Exam periods are not only a source of stress for young people, but how your teen responds can set the mood for the whole household. During the pandemic, my kids were working towards their GCSEs and A Levels respectively, only to have them replaced by teacher assessed grades. This year, while one is coming towards the end of her second year at university, the other child is preparing for A Levels. Of course, for their school cohort, these will be their first public exams and the stakes feel higher than usual.
As a parent, here are some ways you can help your child during this seminal moment:
Remember, their experience is gospel
As parents, we have the benefit of hindsight, but if there’s something I have had drummed into me by my children, validating their experiences is the most supportive thing you can do. Even if you know this too will pass, understanding that the first few times you experience something, it feels huge and you need to be allowed to fully feel whatever it is that you feel. This is why for example young people report as the most lonely of any age group – when you get to my age, you know what periods of loneliness and isolation feel like, and you know what you can do to mitigate them. But to young people, this is a terrible new sensation and it can feel like this will be the rest of your life! Yes, it can be reassuring to have a parent tell you that in the grand scheme of things, things will be okay, but there are ways to do this without dismissing their real feelings of anxiety, doom, panic, comparison with peers and a lack of self-confidence. Think: what can you say that reflects back what they feel and also reassures them? Consider asking your child what they would find reassuring and then say that.
Ask what they need
Giving advice and helping with exam preparation practicalities can be brilliant, but only if they are receptive at the time that you give advice. Also, what worked for you, back in ancient times, may not feel relevant or helpful. So ask them first what they need right now. Perhaps you can suggest that when they feel ready, you can help them plan a realistic revision timetable, or maybe they would like some help with devising revision techniques, or maybe to join you on a trip to buy some nice flash cards, coloured pens and other stationery to help get prepared. Give them a written list of things you could help them with and let them know exact times of the day, evening and weekends when you will be available to help. When they are ready, they can book you in for whatever it is that they want your support with.
Feed and water them
It sounds obvious, but making sure that your child is eating well and is hydrated makes revision go more smoothly and can help keep them well throughout the exam period. Healthy snacks and drinks can help with concentration and staying power, and can also make your child associate pleasure with learning. If I see my child working hard, I will bring them a nice pint glass with a drink, some ice and a straw, a plate of chopped fruits, and a handful of nuts and quietly slide them into view by way of quietly saying “I see you, and applaud your efforts”. If I’m on my way home from work, I might pick up something they particularly like as a treat and surprise them as a reward for keeping on track with their work or as a commiseration if things aren’t going too well.
Go there, even if it feels counterintuitive
Young people can feel immense pressure to perform and aim for high grades. They can also be extremely fearful of failure and of disappointing their teachers and family. Dismissing this as nonsense or adding to the stress by nagging or pushing them to work harder are never good strategies. In my household we say, ‘Let’s go there and see how it feels’. By this I mean, we will talk through what the options are in different scenarios. ‘You don’t make the grades you need for your next step, what are your options? Can you appeal? Can you re-take? Are there other pathways that interest you?’
Having a plan B is important, and visualising yourself having not made the grade but still having options is empowering too. Allowing your child to imagine the feelings of shame, disappointment, upset and jealousy of peers who have aced their exams in a safe space as just one option, is cathartic. It is also an opportunity for you to show that you will walk with them, whatever happens.
Collective social responsibility
Remember that your child is not alone in their efforts to study and reach their goals. Their friends will be having their own experiences and homelife dynamics. Create a collaborative study space and invite them to host study sessions as a group, or perhaps they can all go and work together at the library nearby. Remind them of the advantages of working together, preparing revision materials and testing each other as well as the fact that not every child has a space at home to study. Modelling to your child the collective social responsibility we have, empathy for others and the benefits of social interaction rather than competitive self-absorption is crucial, especially in an often individualistic society.
There are so many wonderful technology tricks and apps that are readily available and either free or that the school will subscribe to:
Plan a realistic revision timetable using the calendar attached to your child’s school email account, or if you have Gmail, set up a shared one so you can help them stay motivated and make sure they build in breaks, time with friends and rest time. You can also use software like Notion or Trello and create a basic project plan or a to-do list with Todoist. My favourite is Asana, not least because you get galloping unicorns if you complete a string of tasks!
Digital flashcards apps like Quizlet are great for revision. You can also find lots of revision sets already created that you can adapt. Children in the same class can make the workload manageable if they divide up different topics and create shared revision sets for all to benefit from.
Online learning platforms, lessons and explainers are things that some schools will subscribe to like Hegarty Maths for example. But there is a lot that is free and publicly available. If your child is confused by something or perhaps missed the class when that topic was being taught, catching up online can be a great relief.
Timers setting an alarm to start and finish a revision session is a good idea. Taking breaks and building in down time can all be managed on a smart phone.
Background sounds using apps like Spotify for music can help. You can download pre-made study music or create your own playlist. There are apps like Rain Rain with a huge range of white noise from crackling fires, to freight trains or waterfalls which can really help with concentration and mood. These can be useful for helping wind down before bed or if your child experiences anxiety-related sleep disturbance and needs soothing in the night.
Stop motion video might sound bizarre but one of my children uses this as a motivator. They will film themselves studying on stop-motion or slow mode and then it creates a speeded up short version later. The longer they study, the more satisfying the video as you see, perhaps the sun go down in the background, or people passing by through the window and so on. Even though she’s a young adult and manages her own time away from home, we occasionally receive one of these via WhatsApp and it’s a nice way to elicit coos of encouragement from her parents and sibling.
The final advice is take care of yourself too. As a parent, you need to be rested, calm, centred and present during this challenging time so build in space for your own nutrition, exercise, off-loading onto listening ears outside the home and so on. And take your own advice, when the going gets tough know that this too will pass!
For the second time in a year, we are seeing headlines claiming that English schools must not teach white privilege as fact. The first time was by the then minister for women and equalities, Kemi Badenoch, who decided to bring this up in a House of Commons debate on Black History Month. As if by magic, during Black History Month this year, the new education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, has again repeated this warning, following a report by the Commons education committee.
What is white privilege?
To be clear, white privilege is a term used to mean the multiple social advantages, benefits and courtesies that come with being a member of the dominant race. It is not rocket science.
Looking at the historical and contemporary ways that white people can be privileged above people of colour is actually a tool for understanding the persistence of racial inequality in the UK and elsewhere. White privilege draws attention to the fact that we don’t live in a post-racial society, we live in a world where huge, tangible inequalities between white and Black and other ethnically/racially minoritised communities exist.
Let’s think about it in a different way – it is a fact that men have privileges which are not afforded to women, because our society does not yet treat men and women equally. Take a simple thing like walking home at night. Most men feel able to do this without thinking twice. My daughter’s male friends, in acknowledgement of their male privilege, walk her and their other female friends home after a night out. Until we end the structural and systemic inequalities that lead to violence against women being an every-day occurrence, we can say uncontested that men have privilege. This is not a divisive stance and does not undermine the cohesion of men and women.
If it’s easier to conceptualise, think about a different marginalised group, disabled people. Most public and domestic spaces are structured in such a way that it makes it more difficult, and sometimes impossible, for people with disabilities to access them. This is called being ableist. Can you acknowledge that it would be a good thing if we make the world more accessible for all? Does it hurt you to acknowledge that as an able-bodied person, you have privilege when going about your daily business? You don’t have to think about how you will do things differently. You won’t have to build in more time (going the long way around because there aren’t lifts in the station near your workplace), spend more money (taking a taxi because there are no accessible stations near your workplace), and so on. Acknowledging your advantage as a person who is not disabled is not a divisive stance and does not undermine the cohesion of disabled and non disabled people.
In a similar way, our society is set up for, and operates to the advantage of white people as the dominant group. The evidence for systemic inequality is undeniable – look at educational outcomes, employment, health, pay gaps and there it is. Clear as day. Whether you think it is because people of colour are treated as somehow inherently less intelligent, less employable, genetically prone to ill-health, deserve to be paid less, or if it is due to inequities baked in at every level of society creating the equivalent of ‘having to go the long way round’, both are clear evidence that white people in England have a level of privilege. This is not a divisive stance and does not undermine the cohesion of people of colour and white people in our country.
Acknowledging your white privilege doesn’t make you racist, and neither does denying it exists or trying to be colour-blind make you not racist. White privilege is not a political standpoint. Acknowledging white privilege doesn’t make people of colour feel inferior. It doesn’t even have to be a sensitive and complex issue, just as wanting greater equity for women, and for people with a disability doesn’t need to be politically, personally or legally contentious. It is not divisive and nor does it undermine the cohesion of a school or a country to educate other people on these as facts.
