Diversity across the school: Steps we can take

Written by: Adele Bates | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Taking the first steps on the road to creating a school community that truly embraces diversity can be scary and we might make mistakes, but that doesn’t mean we can ignore this vital work. Adele Bates offers some practical advice


Burst bubbles, remote teaching, not enough staff – and we still need to think about diversity? In a word – yes.

The last academic year has shown even more starkly the different lived experiences we all have. Some pupils excel with their education, some struggle, some can’t access it at all. Some staff thrive from the moment they step through the school gates – others never make it past the threshold.

Our understanding of difference – different perspectives, different resources, different his/her stories, different incomes, different beliefs, different privileges – helps us to teach better. Our acceptance and support for diversity helps us to run better schools for all our pupils and staff.

This article, which was inspired after recording an episode of the SecEd Podcast alongside Bennie Kara, Elroy Cahill, Hannah Wilson and Adrian Mclean (SecEd, 2021) offers practical tips and reflections for integrating diversity across the whole school.


Where are we now?

Before we look into what can often feel like a mountain of never-ending work, let us reflect on what is going well and how we can build on that.
In general, we are having the conversations. In most schools there is at least an awareness that this area needs to be considered. We have the language and vocabulary in a way we never used to and in the UK the laws are also in place for this work. The Equality Act 2010, British Values and frameworks laid out by Ofsted all cover the inclusion and diversity that needs to be in our schools.

If you, or staff, do not connect to the bigger vision and the positive impact we can make on our pupils’ learning through this work, then knowing that it is a legal requirement of our profession can sometimes help.

We must remember that many educators working now went to school at a time of Section 28. I begin many an LGBT+ lesson or assembly with “when I was at school it would be illegal for me to be doing this, or for me to mention my same-sex partner (due to Section 28)”. This usually piques interest straight away! The effect of this shift, however, is that the majority of the workforce is now teaching in and leading schools that are very different to the ones they went to. There is a lot of fear, misunderstanding and lack of knowledge.


Culture

While we can change the odd photo on the website and remember that our deaf member of staff needs to be towards the front in meetings, the real shifts in diversity happen through culture – and this is tricky. It is not an overnight fix and this work is never really over. Creating a more inclusive culture involves asking sometimes sticky, uncomfortable questions. It is about reflecting on our personal beliefs, practice and how that plays out in our policies and school-wide systems. This all begins with making space for it.

For example, during remote teaching, maybe you found it hard to reach some of your pupils with English as an additional language – their home language is not English and you had few people who could keep in contact with parents and carers. The result was that these pupils were less likely to attend online learning through lack of resources, lack of support or lack of communication. But as we reflect on this, we begin to see that the issue was there before, it is just that the pandemic situation has brought it to the fore.

So, how does your school communicate with non-English speaking parents and carers? How successful is this? What does your data tell you about those pupils’ level of engagement and achievement? Are there trends depending on the ethnicity or cultural background of the pupils?

We all have holes and blindspots. That’s okay. We all also get things wrong. That’s okay too. As we often tell the children, we can learn from that. Are we having the in-built discussions, reflections on how we teach, who teaches, how our own experiences inform or filter the procedures school-wide? And not just for the pupils, but the staff too.

Another example: you may have done some work about diversifying your recruitment, you have hit your target for the number of applicants from a particular protected characteristic group – but what does the panel look like who interviews them? Are they all from the same demographic? How might that affect their confidence during interview and therefore the end result of employment with you? Perhaps they get the job, but what happens two, five, 10 years later? Are those staff as likely to stay? How likely are they to proceed to leadership positions? Do they feel safe and as if they belong – or more like they are there to tick a box?

The answers may be difficult to hear and you may have to actively seek support in improving this. Remember, it is not always the job of the minority group or protected characteristic to teach you. The Diverse Educators website has many links and resources to support you in this work.


Getting past tokenism

Many schools now have a drop-down-curriculum Equality Day or Disability Awareness Assembly once a year, but that will not change your school’s culture or practice.

