit some time and budget. You may benefit from some outside help to set the strategy with you, but you must carry out any work on this, as part of a committed whole-school learning process, even when you have external support. You will need to commit time to undertake reading, re-educating yourselves and un-learning some practices you have considered normal. It is also important to have an educated grasp on what systemic racism is, and not frame racism as many schools do, as just dwelling in notable incidents and overt acts of racist abuse.
The first place organisations usually go is to what is commonly known as “unconscious bias” training. Be careful with this, as one of the criticisms of quick-fix unconscious bias training is that it can have an opposite effect. Research shows that in terms of changing attitudes, it can often lead to people becoming more entrenched in their bias, and even concluding that because the bias is unconscious, it’s not possible to do much about it. That said, good training will help you understand what bias is, when it is useful, how it can be harmful, how you can own your bias and see it clearly, and interrupt it at the point before you may have enacted it previously. Good organisational culture around bias will mean that there is a safe space for colleagues to talk openly about situations where they can see their own bias surfacing, and can work together to acknowledge and mitigate the impact of that bias. Staff should be trained in things like microaggressions so they can avoid them, and learn how to be a reliable ally, learning to see, articulate and call out discrimination should it occur. Many schools are often not encouraging of critical thinking, challenge and straight-talking, so this may be quite a culture shift. It will be up to all levels of the organisation to hone their skills at spotting, naming and reducing bias and discrimination. Be warned though, the mark of an organisation committed to change and anti-racism may be one that once you have learned to see it, you see it everywhere! This can often be the marker of the shift from being ‘not racist’ to being ‘anti-racist’. Change takes commitment and time.
HR and policies Once you have learned to spot bias and systemic or structural racism, you can carry out an internal audit designed specifically to hunt out and change places where bias and structural racism tend to lurk. HR practices and school policies are often sites where discrimination takes place. Again, you may be tempted to use a template or a service to help you with this, but make sure that you are skilling yourselves up to do this effectively in an ongoing way, so it doesn’t become an external bureaucratic exercise but instead becomes part of the culture of the organisation at all levels.
The UK has 9 protected characteristics, set out in the Equality Act 2010. These are:
Marriage and civil partnership
Pregnancy and maternity
Religion or belief
There are 4 main types of discrimination under the Equality Act:
Any audit you carry out should be a critical look at your HR practices to ensure that there aren’t elements which are discriminatory. You’ll note that class and nationality are missing from this list. Again, none of this should be purely procedural or bureaucratic so it’s important to have training and regular robust and open discussion about these issues, as they are both complex and emotive. For white people such discussion may cause discomfort. This is a small price to pay in exchange for reducing the deep trauma racial discrimination inflicts on people of colour.
When looking at policies, it is vital that this extends to policies which affect the students and their families. These include home-school agreements, homework, hair and uniform policies, behaviour and exclusion policies and more. There is much research and writing about how these policies can be the sites of racial and other discriminatory action that can be subtle or blatant. A school that is friendly to all humans, needs to ensure this is true not just for staff working there, but also the whole school community. Staff cannot be expected to enforce policy which isn’t inclusive and which is discriminatory.
The most vital and perhaps challenging part of this work will be allowing a culture of identifying and challenging racism, both from staff as well as students and their families. Baked into all line management culture, 1:1s with staff, meetings with students and their families, should be the ability to have meaningful dialogue that is sensitive and courageous, so that racism can be named and framed without those raising the issue fearing being silenced or disciplined for their words.
Curriculum matters Here again, if your curriculum doesn’t reflect the reality of both modern Britain, the global world and an accurate picture of history and the diverse voices which have always been part of our country, you cannot be a school which will be fertile ground for diverse voices to be heard and valued. Take a look at your curriculum offer, and draw on the huge number of resources available to support decolonising the curriculum and how it is taught across all departments. We speak volumes to our staff, students and the school community through our curriculum choices.
Optics are important but not as a stand-alone You need to see it to be it. If you’re hoping to attract staff members who are from a wide variety of backgrounds, you need to make sure that they can see themselves as valued in your school website, on the walls around the school, in the prospectus, the curriculum and more. When looking for diverse imagery, be mindful that you aren’t unwittingly perpetuating damaging stereotypes though. It’s all too easy to fall into this without some work on your bias. As Adrian Rogers, CEO of Chiltern Learning Trust, says, “ensure anyone considering applying looks in on your organisation (websites, social media) and sees that it welcomes diversity in its leadership and management. It isn’t tokenism, but it’s about making sure that the outward signal is ‘its good to work in this place, they value me as a person and a professional, regardless of colour or protected characteristics’”.
Remember, if you are early on, in your journey towards diversity in the school staff and leadership team, be upfront and honest about this. You know that candidates will check your website and may be confused by your statements of intent around diversity not matching reality when they see your all-white, mainly male governing board, or senior leadership team. Be prepared to have that conversation from the get-go in an appropriate way.
Get out Not only do you have to ‘be it to see it’, but you have to ‘see it to be it’. Leaders of any organisation, multi academy trust or school should make a huge effort to attend community events. This is also an opportunity to learn more about the communities you serve. Again, in his experience from Chiltern Learning Trust, Adrian Rogers says, “BAME is a very broad term, and not all communities are the same – there will be huge religious, cultural and ethnic differences. However, if you are a white leader, in a school with a high percentage of Black or Asian pupils, it is even more important to show you care about that community and want to work with them and want the best for the young people in that community. In turn, this means you will gain the trust and friendship of that community and break down barriers – with the spin-off that people from your local community will want to work for you. This also extends to delivering CPD and supporting BAME leadership courses and development even if you yourself are white – it means you network with ambitious staff.”
He goes on, “as leaders, make opportunities to speak about BAME staff in your school in terms of the knowledge, skill and expertise that they bring to your school. It is easy to fall in the trap of seeing BAME staff as simply representatives of the ‘community’, rather than talented individuals in their own right. Leaders, governors and trustees should be restless and relentless in asking ‘is there more we should be doing?’ or ‘can I ask someone why we don’t get BAME applicants’. Leaders should be curious and reflective. A great way of demonstrating the accessibility of leaders is providing an open day for local people that may be seeking employment, and senior leaders meet prospective candidates without the formality of an application or interview.” It’s also a great way to test out the scoping of the roles you may wish to recruit for.