How is learning about white privilege harmful to white working class children?
It is important also to understand that privilege is always relative. Rather than suggesting that white people face no challenges, white privilege highlights how a group of people are (and can be) affected by discrimination and disadvantage. Disadvantage and discrimination can be intersectional – which takes account of people’s overlapping identities and experiences in order to understand the complexity of prejudices they face. In other words, your disadvantage as a disabled woman will be experienced differently than if you were an able-bodied woman. Disadvantaged white children have white privilege in that their race will not be a factor that contributes to their life challenges in addition to other challenges they face around a lack of economic wealth. They will not face racism as part of their disadvantage. Recognising that some communities can be disadvantaged due to their racially/ethnically minoritised backgrounds doesn’t deny the economic and social inequalities faced by communities from all racial backgrounds. Children who are on Free School Meals have lower attainment levels compared to those from wealthier families, whatever their heritage. To say that white children on free school meals have white privilege shouldn’t be conflated with saying that they don’t feel the impact of their disadvantaged economic situation.
Narrowing the focus on the disadvantages white people face versus all other racial groups reverses decades-long efforts to close the attainment gap. But it also is a symptom of the coalition, and subsequent Conservative, governments’ lack of attention to race as an indicator for mobility in education and the labour market. In fact, this current government seems to be doubling down on its efforts to take race off the table as a contributory factor in education or society. The widely condemned Sewell Report went so far as to claim not to be able to find any evidence of structural racism in Britain today.
How might teachers be breaking the law?
Both announcements by the DfE regarding white privilege stated that schools teaching the concept as uncontested fact could be breaking the law, and this might also be a breach of the Equality Act 2010. The government’s report looked at the poor educational outcomes for white British pupils eligible for free school meals. It saw the reason for this as due to ‘persistent multigenerational disadvantage, regional underinvestment and disengagement from the curriculum’. One has to ask oneself how schools will have created the former two reasons without the decades-long government policy which has impacted directly on families, pushing them further into poverty – a staggering one third of children live in poverty in the UK. These same policies have loaded more of the responsibilities of social care onto schools by cutting social services, mental health support, early years provision and youth services while also squeezing school budgets. Let’s not forget that government also mandated a national curriculum to schools, which now seems to have led to disengagement by some pupils. Pointing the finger at teachers for these issues, and their supposed indoctrination of children with concepts such as white privilege is at best misguided, and at worst, it is divisive and undermines the cohesion of a school and our country.
White privilege, with knowledge, white resistance
There is a strong community of white people within the education sector and beyond, who make it their business to not only acknowledge their white privilege, but to ensure that they are equipping themselves with the knowledge to resist attempts to undermine efforts to build a more equitable education system and society for all.
If you want to learn more about any of the concepts mentioned here, here’s some good places you can go:
The BAMEed Network has local area groups which you can join for more discussion and support.
It is clear that there is an acute and snowballing issue around recruitment and retention of staff in our schools’ workforce. Schools are considering many proposed solutions, including promises to reduce workload, challenging the traditional reticence around flexible working practices and job shares, and the DfE has even launched a jobs board platform aimed at reducing the costs for recruitment that are often crippling for schools. Successive education secretaries have declared that far more teachers from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds are needed in schools to be role models for their pupils. Since the recent brutal killing of George Floyd, and the subsequent soul searching that seems to have happened for many white people around their relationship with the structures and systems which impact on Black people’s life chances, the BAMEed Network has seen a flood of requests from schools and multi-academy trusts asking for support to diversify their workforce.
Teachers from BAME backgrounds have been marginalised in a system that seems to have changed little since the 1980s, back when theSwann report identified that ethnic minorities were underrepresented in teaching. Research since has confirmed that BAME educators are consistently the victims of systemic racism, which sees them overlooked for promotion and undermined. This is enacted not only through policy and practice around curriculum design, recruitment and performance management, but also through daily examples of microaggressions and behaviours from their colleagues – all of which serve to discredit them as teachers and leaders. We are all becoming familiar with the term “unconscious bias” to try to explain why this might happen, but we have seemed less committed to finding ways to seek out and cull the practices which perpetuate this bias. Structures of disadvantage in education are untouched and continue to perpetuate stereotypes of ethnic groups. Saying it is “unconscious” has proved to even give us an excuse that it may not be within our power to change. This is, of course, a damaging fallacy. Acknowledging the forces of socialisation can be a start to bringing the seemingly unconscious into the conscious domain and ensuring that the outcomes of our behaviour and actions, policies and practices are not damaging.
Why recruit for diversity? It may seem obvious especially now, but it is surprising how many schools and other organisations are still not clear on the reasons for their own commitment to diversity. Many colleagues believe in the mantra “we just recruit the best person for the job” and won’t question why those so-called best people all seem to look and sound the same. While we must always recruit the best person for the job, in doing so we are often blind to our own inherently biased perception of what that person looks and sounds like, what background and experience they should have had, and rule out the best person not for lack of skills and experience, but for other, more insidious reasons that are masked by seemingly innocent statements like “team fit” or “team culture”. The bottom line is, that if your team is not diverse in its make up, you most likely have not recruited the best person for the job. Excellent recruitment practice will naturally lead to a diverse range of backgrounds, experiences, styles, perspectives, opinions and so on, and that can’t possibly mean a cookie cutter version of the same person. A word of warning here, no-one wants to be recruited for the colour of their skin, their gender or sexuality to fulfil a Top Trumps spectrum of perceived diversities that look good. However, just as addressing the bias that holds women back in the workplace shouldn’t be left exclusively to women to champion and work towards, so too must colleagues, school leaders and system leaders from all backgrounds educate themselves around the unnecessary barriers that face their marginalised counterparts. It is the recruitment practice, coupled with a commitment by the organisation to learn, iterate and change that practice that will lead to recruiting and retaining a successful, diverse team.
Another practical reason to recruit for diversity is that it is proven to be good for business. We know from research such as theMcKinsey Report, that having a diverse workforce leads to better teamwork, and more successful decision-making. If we are to see a change in attitudes and the subtle and not-so-subtle trappings of systemic racism, we need role models from Black, Asian and other minoritised groups for our fellow colleagues of all backgrounds, for governors and trustees, and for students from non-BAME backgrounds too. If we are to accept people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds as credible teachers and leaders, we need to see these colleagues at every level in our schools’ workforce.
Finally, many schools believe that they should recruit staff that reflect the population they serve, if that population is itself seen as ‘diverse’. While it is true that children should be able to see themselves in the people who are their role models, there are two important points to highlight here. The first is that the colour of someone’s skin doesn’t make them able to understand all humans that have a similar skin colour. Diversity is intersectional – it includes class, gender, heritage, and more. Be careful with assumptions here. Secondly, it could be argued that schools that serve a predominantly white population will also absolutely benefit from seeing strong and capable role models from stereotypically undervalued and marginalised communities – this will be of benefit to staff, students and the whole school community alike.
If we want to address the recruitment issues we face, and if we want to retain and develop our best leaders from diverse backgrounds, there has never been a better time to commit to this.
Preparing your organisation to be friendly to all humans
Looking inwards before looking outwards For a campaign to ‘recruit for diversity’ to be successful, it’s worth taking an honest look at your organisational bias, and seeing why it may not yet be friendly to all humans. This is important because the last thing you want to do is recruit new people from more diverse backgrounds than you are accustomed to, only for it to be experienced as a hostile environment lacking the self-awareness to understand why only certain people will be able to thrive there.
To do this, you will need to commit some time and budget. You may benefit from some outside help to set the strategy with you, but you must carry out any work on this, as part of a committed whole-school learning process, even when you have external support. You will need to commit time to undertake reading, re-educating yourselves and un-learning some practices you have considered normal. It is also important to have an educated grasp on what systemic racism is, and not frame racism as many schools do, as just dwelling in notable incidents and overt acts of racist abuse.