In the podcast episode, Elroy describes how they went about this in his large academy trust. It begins with intention – in which areas do staff (and pupils) face the biggest barriers in your school? While you may have a high percentage of female staff, how many progress to leadership? While you have a high percentage of eastern European staff, reflecting your pupil cohort, all of them are in supportive non-teaching roles such as catering or cleaning – why? How does that make them feel as staff? What messages does that send to our pupils? Perhaps most challengingly, what does this say about your own unconscious bias?

Once you have studied data and chosen your areas, there needs to be a multi-layered approach – advisory groups, parent and carer groups, pupil groups, curriculum work, leadership groups, an investigation into your policies and how they are implemented and practised.

In the podcast, Hannah Wilson, the co-founder of Diversity Educator (see her recent SecEd article on diversity in the school workforce), suggests that rather than having a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion policy, instead include a section for DEI in every policy that your school has – thus ensuring that the DEI is being supported from every angle.


Curriculum

One of the huge areas that seems slow in shifting is the curriculum. We are still teaching many texts and sources in the same way that we did years ago. As Bennie explains in the podcast, there is work to be done around diversifying or decolonising the curriculum to get past the single story.

There is nothing wrong with teaching a classic novel, but we need to consider how we teach it. For example, when we teach Dracula, do we have conversations about the representation of the Gypsy, Roma, Traveller community in the novel? Do we put it into the social and historical context of author Bram Stoker? Do we consider how it might be written now? Are any of the people teaching it from the GRT community? What about the students?

When we study figureheads in science, do we investigate why white western scientists are more likely to be referenced when globally there are so many pioneering scientists of colour in history. Do we question how nearly all of them are male and how politics, society and the bodies paying for research all affect what is researched and by whom? Do we counteract this narrative with aspiring role models for our female pupils of colour?

As Bennie advocates in the podcast discussion, this is subject knowledge. It is about teachers having the time to learn about their subjects from wider, global perspectives to gain a rigorous view of a topic – which is very different from picking up the PowerPoint five minutes before the lesson and teaching it in the same way the department has taught it for years.

As leaders, it is about building in time in our schools for teachers to talk and learn about their subjects, to examine what is not being said about a topic and what knowledge is being left out.


First steps

We are all in a different place in this work. You need to work out both where you, as a school leader, and your school are at now – and I mean where your school is really at, not just what the school motto says.

A simple way to begin can be by undertaking an all-encompassing audit – one full of surveys for different stakeholders, including the admin staff, cleaners, governors, students, families (it will have to be differentiated).

Or you could simply begin by having a walk down your corridors. What stories do they tell? What stereotypes are being propagated? How many black male role models are on display outside the PE department? I once got great feedback from a pupil about the school hall’s famous people with dyslexia display: “Miss, they’re all old, I don’t know who they are!” A penny-drop moment for me as I remembered that our pupils were not born at the same time as the teachers!

Another important early step, as Adrian explains in the podcast, is to identify what values you are projecting into the community and wider education space. Look at the website, the position the school has in the area, which visitors are welcomed in and which are not generally invited in.

With one school I supported, with a majority white, non-Muslim cohort, they were very nervous about inviting in an Iman (the spiritual leader of a Mosque) – in fact the PSHE teacher did not know what one was, they had not been given the time or training to learn about this, and so felt fear about inviting them into the school community. However, there was a very different response when I suggested inviting in a priest.

This example highlights another area to consider as we do this work: how do we make it safe for different communities to welcome in to school different ways of living, often an issue when working with LGBT+ inclusion. Shaun Dellenty’s book Celebrating Difference is a great resource when it comes to these issues.


Conclusion

Some of this work is new. Some of it is scary. We might upset people, we might say or do the wrong thing, we might have to apologise and try again – but it doesn’t need to happen alone. There are many exemplary schools, school leaders and consultants now working in this field.
If things feel hard – it may well be a sign that you are making important change. Reach out and get support.

As Adrian emphasised at the end of the podcast, education is not just about the formal learning, but about educating our pupils to be well-rounded citizens who can do well in the world.


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