Diversity in schools – Strategies for cultivating inclusivity
Explore diversity in schools with these practical insights into selecting inclusive texts, fostering a teaching staff that mirrors the varied backgrounds of your students and more…
- by Teachwire
The importance of diversifying the English curriculum
English teacher Diane Lee discusses how diversifying her school’s English curriculum has led to amazing student outcomes…
Have you or are you on the journey to diversifying your English curriculum? Recent research from Pearson shows that when considering their use of diverse texts, 45% of English secondary teachers ‘now feel more confident teaching diverse texts than they did before.’
Diversifying your school’s English curriculum is not only imperative but can lead to inspirational lessons, introspective examinations and interesting outcomes. I’m proud to say we have successfully diversified our English curriculum with amazing student outcomes. Let me show you how…
Lit in Colour Pioneer Programme
It’s easy to become comfortable with the familiar, but this way we miss out on new experiences. My school recently moved from one beloved text – An Inspector Calls – to venture into the unknown.
Previously, we hadn’t even considered changing our text. However, when Pearson launched its Lit in Colour Pioneer programme, we firmly decided to dare to do something different.
Pearson’s 2023 School Report found that almost half of all English teachers ‘shared their belief that the subject should be evolved to better reflect the modern world and its people’. 64% of students agreed that they ‘learn better if they see people like them/from their background reflected in what they learn at school.’
Teaching is not just academic. We can assist young people in becoming emotionally literate, competent and compassionate by sharing our own gut-wrenching stories of unfairness or injustice and encouraging them to do the same.
Within a classroom, through the discussions you have, the texts you read, the creative writing tasks you set and the classroom activities you hold, English lessons can develop children and young people more than they think.
What books are you reading with your class? The same as always? I am the first to appreciate that not all schools have the luxury to make changes to their curriculum due to budget, resources or even an unwillingness to let go of the familiar.
But the latter, especially, can also be your danger zone. Don’t confuse familiarity with safety. Safety for whom? For you, the educator, maybe, but not for your students, ultimately.
Teaching a text year in, year out, can dull your senses to the different ways of seeing and teaching the themes, context, plot events and the nuances of characters. I know; I have been there. But you can approach each text from a fresh vantage point.
“Don’t confuse familiarity with safety”
Seeing an old text through a new lens can add a richness and, dare I say it, a more compassionate view of the characters and the text as a whole. Try studying Shakespeare but seek out more modern adaptations or study texts critically looking at characters through an intersectional lens.
When teaching Othello, for example, research new lectures, resources and critical ideas on a variety of media platforms which can assist in your planning and teaching of the text. At the same time, tap into resources and materials from renowned institutions such as King’s College London and the Globe Theatre. These can only enhance, enrich and expand your students’ educational experience.
Changing to Refugee Boy
Conversely, if you are able to make the switch and choose different texts, then go for it. By being part of the Lit in Colour programme we are fortunate to receive free set texts by writers of colour. This allowed us to retire a long-taught GCSE text and introduce a fresh, more relatable story – the play adaption of Benjamin Zephaniah’s Refugee Boy by Lemn Sissay.
In a predominantly white student population school in Suffolk, making this change was not only important to us but it allowed us to introduce our students to a text in which the protagonist has been treated unfairly. Did our students more readily identify with the unfair treatment because it resonates and connects with their own experiences? The answer is an emphatic and resounding ‘yes’.
The change in text has also fostered compassion on numerous occasions. While teaching context alongside the text, my class watched a powerful video on the refugee experience, and another on ‘What they took with them’, featuring a poem read by famous actors.
This led to a discussion about what they had seen and what they would take with them if they had to leave their home suddenly and flee persecution, conflict or war. From there, we did an imaginative writing activity.
I can honestly say that what my Year 10s wrote that day truly demonstrated that they ‘understood the assignment.’
As the CLPE’s Reflecting Realities report (2020) notes: ‘‘As human beings, there are some key universal similarities that bind us but there are also key distinctions in our lived experiences. A book can serve as a stimulus for exploring points of difference, providing recognition and affirmation for readers who can identify and provide invaluable insight for those who may not.”
Walking my students through learning opportunities, actively encouraging them to put themselves in the place of a character they are studying is vital.
Successfully teaching and creating moments to develop students’ empathic skills is so much more than explicitly stating that is what you are doing.
Theodore Roosevelt once stated, “No one will care how much you know until they know how much you care.” As an educator who desires to prepare their students to be global citizens, I am sure you model the type of behaviour you wish to see in your students: caring, compassionate and empathetic.