The first place organisations usually go is to what is commonly known as “unconscious bias” training. Be careful with this, as one of the criticisms of quick-fix unconscious bias training is that it can have an opposite effect. Research shows that in terms of changing attitudes, it can often lead to people becoming more entrenched in their bias, and even concluding that because the bias is unconscious, it’s not possible to do much about it. That said, good training will help you understand what bias is, when it is useful, how it can be harmful, how you can own your bias and see it clearly, and interrupt it at the point before you may have enacted it previously. Good organisational culture around bias will mean that there is a safe space for colleagues to talk openly about situations where they can see their own bias surfacing, and can work together to acknowledge and mitigate the impact of that bias. Staff should be trained in things like microaggressions so they can avoid them, and learn how to be a reliable ally, learning to see, articulate and call out discrimination should it occur. Many schools are often not encouraging of critical thinking, challenge and straight-talking, so this may be quite a culture shift. It will be up to all levels of the organisation to hone their skills at spotting, naming and reducing bias and discrimination. Be warned though, the mark of an organisation committed to change and anti-racism may be one that once you have learned to see it, you see it everywhere! This can often be the marker of the shift from being ‘not racist’ to being ‘anti-racist’. Change takes commitment and time.
HR and policies Once you have learned to spot bias and systemic or structural racism, you can carry out an internal audit designed specifically to hunt out and change places where bias and structural racism tend to lurk. HR practices and school policies are often sites where discrimination takes place. Again, you may be tempted to use a template or a service to help you with this, but make sure that you are skilling yourselves up to do this effectively in an ongoing way, so it doesn’t become an external bureaucratic exercise but instead becomes part of the culture of the organisation at all levels.
The UK has 9 protected characteristics, set out in the Equality Act 2010. These are:
Marriage and civil partnership
Pregnancy and maternity
Religion or belief
There are 4 main types of discrimination under the Equality Act:
Any audit you carry out should be a critical look at your HR practices to ensure that there aren’t elements which are discriminatory. You’ll note that class and nationality are missing from this list. Again, none of this should be purely procedural or bureaucratic so it’s important to have training and regular robust and open discussion about these issues, as they are both complex and emotive. For white people such discussion may cause discomfort. This is a small price to pay in exchange for reducing the deep trauma racial discrimination inflicts on people of colour.
When looking at policies, it is vital that this extends to policies which affect the students and their families. These include home-school agreements, homework, hair and uniform policies, behaviour and exclusion policies and more. There is much research and writing about how these policies can be the sites of racial and other discriminatory action that can be subtle or blatant. A school that is friendly to all humans, needs to ensure this is true not just for staff working there, but also the whole school community. Staff cannot be expected to enforce policy which isn’t inclusive and which is discriminatory.
The most vital and perhaps challenging part of this work will be allowing a culture of identifying and challenging racism, both from staff as well as students and their families. Baked into all line management culture, 1:1s with staff, meetings with students and their families, should be the ability to have meaningful dialogue that is sensitive and courageous, so that racism can be named and framed without those raising the issue fearing being silenced or disciplined for their words.
Curriculum matters Here again, if your curriculum doesn’t reflect the reality of both modern Britain, the global world and an accurate picture of history and the diverse voices which have always been part of our country, you cannot be a school which will be fertile ground for diverse voices to be heard and valued. Take a look at your curriculum offer, and draw on the huge number of resources available to support decolonising the curriculum and how it is taught across all departments. We speak volumes to our staff, students and the school community through our curriculum choices.
Optics are important but not as a stand-alone You need to see it to be it. If you’re hoping to attract staff members who are from a wide variety of backgrounds, you need to make sure that they can see themselves as valued in your school website, on the walls around the school, in the prospectus, the curriculum and more. When looking for diverse imagery, be mindful that you aren’t unwittingly perpetuating damaging stereotypes though. It’s all too easy to fall into this without some work on your bias. As Adrian Rogers, CEO of Chiltern Learning Trust, says, “ensure anyone considering applying looks in on your organisation (websites, social media) and sees that it welcomes diversity in its leadership and management. It isn’t tokenism, but it’s about making sure that the outward signal is ‘its good to work in this place, they value me as a person and a professional, regardless of colour or protected characteristics’”.
Remember, if you are early on, in your journey towards diversity in the school staff and leadership team, be upfront and honest about this. You know that candidates will check your website and may be confused by your statements of intent around diversity not matching reality when they see your all-white, mainly male governing board, or senior leadership team. Be prepared to have that conversation from the get-go in an appropriate way.
Get out Not only do you have to ‘be it to see it’, but you have to ‘see it to be it’. Leaders of any organisation, multi academy trust or school should make a huge effort to attend community events. This is also an opportunity to learn more about the communities you serve. Again, in his experience from Chiltern Learning Trust, Adrian Rogers says, “BAME is a very broad term, and not all communities are the same – there will be huge religious, cultural and ethnic differences. However, if you are a white leader, in a school with a high percentage of Black or Asian pupils, it is even more important to show you care about that community and want to work with them and want the best for the young people in that community. In turn, this means you will gain the trust and friendship of that community and break down barriers – with the spin-off that people from your local community will want to work for you. This also extends to delivering CPD and supporting BAME leadership courses and development even if you yourself are white – it means you network with ambitious staff.”
He goes on, “as leaders, make opportunities to speak about BAME staff in your school in terms of the knowledge, skill and expertise that they bring to your school. It is easy to fall in the trap of seeing BAME staff as simply representatives of the ‘community’, rather than talented individuals in their own right. Leaders, governors and trustees should be restless and relentless in asking ‘is there more we should be doing?’ or ‘can I ask someone why we don’t get BAME applicants’. Leaders should be curious and reflective. A great way of demonstrating the accessibility of leaders is providing an open day for local people that may be seeking employment, and senior leaders meet prospective candidates without the formality of an application or interview.” It’s also a great way to test out the scoping of the roles you may wish to recruit for.
Advertising the role
Scoping Now you are ready to advertise the role, start with scoping. Often a role can be carried out by a broad spectrum of levels of experience and expertise, qualification and commitment to learn. Make sure the recruitment panel has clearly mapped out a continuum of possible imagined candidates from the finished product to the ‘grower’. Be clear which bits are non-negotiable must-haves and which bits, if missing, can be solved through coaching, training or further on-the-job qualification. This will help you with the wording of your advertisement and will also make you hold yourselves to account to recruit for what you say you need, and not go on “feel” at the end of the day.
An important part of scoping is to map out which parts of the process will really test fairly what you are looking for. Assuming there are several stages to the process, from written application, a task-based assignment, a face to face interview and perhaps a chance to see that person in action, have you covered off every element you say you are looking for in your recruitment pack? Can each element be seen in more than one way?
Placing your advertisement If you do things the same way, you will get the same result. So think about where you would like to place your advert and what other methods you can use to recruit good candidates from a wide field. Advertising is key, if your community and school has a diverse population, advertise locally and you will probably get a diverse workforce. This support in your community shows you embrace both the community and its diversity. If your community is not diverse, think about publications, platforms and other ways to reach further.
From his experience, Adrian Rogers suggests asking BAME leaders either in your organisation or that you know, to actively support your recruitment – they are role models and could be most effective in promoting your organisation to people of colour. This may help people of colour feel comfortable about applying to your organisation, and see they are valued. Use different and wide ranging social media or media to advertise on. Local radio, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn can be good places to advertise. Test what works for different groups and tweak accordingly. Adrian Rogers’ MAT is in Luton, and they found, for example, that local radio and LinkedIn helped them get a significant number of Black or Asian applicants. On the other hand, they noted that applicants through Facebook were predominantly white, and Twitter wasn’t significantly different for any group. Aureus School in Didcot was a brand new start-up secondary school. The headteacher at the time, Hannah Wilson, managed to recruit her entire leadership team without placing one ad, and instead used Linked In and Twitter to attract not only a wide-ranging diverse and highly skilled team, but many of whom re-located in order to work at the school and with the team she brought together.
Your diversity statement matters It has become standard practice to place a generic diversity statement on job ads. Think about what yours says that accurately reflects the place you are in now. Be bold about addressing the elephant in the room if this will be in fact your first person of colour to join an all-white team. Writing this diversity statement should be exciting and easy, provided you are well on your way with the work described above to make your organisation friendly to all humans.
The recruitment process
Seen, felt, heard The most important thing during the recruitment process aside from ensuring that you have tested for all of the elements you hope to get in a new recruit, is how you make people feel. Too many organisations make the recruitment process overly bureaucratic and impersonal, and also don’t offer flexibility over how they engage with candidates. This in itself can throw up unnecessary barriers for some candidates. Many organisations are not cordial and respectful about people’s time, often making them come for several stages of an interview at what seem like random times, when these could be rolled into one day. Consider also that women may often be juggling child care, or if they live in intergenerational households, may have responsibility for elder care and therefore may not have flexibility on what time of the day they can attend. This may sound sexist and of course men may face this issue too but statistically this remains stubbornly the domain of women in most cases. This might act to exclude them from the process unless you are openly discussing the best times of day for them to attend a face to face interview.
