Building Back with Equity
The past two years have been incredibly challenging for our sector. There is a focus now placed on the gaps in learning for our young people and the mental health crisis that has been brewing for a number of years, only exacerbated by the pandemic. The scenes of Black Lives Matter protests across the globe may seem a distant memory as we started plastering over the extreme disparities highlighted between the rich and poor. As schools, we were no different as we strode forth with ambitious plans to improve equity, diversity and inclusion within our organisations. We rallied behind Marcus Rashford, as he campaigned to ensure our most vulnerable don’t suffer more than they need to during unprecedented times. We planned assemblies around equity, updated our displays to have a little more colour, and the more progressive institutions started to look at inclusive curriculums.
Now that the dust has started to settle, a lot of us will have had the opportunity to stop and reflect on where we were 18 months ago, and where we are now. For many of us, our noble intentions simply did not stand a chance against other competing priorities which consumed our physical and mental energy. The spotlight was on the disparities of our society, yet the extent of meaningful action across the sector has been sparse to say the least.
So the question is, is there a quick fix? I don’t think there is. We may feel reluctant to accept it, but the challenge is about rebuilding a broken system and addressing historic failures. We have all seen the data in recent years around the lack of diversity at the top tables in educational institutions. Every few months we see a new report, a new research piece essentially highlighting what we all know - the lack of diversity is embarrassing. The impact of this exclusion is far reaching. School leaders must recognise that the existence of staff from racially minoritised communities in your institutions; and the way that they are treated and valued, sends a direct message to the young people from those same communities in our care.
It is also worth reflecting on when people of colour are invited to these top tables, and when we are rendered invisible. I often wonder whether we are seen as holders of knowledge and expertise at all, or whether we are there to create an impression of representation for good optics, or because it’s what we know we ‘should’ do? It is telling that we are very rarely asked to contribute to discussions around the wide range of educational and pedagogical expertise that we possess. I, like many practitioner-activists from racially minoritised groups in education spaces, have engaged in hundreds of events over the years, talking about the importance of equity and inclusion. Often, the whiteness of panels and keynote speakers at these events means that the few of us that exist in the space are called upon so that our faces can ameliorate the visible imbalance of event posters. Here, we are asked to re-live generations of trauma by sharing our lived experiences while having to ‘prove’ what should be a universally accepted truth - the existence of systemic and structural racism in educational institutions, and the shameful lack of racial diversity at the top.
I therefore share with you my suggestions on how we can all move forward with a view to change the status quo.
1. Let’s stop talking about racism and let’s develop our understanding to focus on what it means to be anti-racist. Let’s consider how we shift from voyeuristic consumption of Black and brown experiences of racism to grappling with personal and institutional complicity in sustaining systems of inequality.
2. Let’s start living the values on our walls instead of laminating them. It is not about the colour of people on your displays, it is about how you value those in your team, those that our children see daily.
3. Addressing inequity in schools is not down to those with protected characteristics but is a whole-school responsibility. The greatest burden of the lack of diversity must sit with the Headteacher and governance within the school. It must be strategic, sustained and systematic.
4. People are the issue, not policies - people are the key decision-makers and therefore let’s hold up the mirror to those in positions of responsibility and challenge them. Write those policies, but plan how you move from where you are now, to where you want to be, and who facilitates this to make it a reality.
We may feel reluctant to accept it, but the challenge is about rebuilding a broken system and addressing historic failures.
5. Diversity of leadership in education is not an act of charity we need to bestow unto others. We need our leaders to provide a fair playing field so there is meritocracy at the heart of all appointments and competition for positions is fair. It should be about what you know, your experience, your skills, your knowledge and not who you know.
People can elevate other people; that is how we operate in all walks of life. Recruitment goes through the process of adverts, applications and interviews - but all too often we know that the way we recruit is through networks. You only need to look at leadership teams across the country and you will spot the patterns of senior leaders that worked together as teachers and leaders in another school. We also know that highly effective leaders create highly effective teams, tracing back a strong teaching team from ten or fifteen years ago, to where today we see those constituent individuals spread across several schools as leaders. To make change, we need to diversify our own circles and ensure that as individuals and as leaders, we broaden our networks. Our networks must break the barriers of skin colour, school allegiance, friendship circles and subject areas.
If we want to change the face of leadership, we must look at the faces around us and realise we possess the power to elevate those around us. We can reach out and make a conscious effort to bring along those on the fringes, those with whom perhaps we share little in common, but whose talent we can identify. When we harness such talent and energy, we must accept we may be running the same track, but we don’t all encounter the same hurdles. When you understand what the hurdles of systemic inequity look like and feel like for colleagues who are racially minoritised, you can bring colleagues into your lane and make it a journey that is more equitable; one from which we all benefit.