As someone who has worked in education for most of their career, I am not surprised by the way many in the sector have responded to this most challenging of times. I am proud to belong to a community so committed to ensuring everyone including our most vulnerable young people get the support they need to thrive in the world. I have been heartened and inspired by the innovation and unrelenting dedication during lockdown by so many schools who have been much more than teachers and colleagues for their communities during this time.
When we think about the word community we often think about the psychological aspect of the word – It’s the knowing that you belong but another important part of feeling like you belong to a community is physical – having a physical space which feels safe, affirming, where you see yourself reflected back and where you can spend time with your chosen family because many of your actual family may have rejected you for whatever reason. The withdrawal of this physical space for minoritised or marginalised communities during this time will most certainly be having an impact on identity, on self-worth, on well-being and on that sense of belonging we all need.
Part of the puzzle that’s so often missing in schools is a meaningful focus on diversity, inclusion and belonging. Education is way behind where it needs to be in terms of this work and I think now more than ever is the time to take stock and think about the changes that are needed to ensure staff and young people feel truly included at school and at work.
We must use this time to reflect and come back better.
As part of the work I do I am constantly reminding schools that they are the key to sending young people out into the world as accepting, open-minded and open-hearted citizens, especially if the messages they are getting at home form something of an echo chamber for bigotry, intolerance and discrimination. My fear at the moment is that lots of young people will have left diverse pupil communities and found themselves locked down in homogeneous environments where at best difference is absent and at worst difference is ridiculed, minimised and outright denied.
For example, schools should be cognisant of the fact the many LGBTQ+ young people will have been isolating in LGBTphobic environments and environments where they are not out which will be so incredibly difficult. Imagine being forced into a space where you couldn’t be yourself. Flipped around, we must recognise that there will be LGBTQ+ staff who are not out at work but are out at home and the huge increase in things like Zoom calls will be anxiety inducing for people living those split or double lives.
As a Diversity and Inclusion specialist I’ve been fortunate to have been involved in a number of exciting conversations with schools following recent events in the world that have further highlighted without a doubt the huge inequities that exist for certain communities. Schools have noted the burning platform here and I’m pleased to say that for many this is the start of a programme of real change. But a word of warning from someone who works in developing D&I strategies across sectors – this work takes time, diversity and inclusion is not a bolt-on activity. This work is as critical as ensuring that we have food on the table at lunchtime for our young people and the heating is on in our schools over the winter months.
So, if you’re thinking about embarking on this work in your schools next year here’s my advice around diversity and Inclusion:
Act now but take your time: As a school you may have been triggered by recent events In the U.S. and/or the pandemic has further highlighted inequities for you. However, it is not the right response to do something one off, tokenistic and knee-jerk here. Think deeply about the work that needs to happen for your school, take your time to see what the issues are within your own context and set about doing the work in a sustainable way, investing in expertise to help you along your journey. One training session will not solve the problem and each action must be part of a wider change piece.
Data-informed action: Before you take any action gather as much data as you can – both qualitative and quantitative, stories and statistics. You need to get a clear idea of the current state before you can move forward with the right solutions. Use the data to meaningfully inform your inclusion journey.
Move beyond tokenism: It isn’t enough to say we have two black women on our board and three of the board are gay – you need to listen, learn and understand others’ lived experiences in order to make real change happen in your schools. Consider how you can amplify those voices and ask yourself: What is it that those people bring to your board that mean you have diverse thinking?
Inclusion as a priority for everybody: I’m sure that as schools continue to plan for the new academic year diversity and inclusion will not be top of the list of things to think about but that doesn’t mean that when this is all over, and it will be at some point, the issues around the significant lack of diversity and inclusion in education will remain. To quote Gerry Robinson, an openly gay headteacher at a school in North London, ‘Children’s lives can’t wait’ and as we have seen so clearly during the last few months diversity and inclusion really is a matter of life and death.
For me it’s simple: diverse teams are better at solving complex problems and people perform better at work and at school when they can be their authentic selves, when the culture of that school creates the conditions in which people don’t have to hide who they are. When that happens people are happier, they are more productive, they’re more committed and they are healthier. This isn’t my opinion. The research tells us this is the case and in education now more than ever, we need to be prioritising diversity and inclusion for our staff and young people, we need to show them that there is a richness in society that they can be a part of and we need to be investing in developing diverse, open-hearted, open minded leaders of the future.
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