‘Blind’ recruitment Many organisations employ ‘blind’ recruitment of varying degrees to the process. This means removing elements which may identify the person’s gender, age, heritage, where they were educated or previous employers. You can either ask candidates to do this themselves, or get your HR department to do this before sharing applications to be sifted. There are pros and cons to doing this:
Blind hiring can promote greater diversity in the workplace because you can’t screen for candidates who look like you
It is considered more “scientific” because it provides the same assessments for every candidate. The more the interviewee is in situations where they reveal personal information, the panel makes subconscious decisions based on biases. If those selected for the final interview process are selected fully on the objective assessments, the top 3-4 candidates will actually be those on top of the job requirements
Blind hiring eliminates the “who do you know” practice that is often used, and, instead, opens up the field to other candidates who may actually possess higher skill levels
Blind hiring can be seen as just a fad and that, in the long term, will not have staying power
It can actually hinder diversity in hiring. Many organisations seek out BAME candidates in the hiring process as part of their commitment to diversity. When recruiters do not have the option of knowing personal information, they cannot actively pursue diversity
Blind hiring does not take into account the type of work environment in which a candidate has been successful or unsuccessful previously
Blind hiring could wipe out the often-used practice of referrals. Many organisations announce within their networking associations that they are looking for someone to fill a position. They put great value on the referrals they get from colleagues and usually interview such individuals. Of course, that referral alone provides a bias so should be treated with due caution
Written applications One trap that many organisations fall into is judging candidates on their ability to write, when the job itself may not require you to be an excellent orator or writer. Aside from writing ability, the panel should be clear with themselves and each other on what is a non-negotiable and what can be solved by training, coaching or on-the-job qualification.
The interview itself
Watch for performance over ability Similarly, many organisations come unstuck when they employ someone who performed impressively at interview, but then proved lacking in motivation, skills, confidence or ability in the day to day once they take the job.
Think also about how to put people at ease during the interview process. If there is an element of observation, many schools will now find going to the candidate’s school to see them in front of a class that they know and have built rapport with, tells them much more about the person, than bringing them to perform in front of a class of strangers. When a candidate comes to interview face to face, think about how you make them feel the warmth and reality of day to day life – some organisations will organise a cup of tea and an informal chat with a member of staff, where they can ask any questions they like. That member of staff will not have seen the candidate’s application or know any information, but can spend 20 minutes in friendly conversation and give the inside track of what it’s really like to work at the school.
How you invite the candidate into the interview room, the make-up of the panel and the positioning of the panel and the candidate can have a huge impact on how people feel and perform in the interview. The candidate should be comfortably seated, offered refreshments, the room should be adequately heated and ventilated. If you are conducting a remote interview using video conferencing, make sure that time is given for technical support, and to get used to the situation.
Think about how you probe on the candidate’s actual qualifications and what they entailed. We can exercise huge bias by assuming that someone who went to a Russell Group university would be better equipped, without asking what they actually learned that could be useful now in their job. Similarly, we are often quick to dismiss qualifications that are from abroad without knowing anything about the quality or content of their studies.
The interview panel Make sure that your panel is diverse. If you can’t for some reason, you had better be extremely alert to your own bias, and be able to have a robust, challenging discussion about this when deliberating about the candidates! Be honest with the candidates, whatever their background, that you are lacking in diversity in terms of race and gender and this is something that you know is unsatisfactory and which is being addressed.
While interviewing, the panel should take notes and be ready to discuss, explore and explain their reasoning around why they found a candidate suitable or unsuitable. Agree in advance that in your deliberations, you will not accept statements without evidence. So, no mention of “getting a good feeling” or the candidate being “likeable” without acknowledging and recognising where bias may be creeping in. This will aid not falling prey to “mirror-tocracy” or hiring in our own image.
After the interview
Unsuccessful candidates Remember that you want candidates to feel excited, included and positive about your organisation. They should come away from an interview feeling that they had ample opportunity to show themselves at their best. They may apply for another role at the school if they were not successful on this occasion, and they may tell others about the school if they liked what they saw, thereby becoming a valuable ambassador.
Consider how you let people know that they were not successful in their application. Try to personalise this as much as possible rather than firing out a generic email. If your interview notes were robust, you should be able to have a few useful pointers to talk through on the phone and capture that in a paragraph of feedback for any candidates that would like it. Make sure you offer the chance for verbal feedback.
Successful candidates Let the candidates know as soon as you can, and gauge their level of excitement carefully. If you have the right candidate, they should sound pleased! Be clear about next steps and make sure you have a clear and supportive system in place to ensure their success. This will include a staff handbook, an induction process, a buddy who can support them to get orientated and perhaps some kind of first day introduction and mini-celebration.
Make sure the team is informed clearly about who this person is, what role they will have and what their strengths are that they will bring to the team. Create as much opportunity for this person to feel wanted, welcomed and part of the team. This will be the test of all of the groundwork you have done in the organisation to make people aware of bias, committed to being reliable allies and anti-racist in every way.
Learning and growing
For your own learning as an organisation, capture throughout the process, what went well and what could be “even better if…” Capture useful statistical evidence to see how well the different places you advertised perform, to explore at what stages candidates drop out and are rejected and to ensure that you are gathering learning and checking your own biases throughout the process. Consider getting feedback from the candidates that didn’t make it as well as those that did so you can learn and improve the processes going forward.
One of the first questions we ask teachers who participate, is to what extent they are aware of the SDGs or Global Goals as they are also known. In our experience, it is normal for a vast majority of teachers to start the initial webinar with us unaware of the SDGs beyond a vague understanding that they exist. By the end of the course, they can see what a powerful framework the SDGs can provide for guiding tomorrow’s global citizens in today’s classroom. As the world experiences a shift in circumstances with the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, now more than ever, we can feel the powerful relevance of global connectedness and an international commitment to solidarity around tangible goals to support a healthy, equitable and responsible future.
What are the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?
The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was adopted by all United Nations member states in 2015 and “provides a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future”. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals are central to this, and although we often might perceive them as intended for our fellow citizens ‘over there’, they form an urgent call for action by all countries – so-called developed and developing – in a global partnership. These global goals make clear that urgent action must be taken to eliminate poverty and inequality, address climate change, and act for peace and social justice for all people, everywhere. The SDGs build on decades of work by countries and the UN, including the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs and can be found here https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org.
A number of elements of this report stand out, when looking at the work we are doing with schools, teachers and students to explore the power of human stories from around the world. We often find ourselves helping teachers and students alike to realise that the global goals outlined in the SDGs are not ‘over there’ but very much here and now in our own society and the communities we serve. The socio-economic impacts of lockdown in the UK have acted as a magnifying lens for many of these global goals.
SDG 1: No poverty
With the partial closure of schools, we see how this can impact on families our schools serve. A shocking 4 million children live in poverty in this country. That’s 30% of children or 9 children in every classroom of 30. Two thirds of these children’s families will have at least one parent in work, yet they will be earning an income below 60% of the UK’s average. Loss of income as employees are furloughed or laid off altogether, can have a devastating impact on already precarious lives. In addition, individuals who haven’t previously experienced poverty, have seen their incomes impacted by the lockdown, and may experience their first taste of immediate financial insecurity.
SDG 2: Zero hunger
For many of the families already living in poverty, and those newly threatened by it, school provides an important service not only through delivering a formal education, but also by ensuring a reliable source of nutrition in the form of a daily cooked meal. Food production and distribution can be disrupted by the lockdown. It is reassuring to see how schools have upheld the importance of food distribution for their vulnerable families, and have put pressure on the government to provide a voucher scheme to support them through this difficult time, including during school holidays. Schools are mindful that not only those defined as being eligible for free school meals are at risk at the moment, and are making arrangements for any family that is in need at this time.
SDG 3: Good health and well-being
With restrictions on all of our mobility, no matter the socio-economic circumstances, everyone is feeling the impact on their physical and mental health of the lockdown. With the daily routine of work and school disrupted, families are under strain. Young people’s mental health is already under the radar as they are particularly at risk of increased anxiety. With 87% of the world’s student population away from schools and universities at present, and GCSE and A Level students having the rug pulled from under them as they were sharpening their focus on the upcoming exams, this is particularly acute. Hand in hand with these growing levels of mental health concerns, is also a growing awareness among young people and they are stepping up to the challenge by running campaigns, volunteering to support vulnerable peers and contributing as innovators in the good health and well-being space on and off line.
