Following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, the world began to reflect on itself. Institutions began to reflect on the structures and systems they had in place, and many had to ask themselves if they are truly representative and this included the Education system here in the UK. There were questions about whether the curriculum was reflective of our students and whether the staff body including those in leadership reflected the student body.
Of course, these questions have been asked before – but they were brought to the forefront by the unfortunate killing of an innocent Black Man and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. An opportunity arose to make a real transformation of the education system as we know it. Many of my staff and students began to ask uncomfortable questions. Working with older children who often have access to what is happening in the world meant that I had to prepare for some tough and difficult conversations about why even if Black Lives Matter, it still means that all lives matter and the importance of having Black and ethnic minority teachers.
The phrase representation matters has gained traction over the past year. For some it is because they want true change, for others it is a form of tokenism with no real intention behind it. For those that fall into the category of the latter, they don’t seem to understand the value and importance of having representation everywhere, most importantly in the education system.
Now I want you to take a moment and to ask yourself three questions
1. Growing up – were you ever the minority in your class?
2. Growing up – did you have teachers that looked like you?
3. How did the above make you feel about your education and what you can achieve?
For me, I was always the minority in the classroom, and I rarely had a teacher that looked like me. On reflection, I had about two Black teachers growing up and one Asian. I have never had a Black or ethnic minority headteacher. Personally, this meant that teaching was never seen for me as a profession that I aspired to as I never actually got to see myself represented in the profession.
When I got to college, I had two Black teachers. Two Black teachers who changed my outlook on life and outlook on education and how I could succeed. Now, I could only imagine that impact as a 5- or 7-year-old girl. I am now a teacher of much older students, those who have navigated through much of their education already, many of whom have formed a stereotype of what a teacher or headteacher looks like, many of whom have ruled out teaching as an option because they can’t see themselves represented in the teaching and staff body. This is worrying and I have often asked myself what the solution could be. The only way we can change this is if we feed representation into every stage of the education system, including early years and primary school. A more culturally diverse education system can only do good, it can only bring together a diverse amount of thought, ideas, and experiences to create an education system which truly values all.
Why is representation important
Diversity is important in education. Students need to be able to see themselves in their teachers. Now, this isn’t to say that White teachers can’t bring value to Black and Brown students – they absolutely can. I had many White teachers who made a positive impact on my life. But there is something about having a teacher that you can see yourself in. BAME teachers give minority ethnic students a chance to see what academic success looks like and it also gives them something to aspire to. For children, to see an adult which looks like them possess great qualities and an abundance of knowledge will of course leave them feeling inspired.
It provides hope and something to aspire too. You can’t be what you can’t see. This is also extremely important for White students. It helps to dismantle stereotypes and helps them to see the beauty of diversity for themselves. It also exposes them to different cultures and different views of the world. This is so valuable to students, especially if we are preparing them for the wider world where they will interact with people from all walks of life.
But this can’t stop with teachers in the classroom. School leaders also need to represent their students. Headteachers and senior leaders must also be diverse. For BAME students, seeing school leaders that reflect them is empowering and it also helps them to aspire to reach those positions.
Diversity vs Inclusion
Despite all the positivity around diversity, it’s important not to confuse diversity with inclusion. Having a diverse teaching workforce is great but to see the full impact, your institution must strive for inclusion.
Inclusion is giving all your staff equal opportunities and to ensure all staff feel comfortable and valued in the workplace. Only then will you see the real impact of diversity in education.
All staff should be able to have an input on policy and curriculum if there is truly going to be an education system which values all.
I believe that this is something which children should be exposed to from a very early age. Primary school is a time of curiosity and asking questions. If students are engaged in diverse and inclusive environments from this stage in their lives, it means that this will become their norm. When they move through their lives, they will be able to question if certain environments they are in are not inclusive and they can work towards creating this in their own institutions.
What can you do?
So, let’s think about how you can make change to have a real diverse and inclusive setting for your staff and students. What I am not suggesting is that tomorrow you begin an overhaul of the curriculum, begin to recruit only BAME teachers and hope that this will bring change. Instead take small steps towards a more diverse environment:
· Training – it is important to raise awareness and tackle unconscious bias and stereotypes that both staff and students may hold.
· Celebrate diversity in schools. Ensure that all holidays are celebrated and recognised
· Use images/resources that reflect students. When delivering lessons think about the pictures you use and the names that are used. Can you use the name Emmanuel instead of Harry? Do you typically use images of white people – can you change this?
· Get support – my organisation like some others support schools in creating diverse and inclusive environments
· Commit to long lasting change for the right reasons. Don’t engage in diversity for diversity’s sake
The push towards a diverse and inclusive education system is not easy but it’s worth it.
Rhia is founder and CEO of Black Teachers Connect.
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