Student leadership is key to genuine whole-school diversity

Written by: Dr Gohar Khan | Published:
Dr Gohar Khan, director of ethos and associate senior leader, Ridgeway Education Trust, south Oxfordshire

Where do we start when it comes to ensuring our school has a genuinely diverse ethos and avoids tick-boxing and tokenism? One answer lies in student leadership and empowerment, says Dr Gohar Khan


The Black Lives Matter movement last year became the catalyst for many school leaders to rethink their approach towards fostering a culture of diversity in their schools.

As director of ethos at a trust comprising circa 2,500 students, it became a priority for me – I was determined never to approach diversity in a tokenistic way again.

There was a lot to think about and it became apparent that it was easy to talk about diversity, restate its importance and aim to do more – better; chalking out an action plan, however, and taking the first steps towards creating a meaningfully diverse culture seemed more challenging.

We all knew there was work to be done, but how would we make a positive start towards a powerfully diverse school ethos?


Openness

As school staff, we are rightly cautious to remain politically correct, sensitive, and respectful at all times. Herein, ironically, might lie the problem. My conversations with black friends and colleagues throughout the Black Lives Matter movement made it clear that they did not wish for people to tread on eggshells when discussing diversity. This guardedness had led to a dangerous reticence in having conversations in the first place.

Openness, even when it exposes pockets of ignorance or puts people at risk of saying the wrong thing, is definitely recommended when it comes to any discourse on diversity – and it is certainly possible to achieve this while respecting boundaries and sensibilities. But the conversation needs to start – and urgently.


Vocabulary

It is risky to assume that the vocabulary around diversity that we use in everyday language will be accessible to young people. The trouble begins when certain basic concepts remain unclear and we become reluctant to clarify them.

Words and phrases can become easily loaded with connotations and the temptation is to avoid using them altogether, in order to remain safe and neutral.

However, I have found that explicit communication of well-known concepts – such as race, racism and white privilege – are gratefully received by students (and often with a degree of surprise). My talk to students on white privilege, one of the most misunderstood concepts of recent times, generated a whole host of questions and stirred a range of emotions. But more than anything else, young people felt grateful to be armed with knowledge about this complex notion.

Finding a variety of ways to communicate these critical ideas is important – images, videos, drama, speech all help enormously. Crucial is the invitation to ask difficult questions in a safe setting. Remember, assemblies are rarely intimate and can often feel impersonal. It is good to get creative about the setting in which heavy concepts are unpacked.


Empowerment

Understand that a culture of diversity in our schools is not only the right thing to do – but the best thing to do. It is exciting, energising, and empowering. Diversity will not just balance our institutions, it will improve them. This mindset will enable us to abandon any remnants of “tick-boxing” and to spare no effort in achieving our goals wholeheartedly.


Student voice

Delineate the sorts of diversities we need to consider when appointing student leadership teams and creating co-curricular calendars – socio-economic, sexual, cultural, racial, and cognitive diversities should all be on that list.

Cognitive diversity, less commonly discussed, must be harnessed if we want our young people to arrive at the best possible ideas, including what Matthew Syed calls, in his 2019 book of the same name, “rebel ideas”.

Schools need to steer clear of privileging only the voices they wish to hear – the convenient, predictable voices. In practical terms, this boils down to listening to our young people in an open-minded way, with a view to acknowledging, understanding, and validating their experiences.

As educators we know that we are in it just as much to learn as we are to teach. In schools, our students do some of the most powerful teaching and we need to provide platforms for student voice in eclectic ways. Some students will speak, others will write, and others will need to be asked the right questions in order to truly speak out. All these voices need listening to.


Student leadership

We must develop student leadership teams that are truly diverse and representative. Aim to fully include Pupil Premium, SEND, LGBT+, ethnic and religious minorities. Participation should be tracked to establish where and why there are gaps and identify the steps that need to be taken to fill them. When inviting guest speakers, aim for a diverse range of role models.

As children’s rights activist Marian Wright Edleman said: “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

We must also make student leadership opportunities eclectic and accessible to a range of student personalities: your assertive, confident and “noisy” students, as well as quiet, reflective and sensitive learners.

At Ridgeway Education Trust, student leadership roles have been created over the years with immense thought and care. This has ensured that our student leadership teams are truly diverse and have great impact in the school and wider community.

I believe that expanding the number of leadership roles available to young people is an important first step: this will go a long way in eliciting a diverse range of individual strengths.

At our trust we don’t shy away from appointing a healthy number of young leaders. Some see this as detracting from the exclusivity of leadership – well, that is the point.


Conclusion

There is much to be done by way of promoting diversity, inclusivity and belonging in our schools. Believing that in great difference lies great strength is a good starting point.

  • Dr Gohar Khan is director of ethos and associate senior leader at the Ridgeway Education Trust in south Oxfordshire. In this role, she works to promote equality and diversity in leadership opportunities for young people. Her subject specialism is English and she has a PhD in post-colonial English literature.


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