SDG 4: Quality education
With learning moved to the home for most institutions, introducing some form of remote online learning has been the response of many schools across the country. For some, online learning is less effective or even inaccessible. We can see digital inequality playing a part as some schools serving privileged populations are able to continue the delivery of the timetable with a shift to remote learning, knowing that their students will most likely have an adult to support, children with their own room to study in, a personal device to work on, and reliable internet access. Other schools are sending home paper-based activities that will at best keep children occupied for a short stint during each day, provided they can complete them without adult support. Without clear leadership on a digital strategy for a new landscape, teachers are doing their best, but many may not feel able to step up to the challenge effectively yet.
SDG 5: Gender equality
Women are more likely to be in the caring professions and account for the majority of health, social care and the teaching population who are exposed to COVID-19. We are already seeing increased levels of domestic violence against women, as they spend more time in the home and are less likely to be able to seek support from friends and family. Even with both parents at home, in two-parent families, it is often still the women who will take on most of the caring and housework responsibilities. This can be while simultaneously trying to work from home or being required to take on longer shifts as a keyworker.
SDG 6: Clean water and sanitation
Never before has this been more important in this country, when it is often seen as something that impacts on developing countries ‘over there’. We are suddenly keenly aware of the impact of inadequate access to water and sanitation that can hinder handwashing, one of the most vital preventive measures in the fight against the spread of COVID-19. And of course, the street homeless and rough sleepers are always impacted by limited access to sanitation, which is ever more crucial at this time.
SDG 7: Affordable and clean energy
Many families in the UK are already living in ‘fuel poverty’, meaning that they spend more than 10% of their income on energy. Fuel poverty affects over 4 million UK households – roughly 15% of all households, before the COVID-19 crisis. This looks likely to rise given the economic impact of the crisis. With so many people at home, and the NHS working flat out, the strain on electricity supply – and in many cases on broadband services, as many workplaces move to online meetings – is tangible. Home utilities bills are going to be impacted as many of our indoor leisure activities require electricity.
SDG 8: Decent work and economic growth
For many occupations, unemployment, lower incomes, and longer hours are now the norm where previously they might have been perceived as realities reserved for others. For the school workforce, the window has opened for handing in notice to seek employment in other schools, either for a change of scene or to pursue promotion opportunities. How this will work in the current climate is uncertain now.
The impact of the pandemic on employment, education, mental and physical health outcomes will be a clear driver in further exacerbating the huge economic, gendered, and educational inequalities we face in this country. The gap between rich and poor has already been growing during the last decade, and although the virus itself doesn’t discriminate, newspapers and researchers alike are reporting the effects of inequalities on the outcomes for people who have less access to resources.
SDG 11: Sustainable cities and communities
Areas of high population density and multi-generational or overcrowded homes will be hit harder by the risk of exposure to COVID-19. It is heartening to see initiatives spring up to use resources effectively and to think about measures that are put in place now, that could endure and support more sustainable living in the future. We seem to be better at remembering people that live alone and the elderly, of late.
SDG 12: Responsible consumption and production
Panic buying and resource hoarding has been much-reported in the news, followed by reports of food wastage as bulk bought items are discarded unused. On the other hand, we are not able to keep up with demand for personal protection equipment and vital ventilators needed by hospitals. It seems that more education is needed around our collective social responsibility to each other’s well-being and access to resources.
SDG 13: Climate action
On the one hand, there has been a hiatus in the attention given to climate change activism, but reports of the positive impact on pollution levels and on wildlife due to reduced industrial production and transport-related emissions is heartening. This also relates to SDG 14: Life below water and SDG 15: Life on Land. But will this have a lasting impact, unless we continue to raise awareness?
SDG 16: Peace, justice and strong institutions
Nothing is more evident than schools’ commitment to this goal. We see how many school leaders have stepped up as civic leaders and guardians of social justice at the heart of their mission. It is also important that Ofsted inspections, SATs, GCSEs and A Level exams and league tables have been suspended for now. There is much debate about what this will look like when we reach the other side of the lockdown and return to a new normal.
SDG 17: Partnerships for the goals
While some parties are seeing the global pandemic as evidence against globalisation, it also helps highlight the importance of collaboration across borders and across continents on issues such as public health, research and knowledge-sharing. Civil society and community-based organisations are feeding and caring for vulnerable families, and edtech companies are providing free access to resources for schools, for example.
We will overcome this global crisis and emerge as better societies, workplaces and communities
“The COVID-19 pandemic is a defining moment for modern society, and history will judge the efficacy of our response not by the actions of any single set of government actors taken in isolation, but by the degree to which the response is coordinated globally across all sectors to the benefit of our human family. The United Nations global footprint at the national level is an asset for the global community to be leveraged to deliver the ambition needed to win the war against the virus. With the right actions, the COVID-19 pandemic can mark the rebirthing of society as we know it today to one where we protect present and future generations. It is the greatest test that we have faced since the formation of the United Nations, one that requires all actors – governments, academia, businesses, employers and workers’ organisations, civil society organisations, communities and individuals – to act in solidarity in new, creative, and deliberate ways for the common good and based on the core United Nations values that we uphold for humanity”
It is my hope that an even clearer shared language of civic engagement and collective social responsibility will take centre stage, encouraging the view that school leaders are in fact civic leaders – using their autonomy to create spaces where change and progress can happen in ways that work for their communities and that both provide models for, and draw on learning from, other communities worldwide.
I hope that schools will be able to spend time considering their digital strategy – not just for their students but also for staff CPD. We are hopeful at Lyfta that with a renewed focus on weaving online and face-to-face activities into the curriculum and ensuring digital equality for all students as part of their gap-closing priorities for the future, schools will be able to engage with global citizenship as a given at every age and stage of their students’ education.
More than ever, we remain committed to our mission at Lyfta to ensure that, by the time a child has completed their education, they will have been able to visit every country in the world, and will have learned from at least one human story from each place they find themselves in the world. We want to support the leaders of tomorrow to be world-wise, globally aware and to bravely consider the UN’s global goals as our collective social responsibility wherever we are in the world, and whatever the obstacles we find ourselves up against, now and in the future.
If you would like to take advantage of Lyfta’s free online CPD courses and access to stunning immersive human stories, email firstname.lastname@example.org to secure your place now.
Kindness is a buzzword we hear a lot nowadays. It takes its place alongside mindfulness, the search for happiness, and other misappropriated concepts that have been borrowed from spiritual traditions and co-opted, reduced and repackaged by the self-improvement industry. Hang on though, what sort of cynical or heartless sub-human would have a pop at kindness when our world seems to be so tragically unkind? The kindness agenda does indeed seem attractive when acts of kindness can be used to counterbalance the efforts of some individuals who spend time cyber-bullying, tormenting, racially abusing and parading their cruelties to others so openly on social media for example.
The glaring flaw of the kindness agenda seems to be that acts of kindness are in danger of being selective, almost transactional and certainly fleeting moments meted out to people we deem worthy of our attention at a given time. Furthermore, they seem to be more about us than the recipients of the kind acts. The feeling of warmth we gain from acting kindly somehow doesn’t equate to the same level of relief from hardship or misfortune that can be gained from someone on the receiving end of an act of kindness. In fact it has been proven that being kind makes us healthier, but doesn’t have the same impact on those subjected to our kindness.
In fact, what I am driving at is not even about the act of kindness in itself. What I am trying to get to is deepening the motivation, and the impact, behind it. Even shifting the agenda from kindness to compassion is a step closer to something that has much more impactful value than kindness can ever have.Let’s take a closer look:
/ˈkʌɪn(d)nəs/ the quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate
/kəmˈpaʃ(ə)n/ sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others
Even through putting these two definitions side by side, you should be able to see a shift from something that is more performative to something that contains a further step of ‘putting oneself in another’s shoes’. You are moving from a way of acting to a way of thinking about others.
Collective social responsibility
There is, to my mind, a stage beyond either of these two, which we seem to have lost sight of and which should really guide all human interaction, especially in these strange times we find ourselves in recently. This is known as collective social responsibility.