Advertising the role
Scoping Now you are ready to advertise the role, start with scoping. Often a role can be carried out by a broad spectrum of levels of experience and expertise, qualification and commitment to learn. Make sure the recruitment panel has clearly mapped out a continuum of possible imagined candidates from the finished product to the ‘grower’. Be clear which bits are non-negotiable must-haves and which bits, if missing, can be solved through coaching, training or further on-the-job qualification. This will help you with the wording of your advertisement and will also make you hold yourselves to account to recruit for what you say you need, and not go on “feel” at the end of the day.
An important part of scoping is to map out which parts of the process will really test fairly what you are looking for. Assuming there are several stages to the process, from written application, a task-based assignment, a face to face interview and perhaps a chance to see that person in action, have you covered off every element you say you are looking for in your recruitment pack? Can each element be seen in more than one way?
Placing your advertisement If you do things the same way, you will get the same result. So think about where you would like to place your advert and what other methods you can use to recruit good candidates from a wide field. Advertising is key, if your community and school has a diverse population, advertise locally and you will probably get a diverse workforce. This support in your community shows you embrace both the community and its diversity. If your community is not diverse, think about publications, platforms and other ways to reach further.
From his experience, Adrian Rogers suggests asking BAME leaders either in your organisation or that you know, to actively support your recruitment – they are role models and could be most effective in promoting your organisation to people of colour. This may help people of colour feel comfortable about applying to your organisation, and see they are valued. Use different and wide ranging social media or media to advertise on. Local radio, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn can be good places to advertise. Test what works for different groups and tweak accordingly. Adrian Rogers’ MAT is in Luton, and they found, for example, that local radio and LinkedIn helped them get a significant number of Black or Asian applicants. On the other hand, they noted that applicants through Facebook were predominantly white, and Twitter wasn’t significantly different for any group. Aureus School in Didcot was a brand new start-up secondary school. The headteacher at the time, Hannah Wilson, managed to recruit her entire leadership team without placing one ad, and instead used Linked In and Twitter to attract not only a wide-ranging diverse and highly skilled team, but many of whom re-located in order to work at the school and with the team she brought together.
Your diversity statement matters It has become standard practice to place a generic diversity statement on job ads. Think about what yours says that accurately reflects the place you are in now. Be bold about addressing the elephant in the room if this will be in fact your first person of colour to join an all-white team. Writing this diversity statement should be exciting and easy, provided you are well on your way with the work described above to make your organisation friendly to all humans.
The recruitment process
Seen, felt, heard The most important thing during the recruitment process aside from ensuring that you have tested for all of the elements you hope to get in a new recruit, is how you make people feel. Too many organisations make the recruitment process overly bureaucratic and impersonal, and also don’t offer flexibility over how they engage with candidates. This in itself can throw up unnecessary barriers for some candidates. Many organisations are not cordial and respectful about people’s time, often making them come for several stages of an interview at what seem like random times, when these could be rolled into one day. Consider also that women may often be juggling child care, or if they live in intergenerational households, may have responsibility for elder care and therefore may not have flexibility on what time of the day they can attend. This may sound sexist and of course men may face this issue too but statistically this remains stubbornly the domain of women in most cases. This might act to exclude them from the process unless you are openly discussing the best times of day for them to attend a face to face interview.
‘Blind’ recruitment Many organisations employ ‘blind’ recruitment of varying degrees to the process. This means removing elements which may identify the person’s gender, age, heritage, where they were educated or previous employers. You can either ask candidates to do this themselves, or get your HR department to do this before sharing applications to be sifted. There are pros and cons to doing this:
Blind hiring can promote greater diversity in the workplace because you can’t screen for candidates who look like you
It is considered more “scientific” because it provides the same assessments for every candidate. The more the interviewee is in situations where they reveal personal information, the panel makes subconscious decisions based on biases. If those selected for the final interview process are selected fully on the objective assessments, the top 3-4 candidates will actually be those on top of the job requirements
Blind hiring eliminates the “who do you know” practice that is often used, and, instead, opens up the field to other candidates who may actually possess higher skill levels
Blind hiring can be seen as just a fad and that, in the long term, will not have staying power
It can actually hinder diversity in hiring. Many organisations seek out BAME candidates in the hiring process as part of their commitment to diversity. When recruiters do not have the option of knowing personal information, they cannot actively pursue diversity
Blind hiring does not take into account the type of work environment in which a candidate has been successful or unsuccessful previously
Blind hiring could wipe out the often-used practice of referrals. Many organisations announce within their networking associations that they are looking for someone to fill a position. They put great value on the referrals they get from colleagues and usually interview such individuals. Of course, that referral alone provides a bias so should be treated with due caution
Written applications One trap that many organisations fall into is judging candidates on their ability to write, when the job itself may not require you to be an excellent orator or writer. Aside from writing ability, the panel should be clear with themselves and each other on what is a non-negotiable and what can be solved by training, coaching or on-the-job qualification.
The interview itself
Watch for performance over ability Similarly, many organisations come unstuck when they employ someone who performed impressively at interview, but then proved lacking in motivation, skills, confidence or ability in the day to day once they take the job.
Think also about how to put people at ease during the interview process. If there is an element of observation, many schools will now find going to the candidate’s school to see them in front of a class that they know and have built rapport with, tells them much more about the person, than bringing them to perform in front of a class of strangers. When a candidate comes to interview face to face, think about how you make them feel the warmth and reality of day to day life – some organisations will organise a cup of tea and an informal chat with a member of staff, where they can ask any questions they like. That member of staff will not have seen the candidate’s application or know any information, but can spend 20 minutes in friendly conversation and give the inside track of what it’s really like to work at the school.
How you invite the candidate into the interview room, the make-up of the panel and the positioning of the panel and the candidate can have a huge impact on how people feel and perform in the interview. The candidate should be comfortably seated, offered refreshments, the room should be adequately heated and ventilated. If you are conducting a remote interview using video conferencing, make sure that time is given for technical support, and to get used to the situation.
