Articles & Opinion pieces

ONE YEAR ON – BLACK LIVES MATTER IN THE INDEPENDENT SCHOOL SPACE 

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, a commitment to anti‐racism is required of schools as never before. The events in America are often cited as the reason for this; however, with little proximity to America’s policing, further exploration is required to gain a better understanding of the demands being made by Black stakeholders and their origins. A year on, we look at the progress that has been made as well as address some of the issues that are still to be resolved in education.

Over the last few months, we have spoken to many schools and we are encouraged by the genuine intent of school leaders determined to make change. We have witnessed a host of outstanding work undertaken with a real desire to adopt anti‐racism and authentic diversity and inclusion as part of the school culture. For most schools that have started to undertake the work, we are finding that it has raised more questions, and our opinion is that this is a positive. We feel it is an indicator of anti‐racism being approached with the correct intent and respected as an essential area of education, rather than it being treated as a tick box exercise.

Unsurprisingly, many of the questions raised and the observations we have made are consistent. Several schools have found it a challenge to identify a starting point and determine how to prioritise the various strands of this work. We would like to take the opportunity to demystify this process and speak to some of the recurring issues that we continue to come across.

The African Caribbean Education Network (ACEN) is a growing network of over 400 independent and grammar school parents. Born out of repeated conversations related to our children’s experiences as disproportionate minorities in independent schools, we felt the need to come together to share knowledge, support and resources. Unfortunately, in many cases these conversations included stories about the impact of overt and covert racism experienced by too many of our children, including, sadly, some as young as five.

Conversations about racism experienced in independent schools are not a modern phenomenon, they have been occurring long before the recent Black Lives Matter movement. A recent YMCA study found most Black children have experienced racism in their schools with 95% reporting hearing racist language. Although some may find the statistics shocking, they come as no surprise to our network of parents and alumni who report having had incidents passed off as isolated and ‘not racist’ by schools. Despite decades of equality legislation, the experiences of Black children are not dissimilar to those reported by parents who attended similar institutions decades earlier.

ACEN commissioned a survey of Black parents, alumni and present students of independent schools. The data gathered provides a solid case for the necessity of the work that we do and greater communication and collaboration with schools in this sector. Some key findings are:

  • Within the school environment, being Black was both perceived by parents and experienced by pupils as negatively impacting on student relationships with teachers (69%) and social interaction with peers in school (54%) with students reporting that they “struggled with acceptance by my peers” and “teachers underestimating my capabilities and having low expectations when it came to career This often leaves Black students feeling marginalised: “not feeling like you belong can cause you to not reach out to people, peers or teachers”.
  • The perception of Black students and parents is that African/Caribbean identity is not understood (72%) or celebrated (82%) within the school environment. For some who were fortunate not to have experienced overt racism, there is a sense of ambivalence as to whether their Black identity had a positive or negative impact on their school life. There is a feeling of invisibility in the colourblind environment in which they find themselves.
  • Three-quarters of the Black parents and former students surveyed reported that children encounter negative experiences relating to racial bias whilst at schools (76%). Although half of the respondents raised these issues with schools, only 20% were satisfied with the way the concerns were handled.
  • One parent asserts: “The lack of a broader appreciation of the black experience, black history and black needs are issues because this ignorance proliferates the curriculum, resulting in conditioning which impacts the social, academic and political framework in which children operate, resulting in unfair limitations, stereotypeinduced biases and ongoing inequity.”

Despite this, Black parents and alumni of private and grammar schools overwhelmingly recommend them to other Black people (88%). However, the findings signal a strong message to schools to ensure that Black children are educated in an environment that embraces their identity, builds emotional resilience and allows them to express themselves freely.

Evidently, our reports are not conclusive statements from parents, students and alumni implying a culture of racism in schools. Rather, they do indicate that negative experiences and inadequate responses to racism are underpinned by a poor understanding of exactly what racism is, how it manifests, and how the actions of staff and leaders affect the experience of Black students.

Similarly, many feel there is a lack of understanding in the ways we can all, regardless of intent, perpetuate racism and enable it through a lack of comprehensive, direct and intentional anti‐racist action. Adopting an anti‐racist stance is not an option for progressive change in this environment nor in society more widely.

There is a consistent and growing body of academic work in this area alongside a greater consumption of popular anti‐black racism books such as Reni Eddo‐Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race (the short form article of which can be found here).  In the face of growing evidence and data about the prevalence of institutional and structural racism, it is becoming harder to see critical race theory as little more than an ‘opinion’.