Collective social responsibility is not just a way of acting; or even just a way of thinking – it is a way of being which includes a depth of thinking we can’t take for granted from kindness or compassion alone. Through collective social responsibility, we see our relationship with society and the environment as an opportunity to create shared value and we act upon that shared value in a way which is inclusive and promotes the wellbeing of all as collectively valued. It is something that requires broad knowledge and specific interest. It is ever evolving and iterative. It doesn’t set people on a continuum based on value judgements and a meritocratic hierarchy of the deserving and the undeserving.
I am an adult who grew up during the selfish era of Thatcherism. Since 2010 we have seen the rise of policy that seems to be aimed at benefiting the few and not the many. On this backdrop, I am keenly aware of how much the agenda of individualism, self-efficacy and so-called meritocracy guides many people of my generation’s world view. Kindness fits into this, and is a moment of performative softening, from time to time, of what could be seen as a ruthless focus on individual needs and goals.
Let me illustrate how being kind can be differentiated from collective social responsibility and how an act of kindness can be contextualised within a wider collective social responsibility agenda. It could be seen as a kind act to stand and give up your seat for someone else on a bus, because they are elderly or struggling with heavy shopping and have asked you to, either verbally or non-verbally. It is compassionate to be able to see that someone standing near you seems to be uncomfortable and could use your seat and for you to beckon them into your seat. For me, collective social responsibility would be, as an able-bodied person to make sure I sit upstairs ensuring that the seats on the bus downstairs are free for those that need them most. It is for me to explain this rationale to my children as many times as is needed, so that they understand their collective social responsibility to get out of the way, to climb the stairs of the bus even if they would rather stand by the door for the five stops they need to travel than suffer the faff of climbing the stairs. It is not enough for me to instruct them to give up their seat, I must contextualise this and frame it as collective social responsibility. It is that same collective social responsibility that is lacking when we enact a first-come, first-served attitude to the accessible area on the bus, or when a parent sits their child on a seat that could be taken by a vulnerable or frail person instead of putting that child on their lap.
It goes deeper still for me. Kindness could be perceived as a blanket of niceness, that can be delivered in the guise of treating people politely. Collective social responsibility can be about redressing imbalance of resources, power and privilege in simple ways that come from a place of consciousness and conscience. Which is why I become agitated when people divert discussions around social activism, anti-racism and so on, with the suggestion that we just all need to be kinder to one another.
In the context of being a parent of school-aged children, I was sometimes really struck by other parents’ lack of kindness or compassion towards each other, and certainly of the complete lack of collective social responsibility. They were not pointedly unkind as such, just completely unimaginative about other parents’ experiences, needs and life situations. As a parent governor, for example, it is important to try to see the perspective of all families and to try to champion the needs of those who might be least heard or seen, not just to protect and champion the needs of your own child. I would assert that as parents (regardless of whether we are on the governing board or not) that are part of a school community, we should all push ourselves to operate in this way and to enact our collective social responsibility to others in the school community wherever we can.
As the child of a single-parent family myself, I was very aware of the lack of collective social responsibility enacted by others towards my mum. She was so isolated coping with even some of the seemingly simple parts of the parenting malarky that after a while she just gave up trying to do it all alone. So with this in mind, when my children were at primary school, my partner and I talked about how we could enact our collective social responsibility towards those that don’t have our privilege and level of stability, and those that could use a practical additional pair of hands now and again. We had our struggles with stress, money, and as renters suffered some injustices and difficulties around feeling insecure as tenants. Not everything was smooth, stable or safe in our own lives, but we knew that there were compassionate acts we could easily undertake, rooted in our deep sense of collective social responsibility, that made us both want to extend ourselves a little in support of other parents that could benefit from that. I’msurethere were also many times when Iwas as ignorant and indifferent toopportunities where I could have been kind, compassionate or acted as a socially responsible person to other parents. This isn’t about judgement but about trainingoneself to see more clearly when possible.
So, how does that manifest itself? Tapping a parent on the shoulder in the playground and offering to collect their child on the way to school some mornings so they could get off to work sometimes a little earlier or a little calmer – we all know how fraught those school runs can be at times. (And aren’t these moments all the more difficult when you don’t have a partner or another adult to confess your anxiety to about being shouty or terse on the school run?) Or maybe offering to have their child overnight at the weekend so they can get out and not have to think about what time they get in and the expense of a babysitter. A small shift in our routine for us can make a huge difference for someone else, for their child, and even in the long run for the community as a whole. Imagine the power if this was hard-wired into all of us in a school community. Think of the impact on school lateness and absence for example if all parents took it upon themselves to see that all children got to school on time and if we found ways to share the school run as our collective social responsibility…
So, next time you think of something kind or compassionate to do for someone else, please don’t think I am trying to stop you from reaching out and being kind. I’m not. However, if we can find a way to contextualise another person’s experience within the social, societal, and collective, imagine to what extent our actions may lead to something closer to social justice than a feel-good act that has more benefit for the giver than its impact on the wider social good.
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?
In light of Oxford University Press’ #positiveaboutnumbers campaign, I have been inspired to share my own journey about maths anxiety and the impact it had on me growing up. As a child, I struggled with maths, as did everyone in my family it seemed. There was no-one to turn to at home – it was clear from the way my mum counted on her fingers, and whenever maths was mentioned shuddered audibly “urgh, not maths, I can’t do maths”, that she would be no help at all.
As I progressed through nursery and infant school, I wanted to like maths and remember feeling the incredible awe and excitement of being able to count to higher and higher numbers. The feeling was similar to taking off the stabilisers on a bike when I could count up in 2s and then in 5s at faster and faster speeds. But in primary school, when it came to subtraction and the dreaded division, I was lost again. My maths teacher once wrote in my report that I was the only child he knew who was so bad at anything mathematical that I couldn’t even draw a straight line with a ruler, let alone plot a line on a chart. The humiliation started to set in for real with times tables. I could get some of them – the 2s, 5s, 10s and some of the 3s, 4s and 11 times tables were just about in my control but to this day I still don’t have adequate command of all of them. I felt crushed as little gold and silver stars appeared on the reward charts in class next to everyone except me. It was only in my 40s when my own children started learning them, that they showed me the finger technique for learning the 9 times table and was delighted!
Playing the shame game
The growing feeling of shame and anxiety only increased as I progressed through to secondary school. In my first year at my new secondary school, the huge gap in my knowledge and mastery already firmly in place, I was naively determined to have a fresh start. But this soon unravelled. Our teacher liked to play a game with the whole class, it was meant to be a fun challenge. She would invite us to jump up onto our feet, take our places behind our desks and off she would go with some mental arithmetic for us. When we lost count, she instructed us, we should sit down. The last one standing was the winner. My heart was beating hard when she started with, “2 times 3, plus 3 take away 1”. My fists were screwed up by my sides, I am keeping up, I can do it….divided by 4 times 9, plus 17…” I sit down. There’s a snicker from the other children in the class as they carry on standing. What seems like hours pass until another girl sits down, then a span of time when a cluster more sit. And it continues until there are three, then two standing. The teacher stops. “What did you get?” she asks one of the two last students standing. “142” the penultimate one says. “And you?” she turns to the last one. “168”. Well done both of you. It was “142”. You win.
The next week, we did it again. I sat down after the first two questions “9 times 8, plus two..”, the class snickered. The teacher shot me a disapproving look. I am the class clown, fidgety and disruptive in her lessons. I don’t know my 9 times tables or my 8 times tables, what can I do? I think to myself. That afternoon, I go home determined to learn them but they just won’t stick.
After a few weeks of this maths game, I had noticed that while it was going on, the clever, confident ones were whispering to themselves, looking up at the ceiling or off to one side as they calculated. The next lesson, I stood up with everyone else as usual and decided to save face by play acting. I stood tapping out imaginary sums with my fingers on my thigh, eyes upward, mouth muttering quietly pretending to be concentrating, in command, keeping up. The plan was to sit down later on in the rank and file and avoid being seen as stupid yet again. But getting carried away with my oscar-winning performance meant it was too late when I realised I was one of the two still standing at the end. The teacher narrows her eyes at me suspiciously and asks, “Well, Penny, what did you get?” My heart sinks, the tears welling in my eyes…”Um….” The teacher insists, “Yes? We’re waiting…” I panic, “I forgot!” The teacher pushes me again, “You must know around about, was it above 100? Closer to 10? Well?” I look at my feet and the class erupts with laughter. The tears are cold on my hot cheeks. I am sent out and reprimanded for being disruptive and disrespectful.