Thus, as you pass on the invisible empathy baton to your students, they in turn will grab it with both hands and run their own race on the path set before them. Their lives will stretch far beyond your classroom, and hopefully that same baton will be perpetually passed on.
Never forget: you are the curator of your class’s compassion, comprehension and empathy through another’s person’s reality and lived experience.
You are in a powerful position to invite your students to literally and metaphorically sit at a table where you have invited others who may not look like them or have similar life experiences. You can do this every time you introduce them to characters who are not like them.
True inclusion ensures that you are intentional about pulling out a seat at the table. When you do that, you are demonstrating that you want everyone to feel as though they are welcome and that they belong.
We see the acronym ‘EDI’ (equality, diversity and inclusion) everywhere. As Stormzy said in 2022, don’t just use diversity as a buzzword. “Whatever position you’re in, whatever role you play, [try to be] a driving factor for [diversity] and not just see it as a quota or as a box to tick.”
With Pearson reporting that almost eight in ten English teachers in secondary schools have diversified their texts in the past three years, with more than a third reporting increased student engagement and more enjoyable lessons as a direct result, what’s stopping you?
- Teach diverse and topical texts which students can connect with, such as the play adaptation of Refugee Boy by Lemn Sissay.
- Look at more traditional texts through a different lens. Check out The Shakespeare Centre London.
- Be willing to sit with discomfort, understanding that students may be sitting in discomfort beneath your very gaze.
- Have uncomfortable and vulnerable conversations with colleagues about what you know, don’t know and about what you need to learn.
- Commit to meaningful CPD which can help you become more insightful.
- If working with children who are forcibly displaced or children who have experienced trauma, try the ‘Healing Classroom’ approach – this is free, trauma-informed training delivered by the International Rescue Committee.
- Keep an eye out for commemorating calendar days like Windrush Day, but don’t limit your activity to just these days!
Diane Lee is an English teacher at Stowmarket High School in Suffolk. The school is part of Pearson’s Lit in Colour Pioneers Programme whcih supports schools to develop a more diverse English Literature curriculum through free access to set texts, a library donation of 300 books and responsive and informed training.
Fewer quick fixes, more inclusive texts
Jessica Tacon explains why it’s not enough to cite lack of time for not giving students a more diverse of books to read and learn from…
The meaning of ‘knee-jerk’ is ‘A quick reaction that does not allow you time to consider something carefully’.
When a particular topic or issue assumes public prominence – despite often having always been of paramount importance, as with diversity and inclusion in education – or acquires a sense of urgency, people can often feel pressure to react, or even actively resist.
The pressure I’m referring to here comes from the shared expectation that education should be diverse and inclusive. This is something which we’ve failed to fully address over decades. The pressure point is the realisation of this failing. It’s the point at which organisations feel the need to respond in order to be seen as ‘doing the right thing’.
Making time, not taking time
The bottom line, however, is that schools absolutely shouldn’t engage in knee-jerk reactions or quick-fix solutions to improving diversity and inclusion within education.
We should, however, make it a priority to locate that beautiful balance between speed and effective solutions. This is because the first organisation to make changes in the name of diversity and inclusion won’t necessarily be one that’s done the work properly.
Expressing support for a cause without taking concrete action can be a good thing – note, can. Too many organisations, schools included, have used the excuse of wanting to ‘take their time’ to disguise the reality that diversity and inclusion aren’t really their priorities.
For inclusion work to be successful, we must carve out time at a systemic level for the required planning and implementation. So what might that look like?
Here, I’d like to present some examples of what all schools, not just secondaries, should consider when reflecting on whether their current approach(es) to diversity and inclusion are meaningfully purposeful.
- Are any of the initiatives you’re planning primarily aimed at showing that you’re prioritising diversity and inclusion, rather than being motivated by a genuine drive for change? (See ‘diverse’ book corners in school libraries, or one-off staff training sessions).
- What are the three main aims of your initiative(s), and how suited are they to your proposed methodology? You might best achieve an initiative aimed at encouraging students to ‘write themselves’, as writer Darren Chetty puts it, into their via expert-led workshops, or skills-based resources that you can employ in a variety of writing tasks.
- How do you intend to measure the resulting impact? The feedback or assessment measures
method you use will likely depend on the setting you’re in and the type of initiative you have in mind.
Pillars of work
Let’s now look at the different pillars of work. Are the materials you’re offering diverse and inclusive in the truest sense? Who wrote them, and what sources or authorities do they cite?
Consider also whether any ‘diversity training’ you offer is diverse and inclusive in the truest sense. How often will you give the training? How will you measure its impact, and how frequently?
