The pressure that I am referring to here comes from the expectation that education should be diverse and inclusive, something which has failed to be considered over decades. The pressure point is the material realisation of this failing in our society; the need to respond becomes pressurising as organisations need to be seen as doing the ‘right’ thing.
But the bottom line is that no school should be exhibiting knee-jerk or quick-fix solutions to improving the diversity and inclusion of education. We need to make it a priority and find that beautiful balance between speed and solutions; remember, the first organisation to make changes in the way of diversity and inclusion is not necessarily the organisation doing the most work or doing the work most properly.
Making time, not taking time
Showing support for a cause without taking action at first can be a good thing – but note, I said “can”. Far too many organisations, including some schools, have used the excuse of wanting to ‘take their time’ as a guise for the fact that, actually, diversifying and ensuring inclusion in education, isn’t their priority. To this aim, time must be carved out at a systemic level to plan, implement and maintain changes in the education sector.
What can this look like? In reality there isn’t a one size fits all approach, it can look like many things but below are some examples of what every school can consider when approaching change or reflecting on whether their current approach(es) is purposeful in the ways that truly matter.
Questions around purpose for schools
Let’s look at specific diversity and inclusion initiatives that could be put in place:
1. Are any of them primarily aiming to show that you are prioritising diversity and inclusion rather than having more genuine aims (e.g. ‘diverse’ book corners in school libraries or one off staff training)
2. If no (which is hopefully but not always the case), what are the three main aims of the initiative? Does the methodology in use best match these aims (e.g. an initiative aiming to encourage students to “write themselves” into their work might best be achieved by expert led workshops or skills-based resources that can be used in a variety of writing tasks (see question 3)?
3. How can you measure their impact (e.g. widespread and intersectional qualitative and quantitative student and teacher feedback). It is important to note that the measure method will depend on the setting and initiative.
Let’s now look at the different pillars of work:
1. Are the materials you are offering diverse and inclusive in the truest sense? i.e. who wrote them, who delivers them, who reviewed them and who is cited?
2. Are the trainings you offer diverse and inclusive in the truest sense? i.e. who created them, who delivers them, who reviews them, who is cited, how often are these trainings, how is their impact being measured (see question 3) and is this process being done regularly?
3. Do the ways that you approach meetings/pedagogical responsibilities or anything else that involves human interaction, promote diversity and inclusion (e.g. consider who is in the ‘room’, what the different roles are in said ‘room’, how can you maximise everyone feeling safe to share and challenge ideas, what’s the purpose of the input and whether any questions have been answered prior to the input without the question being widely discussed)?
Some questions we might consider more generally are:
1. Is there a certain individual in your school who is leading on diversity and inclusion (without wanting to state the obvious, this should not be the case)? If yes, how will these areas continue to be prioritised if they leave their role? Also, in what ways is the staff member(s) being rightly supported and compensated for the extra work that they are doing for the benefit of your school’s reputation and profit?
2. Does every single individual in your school understand the aim and shared goal of prioritising diversity and inclusion (if this is not the case then this should absolutely be a priority)?
3. Teachers are time poor. How are you going to carve out time as an organisation to ensure that all of the above is embedded and maintained at all levels and through multiple avenues (e.g. regular purposeful compulsory training/time to evaluate during training days)?
These questions might seem messy and long-winded but, as we all know, this work is just that. Wanting to take the time to do all of the above properly is an opportunity, and in lots of ways a barrier, but it is not an excuse. With so many pressures on teachers’ time and headspace, tokenism, virtue-signalling and ‘quick’ fixes (which usually fix very little) can sometimes be tempting.
But when we look at the absolutely unarguable benefits of a truly diverse and inclusive education , we cannot afford to not consider every single aspect of the above questions in everything that we do.
Let’s look at the subject of English as an example. English A Level uptake is declining and has been for some time; research is still being done as to why this is but much of the evaluation around this topic shows that students do not feel that English is relevant for them or offers them career pathways . In 2018/19, only 19% of students who took English Literature at A Level were Black, Asian or of a Minority Ethnicity.
Where does this lack of students studying English at A Level come from? In 2018 nearly 92% of teachers in state funded schools were White , in 2020 only 13% of people working in the publishing industry were Black, Asian or of a Minority Ethnicity and it is not unusual for a pupil to leave school having never studied a book by a Black author . It does not take too much evaluation of this information to see the vicious cycle that has been created: everywhere these young people turn they do not see themselves. This forms one example of why all of the aforementioned changes need to happen, if it even needed to be pointed out in the first place.
A real reflection
As the writer Junot Diaz puts it:
“You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror…It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. I was like, “Yo, is something wrong with me?…And part of what inspired me, was this deep desire that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors. That I would make some mirrors so that kids like me might see themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it.”
What Diaz describes here about representation is one facet of these changes; every school must look beyond “representation, and the pitfalls of tokenism, to thinking about how schools can be proactive in tackling racism” as The Runnymede Trust puts it.
Offering more than awareness
Although face value awareness and support should not be dismissed – it can indeed raise wider awareness – when we are talking about topics like genuinely making the education we offer in this country more diverse and inclusive, the time for awareness has been and gone. The curriculum should have been making our students aware years ago.
It is important to acknowledge that some schools are leading the charge and many are making positive steps, but ultimately we are still behind. We need every educational setting to provide an education that represents, includes and celebrates every child. We must come together and push forward diversity. There is no other option.
Jessica Tacon, second in charge of the English Department at City of London Academy Highgate Hill and member of NATE’s (National Association for the Teaching of English) ‘Reviewing Literature’ working group, explores why to improve diversity and inclusion in schools, time must be given to successfully plan, implement, and maintain change.