The next week, we stand. The teacher starts, “ 7 times 12…” I sit down immediately, glaring at the teacher, angrily. They snicker. Every week for the rest of the year, we stand, she starts, I sit. Some days she sends me out to stand in the corridor in disgrace.
Making the grade
And so continued my soul crushing relationship with maths. Everyone in my family was struggling. My brother did his O’ levels, and got a U in maths. Three years later my sister got 10 O’levels all As and Bs – and a U in maths. The following year, I took my O’levels and got a U in maths. But something in me was determined to break the family curse. I went on to college for my A’ levels and decided to do maths again while I was there. I was at a Further Education college and in my class were people my age and also adults, trying to return to the education they weren’t able to complete when they were my age. I found this inspiring but also it made me ever more determined. Imagine if I’m still here in my 20s, 30s 50s trying to get this cursed maths pass! My teacher was kind and empathetic to us all. I felt a glimmer of hope at last. August came round, the brown envelope arrived. Again, a U. My heart felt crushed when I opened it with the results in. My teacher said, “not to worry, one more shot next year and you’re there”
The following year was the first year of the new GCSE exams that replaced O level, I was studying for the final year of my A levels, and had a weekend and holiday job that earned me enough money to get a private tutor for maths. I was entered into a GCSE paper for which the highest grade I could score was a C. My new private tutor was a taxi driver by day, but loved maths and had been tutoring a friend of mine for his A level, so he came recommended. I went to his house every week and he would puff away on his filterless cigarettes and walk me through the things I found impossible with such patience and in such a matter of fact way. The exam came and I felt I had at least some control, that I knew what to do, even if I wasn’t sure if my calculations were correct. I still had to count out numbers on my fingers and use techniques to add and subtract, and work around the dreaded times tables and division with methods that were long-winded and time-consuming. But I finished the paper, and I felt less out of control than usual. The long wait ensued and when the date came around, and the brown envelope arrived, I was amazed and delighted to have scored my C! I am the only one in my family with a maths GCSE. My parents were teachers, my brother is a composer for films and my sister works in documentary film. They have all had to duck and dive around the question of the missing maths qualification, but they are hugely successful in their own ways.
If you can’t do it, teach it…
Fast forward nearly a decade and I was now training to be a primary school teacher. The programme I did was focussed heavily on our own development as people as well as on the craft of teaching itself. In the second term, as we started to teach in the classroom for 2 days a week, we were asked to confront something in childhood that we felt had held us back and that perhaps could have been supported better by our teachers. I decided that it was time to tackle my maths problem. With coaching from one of my tutors, I was encouraged to teach maths to year 3 for a term. I was terrified that they would find out that I don’t know my times tables, and that I can barely add and subtract. But I did it, and I actually enjoyed it! I created resources and curriculum ideas that worked and that had enough in them to stretch the maths wizards and engaged those less confident.
Later in my teaching career, I moved to work in a secondary school and specialised in teaching English instead. As part of my training, we did a course on learning difficulties including dyslexia and dyscalculia. The consultant leading the course had expertise in diagnosing and supporting pupils with a range of difficulties and disabilities. She got us all to do part of a test for dyscalculia and dyslexia so we would know how the children are diagnosed. And the end of the session, she approached me and asked me how I was feeling. She asked about my sense of direction, my knowledge of times tables and other key mathematical functions and techniques. She told me that it was pretty clear that I am dyscalculic and that this is why I couldn’t retain my times tables. This was also why while I wanted to like maths, and indeed some parts of more abstract maths I could really run with, like algebra for example, there were parts that would always confuse and baffle me.
It was quite affirming to get this actual diagnosis. I was able to understand which parts of mathematical thinking I struggle with, and this facilitated me to develop techniques to deploy mathematical reasoning in my daily life, rather than avoiding it altogether. I will never be confident that I have the right answers when I have to use maths, but I know which parts I will need to double check and get another pair of eyes on and I feel confident to ask for this as an adult in the workplace without feeling childish and ashamed.
Breaking the family curse
My children often describe themselves as hating maths, despite my attempts to lightheartedly engage them in the beauty of maths through things like Numberjacks on YouTube when they were small, and other workbooks and fun games I found. I thought this might mitigate any creeping infection of the family maths issue that had started with my own mum’s lack of confidence and negative attitude to maths. My children are both girls and themselves attribute some of their lack of confidence to the boys in their class that are quick, vocal and withering to others. “I know, I know the answer, it’s eeeeeeeasy! You’re so slow and stupid!” they would shout out as my daughters plodded through. Unlike me, my girls have made their way to the top set in secondary school, but their lack of confidence and general distrust of maths did not diminished even so. This term my youngest, who is in year 9 said “my teacher thinks I might be dyscalculic but I’m still going to stay in the top set and I’m doing statistics GCSE next year. I won’t let it get in my way”. My oldest has just completed her GCSEs and summed up by saying, “I will always be rubbish at maths, but one thing I am really happy about is that I finally started to enjoy it, and I am even a little sad that I won’t ever be doing it again!”
I’m pleased that across a generation, we may still not be a family of maths wizards or super confident, but to know that this generation has managed to overcome the soul-crushing feeling of incompetence and the panic, gives me some comfort. And who knows, maybe the next generation might not even know that it’s possible not to feel positive about numbers. It is also great to see an organisation like Oxford University Press sharing their insights and resources to support those struggling with issues that I experienced. You can find their latest toolkit here
This Saturday, I was fortunate enough to attend the Portobello Festival of Learning in Edinburgh. I am writing this while the train home carries me hurtling through green fields and northern cities, with a feeling I haven’t had for quite some time. It’s a mixture of deep pain and uplifting joy, both are the direct result of feeling connected to a shared narrative experience. The golden thread running through the event was around storytelling and narratives as pivotal not only to learning but to the human connection which makes learning sticky, memorable and even a deeply happy experience. Nina Jackson’s incredible hour-long keynote was as harrowing as it was hopeful. Like a phoenix from the flames, she took us deep into the fire of her experience in childhood and early adulthood and right through to the colourful and whole person she is today. The intensity of 300 pairs of eyes tracking her glide around the centre stage was visceral. Her ability to tell her story, to elicit gasps, laughs, to have us leaning in and then recoiling again, was phenomenal. Her pulling together the themes, tying them into clear strands and using minimal visual inputs at carefully timed intervals was clearly craftwork.
When I refer to storytelling and narratives as a tool for learning, it is clear to me that this is not just about teachers telling stories that make learning happen in the classroom, although the inimitable Hywel Roberts’ session definitely reminded me the power of a carefully prepared narrative containing dramatic development, coupled with a deep understanding of sound pedagogy, to activate the senses and make engaging learning take place. As he led us through some of the methodology he uses in the classroom with teachers and children alike, I had a physically and emotionally intense response to the suspense and drama he created. The group was positively bristling with excitement and childlike willingness to enter into an adventure with him. We mustn’t forget as teachers that our ability to facilitate learning in others is most powerful when coupled with our own commitment to lifelong learning as a human being. Part of this learning means seeking out the human stories of those around us, so that we can expand our view of the world, the possibilities and similarities and differences. Prior knowledge means that we have anchors and reference points to draw on, but alongside this is also the fact that what we often class as prior knowledge is often deeply flawed, contextually irrelevant or even just plain learned bias. Lyfta’s workshop took participants on a journey to immersive storyworlds with embedded human documentary stories. Opening the session, Serdar Ferit started with the fascinating contextual framing that led to the Lyfta concept being born. Guiding the group around the storyworlds Lyfta has created, and before playing each human story documentary, he asked, “what can you say about what you can see, and how do you know?” We’re all willingly sharing our assumptions as our eyes scan an Ethiopian village, a Palestinian family living room, a Finnish ballet studio and we hazard a guess, only to be gently redirected as we watch the short film that follows, and as we listen to real human beings telling us their story. By the end of the session, teachers in the room spoke of what sounded to my ears like a renewed commitment to treat what we have learned with the challenge it rightfully deserves. One of the powerful yet simple learnings I have gained from reading about race and class in recent years is the toxic nature of the presumed innocent question we often ask people we meet, which is along the lines of “where are you from?” or “what do you do?” This can be loaded with racially stereotypical and classist connotations and assumptions. One way around this, which is also faithful to the importance of storytelling and narratives is to ask “what’s your story?” – giving people the opportunity to respond in as narrow, wide, personal or generalised way as is fitting for their own contextualised narrative journey of the current moment.