Think about how you probe on the candidate’s actual qualifications and what they entailed. We can exercise huge bias by assuming that someone who went to a Russell Group university would be better equipped, without asking what they actually learned that could be useful now in their job. Similarly, we are often quick to dismiss qualifications that are from abroad without knowing anything about the quality or content of their studies.
The interview panel Make sure that your panel is diverse. If you can’t for some reason, you had better be extremely alert to your own bias, and be able to have a robust, challenging discussion about this when deliberating about the candidates! Be honest with the candidates, whatever their background, that you are lacking in diversity in terms of race and gender and this is something that you know is unsatisfactory and which is being addressed.
While interviewing, the panel should take notes and be ready to discuss, explore and explain their reasoning around why they found a candidate suitable or unsuitable. Agree in advance that in your deliberations, you will not accept statements without evidence. So, no mention of “getting a good feeling” or the candidate being “likeable” without acknowledging and recognising where bias may be creeping in. This will aid not falling prey to “mirror-tocracy” or hiring in our own image.
After the interview
Unsuccessful candidates Remember that you want candidates to feel excited, included and positive about your organisation. They should come away from an interview feeling that they had ample opportunity to show themselves at their best. They may apply for another role at the school if they were not successful on this occasion, and they may tell others about the school if they liked what they saw, thereby becoming a valuable ambassador.
Consider how you let people know that they were not successful in their application. Try to personalise this as much as possible rather than firing out a generic email. If your interview notes were robust, you should be able to have a few useful pointers to talk through on the phone and capture that in a paragraph of feedback for any candidates that would like it. Make sure you offer the chance for verbal feedback.
Successful candidates Let the candidates know as soon as you can, and gauge their level of excitement carefully. If you have the right candidate, they should sound pleased! Be clear about next steps and make sure you have a clear and supportive system in place to ensure their success. This will include a staff handbook, an induction process, a buddy who can support them to get orientated and perhaps some kind of first day introduction and mini-celebration.
Make sure the team is informed clearly about who this person is, what role they will have and what their strengths are that they will bring to the team. Create as much opportunity for this person to feel wanted, welcomed and part of the team. This will be the test of all of the groundwork you have done in the organisation to make people aware of bias, committed to being reliable allies and anti-racist in every way.
Learning and growing
For your own learning as an organisation, capture throughout the process, what went well and what could be “even better if…” Capture useful statistical evidence to see how well the different places you advertised perform, to explore at what stages candidates drop out and are rejected and to ensure that you are gathering learning and checking your own biases throughout the process. Consider getting feedback from the candidates that didn’t make it as well as those that did so you can learn and improve the processes going forward.
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 open a wider INSET day on closing the gaps at a secondary school in the south west of England. The stated aims of the session was to unpack what cultural capital means and to challenge some of the assumptions about cultural capital as it is often being deployed in schools.
How do I come to stand before you?
I am not an expert in cultural capital. I do see myself as someone who can challenge and support effectively, and this is my aim with this piece. Many of my experiences, from being the only free school meals child in my class at grammar school, teaching in primary and secondary schools in Jerusalem, returning to work in a start up environment in the UK after 12 years away, I have experienced the dissonance of feeling that my set of cultural norms and values, base knowledge and experiences, even my language and gestures are at odds with the norm. I have also been able to see the patchwork of cultural references and knowledge as useful in my survival toolkit in many situations.
My activism work with The BAMEed Network and lately the Haringey BAME Achievement Group, being Chair of governors at a Tottenham primary school and on a multi-academy trust board in Greenwich has also informed and fed my fascination with this notion of cultural capital.
Who are you?
Ask yourself: who am I? What do I bring to the table? Why? Where do I get it? What parts am I proud of? What parts are seen as valuable to others and why? Does this change depending on what context you are in at the time? Would you give a different set of responses to colleagues around the table at an INSET day compared with the one you might give to friends over a meal out or at a job interview?
What is cultural capital to you?
In schools we use this term freely, but do we know what it means and where it comes from? What do you think you bring in terms of your cultural capital to the students you teach? Have you built in anything around what they bring to you as a teacher?
What is cultural capital, actually?
In his “Cultural Reproduction and Social Reproduction” (1977), Pierre Bourdieu coined the term Cultural Capital. He was interested in French education system in the 1960s, which saw itself as purely meritocratic – the belief that offering the same opportunities to all students was the same as creating equal opportunities for all students. Bourdieu wanted to explore why, despite this, working class students consistently had worse outcomes than their more privileged peers. This led to his understanding that some students come with a set of culturally valued experiences and prior knowledge which give them access to the curriculum more readily.
The phrase cultural capital refers to the tastes, manners, skills and credentials that are sometimes earned, but more often received from your family environment, are particular to your social class and social interactions with others in daily life. If we accept the notion of cultural capital uncritically, we will be unable to see how inequality is created from the get-go. The cycle is such that if you have the ‘accepted’ cultural capital, you are more likely to have wealth, and if you are wealthy, you are more likely to have greater cultural capital.
According to Bourdieu, cultural capital manifests itself in a number of ways:
The Embodied State – this is the knowledge that is acquired consciously and inherited passively through socialisation, through our culture and tradition. It is not something that can be inherited like physical assets but it is certainly impressed on our character and way of thinking, which in turn leads us to seek out and become more open to similar cultural influences.
The Objectified State – this is how cultural capital manifests itself into material, physical objects such as property that are indicators of social class – for example the clothes you wear, the food you eat, your car, and which can also extend into the way you walk, stand, talk and so on.
The Institutionalised State – this is the way in which society measures social capital – for example doctoral degree has more perceived capital than a expertise in a handicraft or being streetwise. I can’t help wondering which one has more actual worth in time of need – being able to stay alive, or having a high degree of philosophical knowledge.
We know what is valued, but why?
This picture is a great example of differing cultural capital. To me, it is the sorting hat from the Harry Potter movies. To my partner, who although he has a PhD, is an associate professor at a London university, came to the UK in 2007 and therefore on sighting this in my presentation slides said “oh my, is that a pile of poo?” Our cultural capital differs on the matter of the sorting hat.
If I ask you to do a quick sorting activity, how would you rank the following?