Moreover, are interactions between staff, colleagues, students and visitors at the school conducted with due sensitivity towards, and awareness of diversity and inclusion?
This might involve being aware of ‘who is in the room’ and the different roles performed by individuals in said room, and ensuring that everyone feels safe in sharing their ideas and challenging those of others.
Does this kind of input shed any further light on questions that may have been answered previously, but without being discussed in much detail?
Some questions to consider more generally might include:
- Is a specific individual currently leading on diversity and inclusion? If so, how will you continue to prioritise these areas if that person ever leaves? Be aware of how you’re supporting or compensating the relevant staff member for the extra
work they’re doing.
- Are all members of staff aware of, and working towards a shared goal of prioritising diversity and inclusion? If not, then this has just become your chief priority.
- Teachers are time-poor. As an organisation, how do you therefore intend to carve out sufficient time to ensure you embed and maintain all of the above at all levels via multiple avenues? Examples include regular compulsory training or evaluation time during training days.
A vicious cycle
These questions might seem messy and long-winded, but as we all know, this work is precisely that. You might see the effort involved in addressing these as a barrier, but it doesn’t and shouldn’t provide an excuse for tokenism, empty virtue-signalling and quick fixes – the latter of which typically solve very little.
When we look closely at the undeniable benefits of providing a truly diverse and inclusive education, we can’t afford not to consider every conceivable aspect of the above questions in all that we do.
So what does all this mean for English? English A Level uptake has been in decline for some time. Research is ongoing as to why, but initial findings show that students don’t feel that English is relevant to them, or able to offer career pathways that will interest them.
In 2018/19, only 19% of students taking A Level English literature were Black, Asian or of a minority ethnicity. The Runnymede Trust found that in 2018, nearly 92% of teachers in state funded schools were White, while in 2020, the publishing industry media outlet Publishing Perspectives found that just 13% of people working in the publishing industry were Black, Asian or of a minority ethnicity.
At present, it’s not unusual for pupils to leave school having never read or studied any book written by a Black author. Penguin Random House recently carried out research which shows this. It would seem that there’s a vicious cycle at work, in that everywhere young people turn, they don’t see themselves.
A real reflection
The writer Junot Díaz once observed that, “You know how vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror … 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.”
What Díaz describes here about representation is a particular area of concern that these changes can help to address. As The Runnymede Trust puts it, schools must look beyond “Representation, and the pitfalls of tokenism, to thinking about how schools can be proactive in tackling racism.”
Ultimately, what we offer in educational settings can’t be called an education in the truest sense until we represent, include and celebrate every child in some way. We’re already behind as it is. What we need to do now is come together and push forward diversity.
There is no other option.
Jessica Tacon is second in English at City of London Academy and a member of NATE’s ‘Reviewing Literature’ working group; for more thought-provoking articles on diversity within schools’ literature provision, visit Pearson’s Plotting Ahead webpage at go.pearson.com/plottingahead
To what extent should you ensure your teaching staff is diverse?
Three headteachers share their views with Adam W Hunter…
Your school should have a diverse teaching staff. That’s a pledge enshrined in the government’s 2018 Statement of intent on the diversity of the teaching workforce, which talks of wanting to see ‘More women and ethnic minority teachers’ in leadership, and doing ‘more’ for teachers from the LGBT community and those with disabilities.
What national statistics miss, however, are the nuances at play within individual schools. Here, headteachers must appoint, develop, and empower staff who serve their own distinct community. Every teacher must look at their own school and ask – have we got this right?
I spoke to three London headteachers about the diversity challenges they have faced when recruiting and supervising staff:
- Mouhssin Ismail of Newham Collegiate Sixth Form
- Katharine Birbalsingh of Michaela Community School
- Dominic Bergin of The Elmgreen School
“I personally like hiring ethnic minority teachers, just because the kids are 95% ethnic minority,” says Katharine Birbalsingh. “If this were a majority white school, then I might not be concerned. And it would be a bit hard if all the teachers were men, or were women. I suppose I’d go out of my way at that point.”
For Dominic Bergin, having teachers and students who share heritage allows school to be a more relevant and positive experience. “There are such complexities around these communities’ achievements, around their families’ experience of schooling and the rich cultural capital those families have,” he says. “The school should reflect that.”
For these three headteachers, a key consideration is having adults who can share relevant experience, and for students to see role models they can identify with.
“I actually think it’s less important when it comes to their teachers,” Birbalsingh says. “It’s more important that lawyers, doctors, management consultants and so on come and talk to them. This is so that they can imagine that those paths are also open to them.”