As it becomes increasingly difficult for organisations to view anti‐racism work as optional, we want to do all that we can to prevent our children having to write back to these same institutions in 15 years asking why, in the face of all of this evidence, anti‐racism as part of a comprehensive and permanent diversity and inclusion strategy was not adopted into the fabric of every one of their schools. ACEN is sure that for real change to occur, schools must now take ownership of anti‐racism initiatives and go beyond their legislative equality responsibilities.

All teachers should have a comprehensive understanding of racism and the structural inequalities that exist within society. This knowledge is vital for teachers to grasp for both their own benefit, and so they are adequately able to address the needs of minority students. This is particularly relevant for Black students, who face many challenges outside of the school environment in a way that their white peers will not. Whilst schools cannot change the outside world in the short term, they can create safe spaces of understanding, belonging and empathy that must start with taking anti‐racism seriously in all of its forms, and not allowing awkwardness and lack of proximity to the issue inhibit their duty of care towards structurally oppressed groups.

 

ANTI-RACISM: EQUALITY & EQUITY BEYOND DIVERSITY AND INCLUSION 

The world is being asked to move on from a place of colour blindness to colour consciousness, an essential requirement to understand and appreciate all of our differences. This is more progressive than merely pretending these differences do not exist, thus removing the ability to see and address second-rate realities of minority groups in the process.

Consequently, schools are being asked to reflect on diversity as more than an ‘acceptance’ initiative by acknowledging and celebrating that diversity is exactly what makes their institutions as strong as they are, much in the same way global companies have been recognising diversity as a distinct marker of success and profitability. Within this, equal representation and equity must feature in the conversation, and in turn, schools must look honestly and openly at the various reasons for the proportionate underrepresentation of Black students.

The repeated assumption that the lack of diversity will be solved by increasing financial aid can be thought of as prejudice in and of itself. As with all communities, the Black community has an upwardly mobile middle class and our research shows that families are choosing other sectors, or a small number of independent schools because of representation in the student and staff body, as well as the ‘communicated culture’ of a school.

Yes, increasing financial assistance will see greater diversity in a variety of areas, however, with little exploration to assess where structural racism occurs within individual environments, it is unlikely that increasing financial aid will impact on the underrepresentation of Black students in any meaningful way.

For the children that are applying for these funded places, schools must be mindful of the restrictions in their admissions processes. Regardless of raw aptitude, it is almost impossible for students and families without guidance and/or financial capabilities to compete at the same level as those already in the sector, or with funds to access exam support. As a result, schools will almost certainly miss out on the most naturally capable of students, spanning all groups.

Similarly, bias and culturally exclusive practices in areas such as student and staff selection are other areas that our research has highlighted.

To address equity and the breadth of issues impacting on access, ACEN has created an anti-racist charter and an 11+ preparation school which prepares underprivileged children (who have been identified as gifted by their state schools and referred to us) as well as children whose families are able to pay full fees.

 

UNDERSTANDING BLM WITHIN SCHOOLS

Many independent schools have received letters from Black students or parents in the past year, and most of these letters focused on anti‐black racism, not D&I more widely.

It is important for schools to take the time to genuinely understand what those issues are with a collective and comprehensive review of the contents and themes in each. Many experiences are replicated, and these are the areas that need to be addressed as a priority.

In our experience, the schools furthest along in this process are those that have created further opportunities for their Black students and parents to come together, share their experiences and asked them to feed into their actions.

Changing one’s school from one which says it isn’t racist into an anti-racist school starts with listening. Listening to Black and Minority Ethnic voices from all one’s constituencies: pupils (first and foremost), former pupils, parents, teachers, operational staff and governors.  No anti-racist initiative is going to become properly embedded unless it has all these forces thinking and acting together.

Dr Joe Spence – Master of Dulwich College

For the schools that held open meetings, there is no denying that this signalled positive intent. Within our network, students and parents whose schools took this initial step reported greater confidence in their schools’ approach to anti‐racism work. If you have a network of Black students, parents and alumni, regardless of how little or large, ask them if they will come in and speak with you. Most schools will find that they will and that they have automatic access to an engaged task force willing to help and commit to the process.

Your school may be in a position where it does not have easy access to a network of Black parents or alumni, e.g. you do not have any or many Black students within your school, but you still wish to ensure that you are creating an anti‐racist environment. We recognise that you will need to access external support to facilitate bespoke training and consultation, which we offer. We are also in the process of creating a database of service providers.

For schools that are unsure where to start but keen to embark on an anti‐racism journey, we are happy to have a conversation. We recognise that the fear of getting things wrong or using the incorrect language can prevent people from engaging in this conversation, in line with our aims, ACEN really wants to promote open dialogue in this space as it continues to gain traction. We have recently been commissioned to facilitate a discussion with a team of 75 teachers in an all-through school independent school as a following on from questions arising out of unconscious bias training. This approach illustrates that in some instances, this conversation does not always need to be structured and flexibility is required to meet the school’s needs.

