Home Opinion "We must inspire private schools to be changemakers on racism"

“We must inspire private schools to be changemakers on racism”

Temi Akindele Barker

It has been a year of reckoning for all of us and as we near its conclusion, one thing is certain: many of the difficulties we have been dealing with will carry over into 2021 and perhaps beyond.  

Following the horrific murder of George Floyd in May, which led to protests against racism around the world, the spotlight has been on the issue of inequality.

I am an alumna of a private school and the parent of a Black child at a private school. I want private schools to become more diverse, equitable and inclusive and have therefore set up Inclusion Labs, which works with schools to become more diverse, equitable and inclusive.  

According to the Independent Schools Council, there are approximately 1,300 private schools under its membership in the UK (and abroad). Many of these schools have failed to make tangible commitments to tackling the injustice felt by many across the sector. Their silence when the issues were first raised was conspicuous. Surely they must realise that not taking a stance is taking a stance?

This has a profound impact on families. For instance, one Black family at a leading private school in London voiced in a WhatsApp group their discomfort at the silence of their child’s school during the Black Lives Matter protests. This child is the only Black child in the whole school, and the usual sense of isolation felt by that family was worsened by the school’s refusal to address what was occurring on a global scale – or at the very least to condemn all acts of racism.

I have now spoken to many parents in the sector who have shared horrendous accounts of some of their experiences and responses from schools. The frustrations of Black and Asian couples ran parallel to each other.

One parent revealed how she was left in tears of frustration following a meeting with her child’s school where their experience of racism was dismissed and she was made to feel as though her concerns were almost a figment of her imagination. Another explained how they constantly requested the removal of a particular resource that was offensive in its positioning of Black identity – only for it to remain in the classroom.

And to think, we pay for the privilege. A parent once told me: “If you want diversity, you have to move to a state school”.

The truth is, the private school sector is shockingly behind on most matters of diversity and inclusion, and there has been no significant advancement in this area from the time I was a pupil in the sector to now, when my child is one.

I have listened to senior leaders in meetings ask questions such as: “Surely there must be really talented Black or minority ethnic teachers?” This shows that they are miles from understanding how offensive and strange that sounds.

The fact is, of course, that there are many talented Black, Asian and ethnically diverse teachers, so the question is, why are schools unable to reach them, recruit them and, most importantly, retain them?

Not only does this perpetuate the myth of a dearth of diverse talent, it also sets a dangerous example to generations of pupils in private schools, who are not seeing ethnically diverse individuals in roles of responsibility and power. What are we subliminally telling our children?

There were some in the sector, including parents, that believed doing this work and addressing these issues was “pandering” or turning schools into “political environments”. They believed this to be a knee-jerk reaction.

It will come as no surprise to hear that most of those people are not from an underrepresented group. Black Lives Matter is important and it is part of a broader narrative about diversity and inclusion.

From families to teaching staff, governors to curriculum, it is clear that many private schools do not know where or how to start, and find it uncomfortable when the subject of a lack of diversity is broached. Leadership and teachers get defensive, and pupils and parents are thus made to feel awkward and uneasy. The result of this is an array of splinter WhatsApp groups or hushed conversations among the underrepresented.

If families such as ours do not feel that any school community we are a part of willingly and regularly emphasises that any difference is important and welcomed, then we are left doubting what the school stands for.

It is not enough for schools to state that they are a diverse and inclusive school community. They must also do the active work to support that claim and constantly create that environment. This is not about “pandering”. This is about creating awareness and lasting change.  

However, the reality is that schools are not equipped to lead this work. There are nuances to this work that cannot be guessed. Lived experience counts for so much. This means most private schools start off on the wrong foot by virtue of their lack of representation across their school communities. Simply put: “You don’t know what you don’t know.”

To dismantle racism or homophobia, we must go to the heart of it. Pupils shouldn’t just hear about diversity and inclusion; they should experience it. But how do private schools ensure this if their current landscape does not reflect the wider world that we live in?  

The answer is not for families from diverse backgrounds to turn their backs on the private school sector. Instead, the sector must ensure it shifts its focus from performative to sustained commitment.

One important starting point for private schools is admitting they have a lot of privilege. Many private schools feel uncomfortable admitting this – and, indeed, admitting another truth, which is that privilege itself is not a bad thing.

What is bad is denying that you have it or not using it to advocate for and support others who are vulnerable, most especially those within your care.

So an anti-racist school and education system identifies and challenges everything that perpetuates the systemic oppression of all underrepresented groups. They step back and let those with lived experience lead, something that doesn’t necessarily sit comfortably with institutions who are used to leading.

But our awareness and the school’s version of awareness are different things. An all-white cohort cannot lead reform on race. An all-heterosexual cohort cannot lead reform on LGBTQ+. An all-male cohort cannot lead reform on gender equality.  

Families and pupils have shared what they termed “flimsy toolkits that have obviously been repurposed”, webinars that have been “ineffective”, as schools fumble “around making a hash of their responses” to various issues.  

The answer to that is quite simply for schools to change who they are talking to, who they are listening to, who they are collaborating with. Schools should not commit to training or webinars or toolkits if they don’t understand the why of it.

If they are not able to connect the dots between any training and how this will make a difference to my daughter, it will remain ineffective for everyone involved.  

We need to inspire teachers and this sector as a whole to be change-makers. To be personally invested in this journey and to recognise that each of them can create a domino effect from one young person to the next that will ultimately shape and activate a generation of global citizens.

The road ahead is long, the issues constantly faced are exhausting, but I am optimistic. Schools, organisations and specialists have joined us on a collective journey, committing to change one shared step at a time – to be beacons for change.

This piece was co-published with The Independent.

Temi Akindele Barker is founder of Inclusion Labs, an organisation providing diversity and inclusivity programmes in schools.

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