Universities: The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Berlin University, Harvard, Exeter University, Oxford, Brighton University, Durham University
You can play this game and find out so much about how our minds work, what we are socialised to believe and how assumptions around cultural capital come into play. Trying this out on a room of over 100 teachers, I saw that they had no problem setting to work on the task. A few asked for more criteria but on the whole we generally agreed that the supermarkets could be ranked on a scale with Lidl and Aldi at one end of the scale and Waitrose at the other. Interestingly, if you compare the same basket of items from Lidl and Waitrose, the costs will be wildly different, but the actual quality and even source of many of the products will be identical or equal in comparison. Go figure.
The same with the university exercise. For many employers, overseas university equals assumed lower quality, unknown, impossible to perceive as valuable to the same degree as a UK one. Many people immigrating to this country with degrees in medicine, teaching, and so on, are told they need to re-qualify without any exploration of what they actually learned on their courses and whether this maps onto the requirements for the job. This can be further divided into racial assumptions – we are happy with teachers from Canada, Australia and New Zealand taking up teaching posts, but if your teaching degree is from Delhi, Cameroon or Nigeria, objections being raised are far more likely.
The Ofsted framework
The Ofsted framework states that no institution can be rated good unless its curriculum gives “all pupils, particularly disadvantaged pupils…the knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in life.”
The schools inspection handbook has linked cultural capital to the national curriculum, introduced by Michael Gove, in setting out “the essential knowledge pupils need to be educated citizens, introducing them to the best that has been thought and said”.
The best that has been thought and said. We are judged as schools on this. But do we really understand what it is, and what is the best that has been thought and said? This is a place to pause and think again about the uncritical engagement with the term and concept of cultural capital. This is especially vital as the new framework has such a clear focus on curriculum. We are going to have to make decisive value judgements about what is the best that has been thought and said. We are going to have to decide what the things are that every child should learn in our school, in each discipline, across the curriculum as a whole. We are going to have to decide what counts as ‘knowledge’. (If there was ever a time to start understanding the importance of decolonising the curriculum, it is now – more on this later).
Year 1 Acorns; Brer Rabbit tales; continents; English civil war; jungles; Machu Picchu; Mexico; AA Milne; musical pitch; Henry Moore
Year 2 Tap dancing; Louis Pasteur; rabies; mosques; Hansel and Gretel; Atlantic Ocean; extinct animals and fish; Great Wall of China; dinosaur bones; Roald Amundsen
I have so many questions. How do you define what is essential knowledge? Should you define and dictate what knowledge is before you start? What is culture and what is the cultural capital that is valuable to children in your school? Is your school’s culture different to another school’s culture? How do you define that? What is included and what is excluded? Who decides?
Things that personally slowly dawned on me as someone of Jewish heritage growing up in the UK were things like, ‘how come the only thing we learn about Jews is the Holocaust and Shakespeare’s Shylock?’ Later in life, my own cultural experience of this when compared with Israeli Jewish cultural representation was fascinating. The experience you have of your self-worth as a Jew in Israel is radically different to that of a child growing up Jewish in the UK secular school system. Many of my esteemed colleagues, my own partner and children, all of whom have immigrated to this country often share similar experiences of the dissonance between their learned self-worth and what self-worth they are now afforded by those around them.
Bourdieu’s work should help us to see that compulsory education was created as one big sorting hat, designed to divide along clear lines – sorting the workers from the owners of the means of production and those that are used as the means of production.
What do you notice from just these few topics listed as essential knowledge for children in the early years of their education? There are no women (unless you count Hansel’s sister Gretel of course). To me it seems like the memories of a very specific, white, middle class experience of a 1970s childhood. And who was a child in the 1970s? Well I was, and despite the free school meals status and Jewish heritage, much of this is deliciously familiar and often subtly useful. But more significant is that the people in power and determining education policy now are largely from white, middle class backgrounds firmly rooted in that era either as 1970s parents, 1970s children or the children of those that had 1970s middle class, white, childhoods.
Back to the sorting hat
Let’s relate this concept of cultural capital back to our education system as a whole. What has changed since the industrial revolution?
Let’s acknowledge again that our compulsory education system was designed to be a sorting hat channeling children to be either the owners of the means of production, or the workers earning the wealth for the ruling classes. Therefore, there had to be a dividing line. Not much has changed today. The British education system is the most divisive in the world. Thanks to the education reforms of the last decade, it is now the most fragmented in the world.
Cultural capital and wealth go hand in hand now as much as they did during the industrial revolution. The harsh truth is that 7% of children are privately educated and they hold 94% of all elite jobs (judges, CEOs of FTSE 100 companies, the cabinet). A person from an underprivileged background with a 1st from Oxbridge is not as likely to hold one of these elite jobs as someone who has any class of degree from any university and who is from a privileged background.
Even if we have thought through carefully what is the ‘right’ cultural capital to give our children so they have a fighting chance of the achieving the goals that we see as important to ‘success’, the part of cultural capital which we cannot give young people are networks, the sense of entitlement and the wealth that gives privileged young people a place at the front of the queue. More than this, without a critical examination of cultural capital, and the curriculum, we are constantly communicating to groups of young people that they are not entitled, that their cultural capital is neither culture nor capital. We do this through a myriad of ways.
With this in mind, let’s consider what we are portraying to students with some of favourite edu-lingo terminology. We often talk about these buzz words, alongside discussions about gaps for certain groups, cultural capital and curriculum, as if we know what they mean.
Aspiration – is this about financial wealth or is it about aspiring to have the embodied, objectified and institutional states that are deemed worthy?
Mini case- study: a headteacher at a school in coastal Essex told me it took him years to realise that they were labelling students as lacking in aspiration because they preferred to take on apprenticeships with their family members and stay in the same postcode than leave family, guaranteed work, property ownership, good quality of life and education for their children in exchange for a university degree, at a time of the highest post-graduate unemployment rates, £50k debt and isolation from support networks and family. There is no logic to selling this to young people, unless you absolutely believe that gaining the ruling classes’ cultural capital is worth such a huge gamble not only financially but also at the expense of your own cultural, social and societal values.
Social mobility – this goes hand in hand with aspiration and seems to mean moving away from and turning your back on where you’re from. You can see more about my thoughts on this in one of my first blog posts way back when here
Disengaged – what does this mean? Have you asked students themselves what they need? Do they feel valued as the people who are going to be running the show one day?