 

VALUING INDIVIDUAL LIVED EXPERIENCES

BAME or non‐white is not an identity.

As previously mentioned, society is being asked to move on from colour blindness to colour consciousness, largely so we’re able to understand and appreciate the uniqueness of us all. African Caribbean, Indian and Chinese people do not share many cultural similarities or experience racism in the same way. Each group faces its own challenges, and most will agree that asking an expert in gender equality to write and deliver training on disability equality would not create the best outcomes. Therefore, the same must be applied when being asked to solve the issues of a particular race.

This is not to say that D&I and anti‐racism initiatives should be exclusive and that issues faced by all groups should not be addressed. However, if Black students and parents are asking you to address anti‐black racism, lived experience should be respected in and of itself. The importance of seeking consultation and guidance from those with experience and expertise in the specific issue you have been asked to address cannot be emphasised enough, both personally and professionally.

It is also important to recognise that when we mark Diwali, Black History Month and Hanukkah, we celebrate a culture of diversity in a very important and appropriate way. However, celebrating diversity does not, in itself, represent the direct and intentional action needed to address racism. Diversity might serve as an important descriptor or index of inclusivity, but inclusion is the active work of ensuring that everyone feels welcome and valued and they have the same access to opportunities, resources, and outcomes as their peers/counterparts.

If schools want to get racial inclusion right, it is crucial that they take some key steps to reflect on and understand their own representational politics (who is leading and why / who is visible and who isn’t); to listen to their black and other minority colleagues and pupils, and do not underestimate the importance of lived experience, however racially literate they may consider themselves to be. This is because research shows, time and again, that however much we want to get inclusion right, we are hardwired for homophily (the love of people like us) and that unconscious bias is extremely difficult to rule out of all decision-making processes.

 

GUIDANCE

Naturally, it is important to reflect on who you entrust to lead in this area. Is an anti‐racism working group with 5% Black and 20% minority ethnic representation going to give you the best result? Is it best chaired by someone without lived experience? Does your environment reflect many of the structural inequality examples that are being called into question by the BLM movement? If you have access to Black students, parents, alumni, and staff, respect the value of their experiences and ask them to help you on this journey. In areas where this might not be appropriate, and if diversity in your workforce is an issue, as it is for the majority of independent schools, look outside of your organisation for this help.

Speaking to another niche issue we have come across, for some schools, especially those based outside of larger cities, their regular contact with a Black professional may be in the form of someone tasked to market to and refer international students. However, this does not necessarily qualify them as a D&I expert and it’s important to note that the BLM movement largely relates to the experience of Black British students and parents seeking to address structural inequality in their country of origin and/or permanent home. Again, this is not to say many of the issues will not overlap, but rather to say their understanding of those issues is likely to be different.

For those lucky enough to have a more diverse staff base, it is worth considering who you are asking to be your internal lead. Anti‐racism as a distinct branch of your D&I strategy needs to be a continual area of development and evaluated over time so a member of the SLT may be best placed to coordinate this work. However, if you have access to lived experience, outcomes are undoubtedly best if those staff members play an integral part in either leading or creating your framework.

I have experienced the independent education sector as a pupil, parent, teacher, Deputy Head, and Senior leader.  

As the Trust’s Undivided Consultant (Undivided is the initiative that encompasses the GDST’s commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion and meaningful change) and a member of the Trust’s Undivided steering group, I’ve been able to initiate many important conversations around diversity and inclusion and had a welcome opportunity to be part of shaping a new narrative both in my own school and across our wider family of schools.  

Part of my role is now dedicated to diversity, equity, inclusion and it is clear that time and the application of resources are both important ingredients that must be considered if one wants authentic work and change to take place. This time and commitment from the trust has been invaluable in my role and the success of the work that I am able to do.  

Creating safe spaces and opportunities for pupils, parents and alumnae to engage, reflect and be part of the process of shaping has been a highlight of the work and a vital part of what we have put in place so far. On a school community level, being the first school to introduce the Halo code has also been a positive moment to reflect on and one which perhaps highlights the importance of a whole school community who also genuinely listen and value the importance of a  variety of lived experiences 

Cecile Halliday – GDST Trust Consultant teacher for Diversity Equity and Inclusion

However, striking a balance is important as many staff, if unsupported, may find this an additional burden on top of their paid role. Their permission should be sought, and their timetable adjusted if that is a possibility. Whist the application of lived experience undoubtedly results in the best outcomes, balance must be sought, and schools need to be wary of placing the burden on black colleagues to solve the issues around race and racial inclusion. If they do, at best, they risk letting others off the hook or missing the chance to take an active role in solving racism. At worst, they risk an insidious form of exploitation whereby minoritised employees are confronted with a double burden: being affected by institutional racism while simultaneously tasked with solving it, in addition to their substantive role. This conundrum can only be resolved at the structural level: by diversifying workforces to remove the deficit, by including black or minority staff in positions of visible power where they themselves have the power to effect change, and by involving everyone in the work of inclusion.

