December 2020 edition: Honouring Equality with Evidence

Honouring Equality with Evidence

As we near the end of this calendar year, I don’t suppose many of us will be too sad to bid 2020 farewell. It’s been a year with many challenges for all of us, personally and professionally, and we’re likely to be feeling the effects of it for many years to come. There has been huge tragedy and massive disruption, but in other cases there have been things to give us hope – and for many of us it’s forced us to pause and think about what really matters, and reflect more deeply on how we want to move forward.

Questions of equality have come to the fore again this year. Where you live in the country has played out vividly in terms of lockdown restrictions; and what sector or industry you’re in has mattered hugely to your experience over the last nine months. The gender debate about who takes primary responsibility for childcare has been imbued with a new energy; access to essential services and human company has varied significantly according to your health and age; and Covid-19 mortality rates seem to have been very different for different ethnic groups.

There may be examples of organisations or employers doing things which seem to make a positive difference, but lots of those aren’t yet evaluated to the standard we’d all expect to see before we adopted them for our own organisations or across a system.

Hilary Spencer

Against this backdrop, one of the key events that pierced the public consciousness was the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May.

This felt deeply shocking – the assault on this man felt like an assault on our sense of living in a civilised world. There were many commitments and statements made by individuals and organisations about what they would do to make things different in the future: many sincere.

However, a great skill of our species is our ability to cope with significant events and then move on to the next thing. In lots of cases that’s a real advantage – our ability to respond to a global pandemic has truly shown our collective resilience. But in other cases it’s a distinct disadvantage: our ability to be moved and motivated by injustice can dissipate as other things come along, and the next set of challenges or deadlines absorbs our attention and energy.

Before joining Ambition Institute, I was the Director of the Government Equalities Office. One of the challenges of working on equality policy is what and how to prioritise – what is most important and why, where can you make a difference, and over what timeframe? One of the things which makes some of those decisions harder is that while there is data and evidence that demonstrates clear inequalities in outcomes and treatment for different groups, there is much less evidence on what is actuallyeffective in tackling them.

A good example of that is in the education sector: at the moment, there are around 450,000 teachers in England, of which around 18,400 (6.31%) are BAME heritage [1], and around 3% are black. Of the 22,400 principals or headteachers however, just 1.7% are BAME heritage (DfE, 2020).

So the data tells us that BAME staff do not reach leadership positions at the same rate as their white peers. There is a lot of personal experience which demonstrates and exemplifies the same point – but we still don’t have a clear and robust evidence base for how best to tackle it as a system. There may be examples of organisations or employers doing things which seem to make a positive difference, but lots of those aren’t yet evaluated to the standard we’d all expect to see before we adopted them for our own organisations or across a system.

And this is where we can run into two different difficulties: doing the wrong things, or doing nothing. In all sectors, in all areas of equality, there are examples of people with the very best of motives doing things which don’t work – they’re either ineffectual, in which case the best outcome is that we’ve learnt something and the worst outcome is disillusionment or a sort of ‘equality fatigue’ ("we keep trying but it’s not making any difference”); or they can actually make things worse – for example, there is some evidence that compulsory unconscious bias training can increase rather than reduce inequality (Dobbin and Kalev, 2016). But if the alternative is doing nothing, then clearly that can’t be the right solution either.

At Ambition Institute, we’ve been trying to work out how best to proceed in this area – how to take action that will move us forward, but wanting to make sure that we use and apply the same rigour and evidence-led approach that is so important to our values and that we apply to our professional development programmes.

So, we’re doing three things:

1. Working to make sure that Ambition Institute itself is an organisation which is genuinely inclusive: reviewing how we recruit, manage, develop, support and listen to our staff, and committing to using data more effectively to inform our decision-making.

2. Reviewing our programmes to make sure we attract, retain and develop the widest talent pool: looking at recruitment trends to identify specific areas of focus, thinking hard about how we address diversity within our programme content, and considering how it feels to be a participant with us. And – importantly – evaluating the impact of what we’re doing so we can see if it’s working and if it’s replicable.

3. Looking at how we can work with others across the wider education sector on questions of equality in the workforce such as recruitment, retention and progression – and working with expert academics to increase the evidence base and help guide our work.

We’re hopeful that this means we can move forward as an organisation, and honour the commitments we made in the wake of George Floyd’s death to increase our focus on racial equality, but do so in a way that also contributes to developing longer-term and evidence-based solutions.


[1] Acknowledging that ‘BAME’ and ‘BAME heritage’ are imperfect terms.


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