Mini case study one: People often get irritated with examples from Finland, so I will temper this with a UK one too! Young people I have heard speaking about their education in Finland see education as a great privilege and see their teachers as preparing them to be the rightful future leaders and shapers of tomorrow. The only time we seem to hear about young people in our country are the jumping-for-joy photographs on results day, derisory articles about them skipping school to moan about the environment, and polar opposite tropes of evil-gang-youth and a snowflake generation. Disengagement might just be a function of self-preservation with messages like these.
Mini case study two: Inspire Partnership MAT is a group of primary schools in areas of high deprivation in SE London and Kent. The Junior Leadership Team is a group of children of all ages that takes an active part in all aspects of school life. When I met them recently at one school in Medway, we heard about their work looking at feedback and marking across the school. They were able to identify a gap in consistency in one year group’s books and when investigated more closely, it transpired that this was a year group with newly qualified teachers – they realised that these teachers needed a bit more support from the senior leadership team to ensure that the children had more effective feedback and marking. How great is that for showing the children their worth, engaging them and ensuring that they not only are heard, but also understand the intricacies of learning and teaching in its wider context.
Context – No education takes place without context. We desperately need to decolonise our curriculum. We need to question Black History Month vs history which includes Black history in this country every day. I would also add that while it is of course important for children from diverse backgrounds to see themselves in the curriculum and in the teaching staff, it is vital for white children to see people of colour as holders of power and influence lest we believe the pervading post-colonialist narrative of what is commonly accepted as “the essential knowledge pupils need to be educated citizens, introducing them to the best that has been thought and said”.
The value of education – That Essex case study says it all. We do need more critical thinking skills from an early age though, rather than leaping straight to more vocational education as the answer to the students who we see as not understanding “the value of education” as it is first served up to them. We can revisit the streetwise vs. PhD question here again too – which one is more likely to keep you alive? Teenagers always ask how will what I’m learning help me in life? Do we ever discuss with children why they are learning what they learn?
Parental engagement – this is another favourite term when we are thinking about cultural capital and “closing gaps”. There are some really crude assumptions made around how parents engage in and therefore we assume, value, their children’s education.
Mini case study: A headteacher of school with 98% Bengali parents once gave a fascinating case study at a NCSL conference that I will never forget. He explained that he and staff were tearing their hair out trying to get parents into the school. It was only when he actually spoke to students about their families, that he understood that their parents would never speak directly to a teacher as this was seen as disrespectful and interfering. They trusted the teachers to educate their children. The bridging from assumptions and cultural bias took a long time, involved careful dialogue, and ensuring that a more suitable method of interaction and involvement was pursued. The headteacher set up an internet cafe at the weekends, where parents could come in and see what their children had been up to via a parent-school communication platform that many schools use to engage parents that are working or otherwise unable to come into school frequently.
Role models – Again, schools often only start thinking about this when we have “students from visibly diverse backgrounds”. But have you considered carefully who are the role models among your staff, the texts you use, your library books, the pictures on the walls. To put it blandly, does your science lab feature all white men on posters? Are all your senior leaders and decision makers from the same kind of background?
It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it
Policies aren’t just pieces of paper – What is valued as cultural capital is communicated beyond the curriculum and it’s important to consider what your policies actually communicate. For example, “extreme hair” policies often class Black children’s hair as extreme for just the way it grows out of their heads. Think carefully about blanket bans on certain styles and cuts or more subtle expectations about what ‘professional’ looks like for staff.
If you have considered what your staff team looks like and discovered that all the powerful positions taken up by white middle class men, do you need to revisit your recruitment policies?
Decolonise the curriculum – We need to go beyond the ‘dead white men’ curriculum choices but also be wary of falling into the trap of thinking you have diversity nailed without seeing that all the diverse texts you have chosen feature people of colour as oppressed, weak, underdogs, deviants or exotic for example.
When and how do you engage with parents? Look carefully at the assumptions you make about so called disengaged parents. Please assume this: ALL parents want the BEST for their children. No-one wants their child to fail or have a bad time at school.
Do you ask parents (and students) what they want, when and how? I have sat through so many parents evenings that are full of acronyms and edu-speak that even to me as an educationalist are impenetrable and serve to distance me from feeling included. For most of us parents, we are happy to trust you with the education of our children if you can respond positively and honestly to the question, “Do you like my child? Do you see their potential?”
Supplementary schools – You can’t do everything, especially in our over-scheduled school day, but one clear way to value cultural capital that is broader than the scope of what school can offer, is to give space, time and honour to typically marginalised experiences by inviting supplementary schools to operate on your premises after hours as part of the educational offer. The knock-on effect can be incredible for your students’ feeling of self-worth, engagement and celebration of cultural capital.
What’s your strategy? You have to be strategic. Do you have an achievement strategy that is about what YOU are going to change and not about interventions that extend the child’s already extended day? You can see a good example in the Haringey BAME achievement strategy
Over to you
Cultural capital is “the cultural knowledge that serves as currency that helps us navigate culture and alters our experiences and the opportunities available to us”.
What can you take away from this? What will you do next?
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.
This toolkit is designed to be a starting point for event organisers. Whether you are part of a grassroots organisation putting together an event as a volunteer, or if you work for an organisation where this is part of your paid work, you will want to ensure that your event is high quality, represents the people and the issues that are important to the sector you serve, and that you are not consciously or unconsciously doing things that may perpetuate a narrow view of the world or that may exclude voices from typically marginalised groups being included in the programme. Similarly, if you are asked to speak at a conference or to take part on a panel, there are proactive things you can do to ensure that you are part of the solution and not part of the problem. Intentions are important, but outcomes are what matter most.
The toolkit will comprise of the following parts:
Detailed challenge and support around the likely issues you will need to consider and overcome when organising an event
A short checklist summarising the actions you might take to support your event and with space for you to set out your next steps
Reading and resources to support further thinking and learning
A flowchart designed to help map out things you will need to consider (This is still work in progress and will be included here as soon as it is ready)
Challenge and support
This section will feature some of the questions you may ask, may be asked by others, and some possible responses or things to consider. There are also links to further reading and where appropriate, data and evidence to support the responses.