 

THE PROCESS 

Because anti‐racism needs to be adopted as a specific branch of a school’s continual D&I strategy, in almost all instances this is best commenced after a D&I audit. A systematic process will provide clarity and understanding of the current conditions, climate and culture within your school, providing the starting point in terms of commitment and motivation to work towards an inclusive and equitable school environment. Several key themes will arise in the process, allowing for critical analysis of presenting issues, such as:

  • Reflecting on your make up, to include students, teaching staff, catering staff, facilities staff, everyone. Are there any themes that support racism, white privilege and power issues?
  • Reviewing external perceptions to consider bias and stereotypical messages that might be delivered through marketing. What barriers exist to attracting Black students, and the recruitment and retention of Black staff?
  • Using data to provide evidence of distanced travelled. What does travel from A to B look like and how will you measure this?
  • Creating safe spaces for staff, students, and parents, whilst work is in progress. The complex issue of racism is not going to be resolved overnight, how do you support the emotional labour of those most affected, who also want to support the work?

Another important factor to consider in this process, is how grievances expressed by students and parents are collected. It is vital that any D&I strategic work is appointed a D&I lead to whom incidents can be reported. Some schools have addressed this for students via the creation of alliances or societies. Commonly these are LGBTQ, religion and race based. Again, if these can be headed by people that share these protected characteristics, they can also represent a safe and free space for your students and teachers. In schools where there are more than one or two incidents of racism reported, the creation of a specific racism policy would ensure consistency in the disciplining of racist incidents, remove any misunderstanding from teachers, as well as set a clear example as to the consequences of such comments/incidents.

It is clear that a cultural shift within our schools from being non-racist to actively anti-racist requires, first and foremost, a people-centred approach that focuses on changing hearts and minds. This in turn requires everyone to take an active role in the work of racial inclusion and to understand that inclusion will bring benefits to everyone, not just those who find themselves in the minority. Education, training, open dialogue is rightly at the forefront of this work. But it is also clear that effective and long-lasting institutional change also requires the values we adopt to be enshrined in a school’s constitutional instruments, its codes of conduct, and policies, in much the same way that safeguarding has now become embedded in schools’ official policies and as a result of this has become a standard feature of the best pedagogical practice.

Dr Malcolm Cocks – Head of Diversity and Inclusion, Dulwich College

A comprehensive audit provides a coherent narrative of the areas you need to address. Most commonly, the focus aligns with the areas specified in our anti‐racism framework which are:

  • HR & recruitment
  • Racial literacy training
  • Staff conversations
  • Unconscious bias training
  • Marketing
  • Touchpoint auditing
  • Stakeholder research
  • Potential & lost customer research
  • Student, staff and parent-focused recommendations (e.g. curriculum recommendations, safe spaces, etc.)
  • Policy consultation
  • Ongoing consultation where needed

Whilst we would always advise an audit, its intricacies will depend on many factors such as the make-up of the school, whether the school is a prep, senior or all through school and the character of the school’s local area/likely applicants. Before embarking on any course of action, you must identify your intended outcomes and the metrics you will use to ascertain success. Clear outcomes should be identified and indicate the positive impact of all aspects of an anti-racism action plan from unconscious bias training, curriculum diversity, student and staff comfort and ability to talk about race and racism, to the experiences of your Black staff and students measured in the short and long-term, over several years. The formulation of these data points and the collection of data needs to be carefully thought out and viewed through a racial equity lens. A helping hand in the form of a critical friend can facilitate progress on the long journey to becoming an anti-racist school.

ACEN will hold our inaugural anti-racism conference for headteachers and senior leaders on the 21st of September 2021, alongside Dulwich College. The conference will bring the very best voices in the sector together and share a greater understanding of issues such as teacher recruitment & retention, how to have difficult conversations and racial literacy. For more information, please visit https://www.aceducationnetwork.com/anti-racism-conference/

AISHA SANUSI
DIRECTOR
The African Caribbean Education Network
www.acedcuationnetwork.com
aisha@aceducuationnetwork.com