Paul Dix reminded us of the importance as educators to lead on the co-creation and at times to own the narrative for our young charges. The simple process of reframing the narrative can diffuse potentially disruptive situations in the classroom. He laid out carefully why we as adults need to be clear on our part in the story that is unfolding right there in our own classroom. We may need to retell the story to include perhaps a historical context that allows a potentially volatile young person to rewrite the story in real time. Instead of entering into a battle of wills, trying to get a child back on task, you can say for example, gently but with conviction, “remember last week you helped me clear up when the lesson was finished, and you stayed behind to make sure everything was in place? That’s the person I know, and that’s the person I want to see here now”. This reminds the young person that this positive element is still part of their story, and is included in the whole story. Paul used dramatic demonstration and emotionally engaging dialogue to help us understand that as responsible adults, we can reframe, redirect and take charge of the narrative so that behaviour is guided back on track leaving both your and the student’s dignity and self-respect in tact.
Aside from learning about others through taking an interest in their narrative and on their own terms, is the important work of learning to connect with our own narratives. By this I don’t mean to endlessly hone the story we tell others about ourselves, which we often defensively beaver away at to show ourselves in the best light. Learning one’s own narrative means being able to zoom in and out, and as we gain greater perspective and distance, weaving in the contextual, socio-historical backdrop to give more rich and layered meaning to our own pinhole camera view. Parts of the day were personally resonant, and therefore profoundly painful for me and I’m sure many people in the room. But I know that I am also increasingly able to understand my own childhood experiences firmly within the political backdrop of Britain at that time. I contextualise my parents’ decisions and behaviours that led to some serious negative outcomes for their children within their class-based economic constraints, educational achievements and resulting restricted opportunity, and the contemporary gender role expectations – as well as the commonly-held beliefs about childhood of the time. This helps to ensure the story I tell is iterative and nuanced, based on my own emotional growth and psychological bandwidth to zoom out from the pure hurt to an external packaging which humanises the chain of events without betraying my own experience.
Whatever our narrative, and however we weave storytelling into our professional, pedagogical and personal life, perhaps we all need Nina Jackson’s reminder of the Japanese practice of Kintsugi – repairing broken ceramics with gold. Kintsugi wisdom says rather than disguising the broken pieces, you recognise the story of the object and visibly incorporate the repair into it, while outlining the places which are whole and in tact. By outlining the places that broke us, or where the story changed, we can also remember the beauty of the process of retelling and rebuilding that resulted in who we are now.
I gave a presentation at a session on Pupil Voice alongside Joe Pardoe from School 21, chaired by Ed Finch at the NEU Celebrating Education conference on Saturday 30th March 2019.
I knew that Joe Pardoe would most likely be outlining the fabulous work done at School 21 on pupil voice and so I wanted to take the conversation to a different direction and to try and ask some provocative questions of the attendees. The following is an overview of my presentation.
As educators, we need to ask ourselves some challenging questions about the voices that are heard in our schools.
Children and adults need to see a range of people and voices. The curriculum needs to reflect a diverse range of voices, and that includes a diverse range of speaking styles and opportunities. We might need to practise switching from Shakespeare to slangspeak and back again, depending on the situation. (But should we be switching Shakespeare into slangspeak? Probably not.)
Children need to experience a diverse range of speaking styles and opportunities, and they need time for reflection and discussion that is built into the school day. This is exactly the sort of thing that is the golden thread that runs through School 21’s head, heart and hand curriculum for example.
There’s a lot of emphasis on teaching children vocabulary (or more cynically, teaching year 6 children the vocabulary we think will come up on the SATs paper, or technical terminology we think is needed for GCSE exams). But what about engaging children in etymology, and exploring where words come from, as part of our curriculum, and how they got there in the first place. You’d be surprised how many every day words and phrases have come into our language as a result of our colonial past, for example, let alone the myriad migrations to Great Britain over the centuries. (If you want to know more about this, I highly recommend the Our Migration Story resource put together by the Runnymede Trust here). We desperately need to decolonise the curriculum!
Diversity is good for business We know from the McKinsey Report that diversity works & is good for business – so ensuring there are diverse voices being heard within the staff team, from our clients, the children, and from the local community, will lead to a more productive and happier school. The McKinsey Report found that diverse teams make better decisions, are more productive and the more diverse the voices included in the decision-making process the better. That includes a range of voices from the shop floor right up to senior management – which is why we need to include children’s voices in schools’ decision-making around policy and practice where appropriate.
Lack of diversity is dangerous – seat belts and space suits Up until far too recently, women and children were suffering massive injuries or dying in car accidents despite wearing seat belts. This is directly related to the fact that the people designing these seat belts were men, testing them on themselves, and not considering others outside their own assumed “neutral” position, not realising that women and children would also be using these seat belts while not being the same height and weight to benefit from the design.
If you can’t see it, you can’t be it – role models for children and adults A lot of people like to say that Black children need to see Black role models in schools. I do agree with this adage that if you can’t see it, you can’t be it. But I also strongly believe that white people, those people that are traditionally used to holding positions of power in our society, need to see people of colour in positions of power and authority too. We are socialised to believe that the logical leader is a straight white man. We can’t unlearn this without ensuring that we all have experienced role models that aren’t white and male.
There are ways that you can ensure that you challenge your own biases, and the simple first step would be to join the activity of grassroots organisations like the BAMEed Network, WomenEd and LGBTEd.
We are all so conditioned to accept the white man in charge that we become immune to, or at least tolerant of, incompetence when it is plain to see. How many times have you waited for someone to step up, and then wondered why they are in charge when they are obviously completely under-skilled and overconfident? This short explanation shows just why incompetent men fail their way to the top and what we can do to stop being complicit in this.
We need to change the narrative about what a leader looks like. We need to change the narrative about what people in power look like. We need to change the narrative around who gets to be heard. We are peddling a narrative that “neutral” is white and male. Have you ever tried to buy a plaster? What colour are they? “Skin” colour? Whose? Back to those seat belts and space suits, the lack of plasters, make up, hair care products, lack of understanding by healthcare professionals and more…
We need to give opportunities for children to identify what they have in common and what is different, to look at different possibilities for identity and to identify with people who are the same and different. One way to do this is through the excellent resource produced by the Finnish organisation, Lyfta. You can see a short clip here that explains how this is used at Aureus School in Didcot, for example.
Politicise them. When do children learn about politics except if they do Politics A level or if we absolutely have to, for example when there’s a general election or we need to explain to them about Brexit (not that any of us know much about that except that it is an absolute ominshambles). Schools like The London Academy of Excellence in Tottenham oblige their students to spend a compulsory half day a week on social activism and community work as part of the curriculum.
Socialisation and stereotyping should be explained and unpacked for students at as early an age as possible, and should be revisited regularly.
Enquiry-led models of learning like the Finnish phenomenon-based learning, or the Canadian Spirals of Inquiry can help students to understand about making choices and taking informed risks.
When we speak to our students, what do they hear? When we include or exclude things in the curriculum, what does that communicate? When we talk about pupil voice and we talk about the curriculum, we need to understand how inherent bias works too. Bringing Black role models for Black children is important but it isn’t enough. Teaching all children about stereotyping and prejudice is one step, but it doesn’t take away the damage that is done by implicit bias i.e. what is communicated to people of colour, for example, in explicit and implicit ways throughout their lifetime. The Doll Test is a painful and real expression of how strongly these messages are heard and internalised by children from a very young age. You can watch it here
This is one of the many pictures from the newspapers on the children’s climate change march that happened recently. The condescending attitudes to children who went on strike and marched for climate change by the media, by some adults, and among them educators, was mind blowing and yet a true reflection of our disdain of young people and youth in general.
Compare ours with social attitudes to youth and childhood in Finland and you will see a country whose youth are consistently told that they are the next leaders, that the weight of responsibility to learn today what is needed to run the world of tomorrow lies with them.
In our system, education is about numbers and letters, not even whole sentences any more.
Try taking the questions I posed at the beginning and conduct a one-day exercise using them as an audit tool at school.
Check your own bias! Be honest about where your own starting point is and think about how you build your own curriculum of learning to get to a point where you can start to implement some changes, and for the right reasons. You might find the resources on the BAMEed Network website useful.
Think about recruitment practice in your school, especially to senior leadership positions and put in a plan of action to ensure that there is diverse representation at every level in your school.
Sign up to Lyfta and the British Council training for free. You can find out more about that here
Join BAMEed, WomenEd, LGBTEd and take action. Develop your own voice on this, be heard and amplify the voices of others that need to be heard loud and clear.