Why is it necessary to be inclusive and have representation?
At a time when the UK ranks 57th in the world in terms of women’s representation, men outnumber women 4 to 1 in parliament, Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) school leadership is at around 3%, and government cuts mean that disabled and marginalised voices are even harder to hear, it’s only right that we celebrate diversity to create a more inclusive, representative and inspiring events programme in the education sector.
We live in a diverse country and we serve increasingly diverse student populations in our schools. We also live in a diverse, global world, and should be integrating a range of voices in our events, regardless of the population we serve locally.
If you are looking for high-quality and stimulating content for your event, you will need a wide range of voices. Research by McKinsey and Company shows that having diverse voices in your organisation is great for productivity, creativity and decision-making. It creates diversity of thought and action, which is a goal any education event should be seeking to work towards in order to cater for a diverse range of attendees working in a variety of contexts.
What does diversity of thought and action mean?
This means that although it may feel comfortable working with people who are like you, you will achieve more if you work with a group of people who have had different experiences from each other, especially in terms of their socio-economic background, their race, gender, education and political outlook. If we all look, sound and think the same, and have had broadly similar experiences, we may be operating under the false assumption that this is what reality looks like for everyone. We will also be in danger of recycling the same old ideas and action; perpetuating our existing biases and remaining unaware of the blind spots in our thinking and action. Please watch this animated explanation by the Royal Society.
Thinking the best person for the job happens to be a white man
“If you only play football with the same ten people, your idea about who the good footballers are, will be limited.” Amjad Ali
This is not an easy one to summarise in short, but there is a vicious cycle which can make people think that white men are the best voice of authority on many if not most matters. We are conditioned to think that white men are the best fit when it comes to speaking authoritatively, because we are accustomed to seeing white men speaking authoritatively. This means that there will also be a larger number of white men who are authorities on a subject and are well-known, as they are the ones that have been given legitimation as voices of authority. We need to break this cycle so we don’t only draw on this narrow pool of people. This means it is crucial to look beyond those that have been used a lot at events and start to promote a more diverse range of voices, that may be unfamiliar to you. You may even need to be brave and choose someone who may be for now less famous, and yet really knows their stuff.
When is it tokenistic?
It would be tokenistic to choose someone onlybecause they are from an ethnic minority group (or global majority, which is more accurate terminology) and/or a woman, for example. It would also be tokenistic to choose someone to talk about a subject they are not an expert on, or who is not a good public speaker, or not qualified for the job because they are Black and you need to fill a quota. This would also be counter-productive, as if they were less than convincing, the vicious cycle is further reinforced by doing this.
What does balance look like?
Balance means intentionally and purposely looking for a range of opinions, as well as a range of routes to getting to a certain opinion. It means thinking creatively about who is speaking and what they are speaking about. Because the accepted norm for authority is typically a white man, you will want to challenge that and think carefully about how to include a range of voices that are not only white men.
Balance also means what is on the programme, not just who
Thinking about balance and diversity means considering the programme contents as well as the people who speak on stage. Therefore, you may need to think carefully, do some research or ask/seekout a critical friend to help you consider how to widen your perspectives when planning the programme. For example, if your event is about curriculum design, have you included something around decolonising the curriculum? Are all your curriculum examples from a traditionally white canon? If your event is about recruitment and retention, have you included something about women, people of colour, disability, parents, flexibility, class, age, and so on?
Ensure people from diverse backgrounds are included as experts
“Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance!” Verna Myers
Balance also means ensuring that you have diverse voices speaking about issues that they have expertise in within the education sector, and not (just) being asked to speak about their identities. This means that you will not want to annexe people into talking only about their race, gender or other marginalised aspects of their person, unless your event directly deals with these issues and/or these are their explicitly stated areas of interest, experience and expertise. A Black man or a visibly orthodox Jewish woman should be able to be seen as an expert in curriculum design or data analysis if that is their field of expertise.
Quota systems to explain why your event is all-white doesn’t work either
Ensuring people from diverse backgrounds are seen doesn’t mean that they should only be seen in areas where schools typically serve diverse student populations.
Saying that your event is taking place in an area of the country which doesn’t serve a diverse population and/or that there are no diverse teachers in that area is not acceptable. People can and do travel if necessary. Representation doesn’t mean an exact science of like for like. It is about a range of voices. It would, in fact, be sensible to be even more committed to diverse representation in an area where this isn’t seen much, as we are prone to the white man bias described above unless we actively disrupt this and provide more variety of voices and views.
How do we reach diverse people if we don’t know any?
You may find that your social, professional and social media circle doesn’t include people that are from diverse backgrounds. Aside from the fact that this should indicate to you that you need to broaden your own echo chamber of professional acquaintance, there are ways that you can get help to find speakers if you are not familiar with anyone outside of your own narrow pool.
Organisations like the teacher unions, universities, local networks of schools, The Equalities Trust, the Runnymede Trust, the BAMEed Network, WomenEd, DisabilityEd, LGBTEd can help.
The BAMEed Network has a page on its website with a list of diverse speakers on a range of topics https://www.bameednetwork.com/speakers/ for example, specifically for the purpose of making it easier for people to find who they need.
The BAMEed Network, LGBTed, and WomenEd are planning to work together to create a directory of credible leaders, speakers and experts that can be called upon – or at the very least, link to each other’s websites once these directories are up and running on LGBTed and WomenEd websites. It would be good to work with DisabilityEd on this too.
How do we ask people to take part in a way that doesn’t feel awkward?
As mentioned earlier, be clear on what you want people to talk about and make sure you know what their expertise is. If you don’t know, ask them first to tell you what their expertise is, and what they would be best speaking about. Tell them about your event and ask if they see themselves as someone who would be happy to speak at it, should there be an opportunity to do so.
A woman from an ethnic minority background who is an expert on leadership development, being asked to speak about curriculum makes her know that you want her for her colour, not her expertise. This is tokenistic and insulting.
“We’re a grassroots organisation and don’t have time to organise ourselves like this”
There is only one response to this. If you can’t do it well, don’t do it at all. There are plenty of grassroots organisations that are run by people who work full time in other jobs and have families, studies, and other volunteer roles on top. Their commitment to doing it well is not compromised by this and there are many other grassroots organisations that will be keen to support yours to get it right. In the words of Spiderman, “with power comes great responsibility” and as a conference organiser, whether you recognise it or not, you have great power.
“We ask people to volunteer themselves so we can’t control who comes forward”
Again, taking into account the fact that your own circle of acquaintance might be skewed towards a certain demographic, this is problematic as the only way to recruit speakers. Think of other ways to reach deeper into schools and other institutions – perhaps create a poster or flyer on a document that can be shared, printed and put in staff rooms across the country. Reach out to large organisations to help you circulate these either by email or in their newsletters to their members e.g. the unions, Ambition Institute, Chartered College of Teaching, Teaching School Alliances, WomenEd, BAMEed Network, Challenge Partners, Teach First and so on. For help with this, please get in touch, or contact The BAMEed Network who will be happy to connect you and support you with your strategy on this.
Think also about where you advertise the event. Getting beyond Twitter can be tricky for some, but using Linked In, Facebook and even Instagram can be excellent quick ways to still use social media platforms, but widen the pool of people that will see your call for speakers. If you use a platform like Eventbrite, this will also ensure that people find your event.
Widen your network and start with an ‘over-subscription’ of diverse people
The most commonly-heard excuse for events that have all-male or all-white speakers is “we had a woman/person of colour on one of the panels but s/he dropped out at the last minute”
What would happen if you started building your speaker preference list and started with an ‘over-subscription’ of people from typically underrepresented groups? Try it, and see that this will help you to stay diverse throughout the planning and execution of your event.
Attracting a diverse audience is important
“You can’t be what you can’t see” (Marian Wright Edelman)
Having a diverse range of speakers on the programme may boost the number of people from marginalised groups that attend your event. However, many events in the education sector, especially those aimed at leadership, will see few people from BAME backgrounds in attendance. There can be reasons why this may occur, and there are a few things you can do to ensure that it doesn’t happen at your event.
The cost of tickets and getting away from school can be factors for some people from BAME backgrounds, especially if you consider that these will be the people who are less likely to be progressing into the higher paid and more autonomous roles that allow event attendance. You may wish to offer a travel subsidy or early bird rate for people to take advantage of should they wish to attend but find it financially difficult. There is no shame in offering a bursary for early career teachers or aspiring leaders from BAME backgrounds and/or other marginalised groups alongside your statement around commitment to diversity and inclusion. Some people feel uncomfortable about the prospect of being the only person of colour in a roomful of people that they don’t know, so group discounts or two for one offers are also useful so that a delegate can extend the invitation to a colleague they feel comfortable with.
You have responsibility if you are taking part in a conference as a speaker
If you are asked to speak at an event, to facilitate a workshop or be on a panel, you also have a responsibility to ensure broad and balanced content and representation. I will repeat that, as this may be an alien concept to many people on the speaking circuit: you too are responsible for the diversity of speakers at an event if you are invited to speak at it. Even if it’s not your event, you don’t know the organisers and you were just asked to take part, you can and should take responsibility for the diversity of voices included if you agree for your voice to be one of them.
When you are approached, you can ask “I’m interested to know a little more about your event, who else is speaking, how did you come to ask me?” There is a growing number of white men who do this and will decline to speak as a white man on an agenda full of white men. They will of course do this cordially, and will offer solutions and suggestions of other people. This can be hard to do if you would quite fancy speaking at the particular event, and if you would like to get some exposure for yourself. But this is also an active commitment to anti-sexist and anti-racist activism that is powerful and effective. Chances are also, that you will get to speak after all since your suggestions will have helped the organisers to create a better balance and your presence isn’t going to be part of an identical line up now.
What if we can’t afford to pay people? “I asked a Black woman and they asked for payment, when other speakers are doing it for free” is something we have heard.
There is a complex system of privilege in place in society which means that in some cases, a senior, white, man, may be able to generously give their time to speak at your event for free. Many women and people of colour may find themselves less able to give of their professional expertise free, without personal financial sacrifice, and in some cases, that includes having to pay not only for travel, but also fees to carers for dependants while they travel to and take part in your event. In many cases, a man may not be expected to take on these roles and will be freer to use their time as they wish. They are also more likely to be on a higher pay scale, as white men tend to reach leadership positions with greater ease and more frequently, which affords them the luxury of giving their time for free. You only have to look at the data on gender and race pay gaps to understand why this is fact.
Grassroots conferences and how to pay your speakers’ travel costs
There are ways to ensure that you can at least pay travel costs for your speakers.
The first way is to charge attendees a minimal fee for attendance and explain that this covers speakers and refreshments. There is a direct correlation between attendance numbers and charging, which is good for your event as well. When people pay, they show up. And if they pay and don’t show up, they have at least helped cover the costs of your event and the travel costs of your speakers so it is win-win – see above section ‘Attracting a diverse audience is important’ for suggestions on scaled costs to allow for a diverse range of attendees
Ask for donations from local or national organisations – consider your local university, the TES, or a local business that would like to see their branding on your event page acknowledging their support
Have some professional exhibition stands and ask for a fee from them. If you get 5 stands all paying £300 to have a few minutes with your attendees that visit them, that can cover travel costs for a good number of speakers. This doesn’t have to bring down the tone of your event – quite the opposite, a useful interaction with an organisation that can help your attendees is an added bonus to attending the event. If you need help getting a list of potential exhibitors, please email email@example.com or consider using Innovate my School to deliver a speed dating session at your event, that they will usually organise themselves and which will fund your event nicely
Crowd-funding is an option. Explain what you want to achieve and why you want to repay your speakers for their time. You never know, you might get more than you need to put on a fabulous event
Committing beyond cosmetics Gold standard event management includes the way that you treat your speakers, including how you brief them for their part in the event. How you prepare your speakers, panel members and workshop facilitators so there is a level playing field of experience on the day is extremely important. You should try to let them know what to expect in as much detail as you can, as well as who will be there, with a view to breaking down class and culture barriers. There is nothing worse than showing up, not knowing that there is a dress code, or that lunch is not included and you have no cash with you and so on. You can cover this by issuing a one page outline of what to expect specifically for speakers and panel members.
A word on panels
A good panel session will be dynamic, may have people chosen for their deliberately opposing views, and may have some controversial or even provocative elements. However, be very careful about setting people up for humiliation, or failure, or pitting people against each other in a way that is unfair. Ensure that panel members know what is going to be discussed, who the other panel members are, and who the chair will be. And again, make sure all participants are briefed well, and have an opportunity to accept or decline your invitation in good time. Although it may lead to lively debate and good entertainment for your audience, you need to avoid a discussion which compounds stereotypes, marginalises already marginalised people and so on. As above, don’t ever invite someone from a marginalised group to represent that group unless that is what they want to do, but do include a diverse range of voices who are experts in their field. You can read more about one panellist’s experience here
This Saturday, I was fortunate enough to attend the Portobello Festival of Learning in Edinburgh. I am writing this while the train home carries me hurtling through green fields and northern cities, with a feeling I haven’t had for quite some time. It’s a mixture of deep pain and uplifting joy, both are the direct result of feeling connected to a shared narrative experience. The golden thread running through the event was around storytelling and narratives as pivotal not only to learning but to the human connection which makes learning sticky, memorable and even a deeply happy experience. Nina Jackson’s incredible hour-long keynote was as harrowing as it was hopeful. Like a phoenix from the flames, she took us deep into the fire of her experience in childhood and early adulthood and right through to the colourful and whole person she is today. The intensity of 300 pairs of eyes tracking her glide around the centre stage was visceral. Her ability to tell her story, to elicit gasps, laughs, to have us leaning in and then recoiling again, was phenomenal. Her pulling together the themes, tying them into clear strands and using minimal visual inputs at carefully timed intervals was clearly craftwork.
When I refer to storytelling and narratives as a tool for learning, it is clear to me that this is not just about teachers telling stories that make learning happen in the classroom, although the inimitable Hywel Roberts’ session definitely reminded me the power of a carefully prepared narrative containing dramatic development, coupled with a deep understanding of sound pedagogy, to activate the senses and make engaging learning take place. As he led us through some of the methodology he uses in the classroom with teachers and children alike, I had a physically and emotionally intense response to the suspense and drama he created. The group was positively bristling with excitement and childlike willingness to enter into an adventure with him. We mustn’t forget as teachers that our ability to facilitate learning in others is most powerful when coupled with our own commitment to lifelong learning as a human being. Part of this learning means seeking out the human stories of those around us, so that we can expand our view of the world, the possibilities and similarities and differences. Prior knowledge means that we have anchors and reference points to draw on, but alongside this is also the fact that what we often class as prior knowledge is often deeply flawed, contextually irrelevant or even just plain learned bias. Lyfta’s workshop took participants on a journey to immersive storyworlds with embedded human documentary stories. Opening the session, Serdar Ferit started with the fascinating contextual framing that led to the Lyfta concept being born. Guiding the group around the storyworlds Lyfta has created, and before playing each human story documentary, he asked, “what can you say about what you can see, and how do you know?” We’re all willingly sharing our assumptions as our eyes scan an Ethiopian village, a Palestinian family living room, a Finnish ballet studio and we hazard a guess, only to be gently redirected as we watch the short film that follows, and as we listen to real human beings telling us their story. By the end of the session, teachers in the room spoke of what sounded to my ears like a renewed commitment to treat what we have learned with the challenge it rightfully deserves. One of the powerful yet simple learnings I have gained from reading about race and class in recent years is the toxic nature of the presumed innocent question we often ask people we meet, which is along the lines of “where are you from?” or “what do you do?” This can be loaded with racially stereotypical and classist connotations and assumptions. One way around this, which is also faithful to the importance of storytelling and narratives is to ask “what’s your story?” – giving people the opportunity to respond in as narrow, wide, personal or generalised way as is fitting for their own contextualised narrative journey of the current moment.
Paul Dix reminded us of the importance as educators to lead on the co-creation and at times to own the narrative for our young charges. The simple process of reframing the narrative can diffuse potentially disruptive situations in the classroom. He laid out carefully why we as adults need to be clear on our part in the story that is unfolding right there in our own classroom. We may need to retell the story to include perhaps a historical context that allows a potentially volatile young person to rewrite the story in real time. Instead of entering into a battle of wills, trying to get a child back on task, you can say for example, gently but with conviction, “remember last week you helped me clear up when the lesson was finished, and you stayed behind to make sure everything was in place? That’s the person I know, and that’s the person I want to see here now”. This reminds the young person that this positive element is still part of their story, and is included in the whole story. Paul used dramatic demonstration and emotionally engaging dialogue to help us understand that as responsible adults, we can reframe, redirect and take charge of the narrative so that behaviour is guided back on track leaving both your and the student’s dignity and self-respect in tact.
Aside from learning about others through taking an interest in their narrative and on their own terms, is the important work of learning to connect with our own narratives. By this I don’t mean to endlessly hone the story we tell others about ourselves, which we often defensively beaver away at to show ourselves in the best light. Learning one’s own narrative means being able to zoom in and out, and as we gain greater perspective and distance, weaving in the contextual, socio-historical backdrop to give more rich and layered meaning to our own pinhole camera view. Parts of the day were personally resonant, and therefore profoundly painful for me and I’m sure many people in the room. But I know that I am also increasingly able to understand my own childhood experiences firmly within the political backdrop of Britain at that time. I contextualise my parents’ decisions and behaviours that led to some serious negative outcomes for their children within their class-based economic constraints, educational achievements and resulting restricted opportunity, and the contemporary gender role expectations – as well as the commonly-held beliefs about childhood of the time. This helps to ensure the story I tell is iterative and nuanced, based on my own emotional growth and psychological bandwidth to zoom out from the pure hurt to an external packaging which humanises the chain of events without betraying my own experience.
Whatever our narrative, and however we weave storytelling into our professional, pedagogical and personal life, perhaps we all need Nina Jackson’s reminder of the Japanese practice of Kintsugi – repairing broken ceramics with gold. Kintsugi wisdom says rather than disguising the broken pieces, you recognise the story of the object and visibly incorporate the repair into it, while outlining the places which are whole and in tact. By outlining the places that broke us, or where the story changed, we can also remember the beauty of the process of retelling and rebuilding that resulted in who we are now.