Mouhssin Ismail adds, “It’s important to have a diversity of views and perspectives, because it enriches the conversation. There are some students who don’t think Oxford University is for them.
Part of it is seeing someone who looks like them. But more importantly, it’s seeing someone from a similar background and realising what it’s possible for them to do.”
The be-all and end-all
None of the three, however, have any explicit policy on the make-up of their teaching staff. “What’s more important is that they’re being taught by a good teacher,” asserts Birbalsingh.
Similarly, Ismail observes that, “For me, whilst diversity is important, the first thing is having talented people. I think sometimes we can get caught up with diversity for diversity’s sake. We miss out on talented people as a consequence.”
Bergin meanwhile concludes that, “You can’t just throw somebody in, or presume they think [ethnicity] is the be-all and end-all of who they are, because it won’t be. Every person is different.”
Bergin goes on to suggest that governors can often be overtly anxious about diversity among staff. However, he maintains that it takes time to build the right people, and for those people to come through.
Birbalsingh repeatedly brings the narrative back to her students. “In my earlier days I did surveys with kids, asking whether gender mattered to them, race mattered to them, and so on,” she says. “Every time, 98% of kids would say they just didn’t care. What they wanted was a good teacher.”
The bigger picture
If it isn’t the demographic make-up of their colleagues, then, what does diversity actually mean to these three headteachers?
“It’s not just about gender or race,” maintains Ismail, “it’s also about socioeconomic background. Social class isn’t talked about much, which is a massive issue in terms of glass ceilings. On another level it’s about diversity of thought. I want people challenging my thinking, because if they don’t, you miss things. Clearly, if you’ve got people with different viewpoints and experiences, you’ll have a more enriching education.”
Birbalsingh, meanwhile, prefers to consider wider societal issues when it comes to maintaining a balanced staff room.
“Too often in education, you can sort of predict what people think – on politics, or the environment, or which newspapers to read,” she says.
“I would find it very difficult to predict what my staff think, and the school tends to attract diverse thinkers. You could have had a different job, come from a working class background, or from the countryside or the city. You want children to be exposed to a real variety of people.”
For Ismail, it’s not necessarily the teacher’s background that matters. It’s about their commitment to the young people of Newham. “It is about high expectations,” he says.
“If you have an Oxbridge degree, and you’ve had privilege your whole life, that’s less important than if you have that passion and drive for supporting disadvantaged people getting to Oxford and Cambridge.
“You can say, ‘This is what my peers did when I was growing up. This is what you need to do to bridge that gap.’ I quite like the phrase ‘meritocratic hubris’. It’s the idea that people get to certain positions supposedly because of their talents alone. We fail to realise it’s also due in large part to other people supporting them.
It’s important to say to young people, ‘Whether you’re from a middle-class background, or you’re white, male or female – they’re all there to support you.’”
Pulling the levers
And yet, individual headteachers will still find themselves faced with certain choices when appointing and promoting staff. All three seem to agree that diversity is important. So I ask what levers, if any, they can pull in matters of recruitment and staff development.
Without an explicit policy being put in pace, the make-up of Bergin’s staff room has nonetheless changed markedly over his seven-year tenure. This is an organic result, he says, of values expressed in “Internal structures, how you advertise and the language you use about the school.”
In Ismail’s view, “It’s still about meritocracy. If there is an area where there isn’t representation, then we encourage more people from a particular group to [apply], if they have the talent and experience. Identifying gaps is one thing; supporting people to think they should be applying is another.”
For Birbalsingh, the issue is a complex one with no correct answer. “It’s never cut and dried. You’re looking for the right fit at that point in time. I would consider diversity, just as I would consider whether I need more presence in the corridors, or stronger organisational skills.”
Teachers must therefore examine their own staff rooms, and consider whether the school truly represents their values, and is ultimately doing as well as it can by the students its care.
- According to findings from the Education Policy Institute (2020) and the latest government data, around 35% of secondary teachers are male (around 15% in primary schools) and the number is falling; around two-thirds of headteachers are female
- Government data from 2019 shows that 85.7% of all teachers (and 92.7% of headteachers) in state-funded schools in England were White British, compared to 78.5% of the working age population in the 2011 Census
- Reliable data describing other measures of diversity are difficult to find; a TeacherTapp survey of voting behaviour dating from 2019 showed that out of 3,317 respondents, 56% supported Labour, 14% Conservatives, 13% Lib Dems and 5% Greens
Adam W Hunter is a former teacher turned writer, journalist and musician. Follow him at @adamwhunter.
A letter to white teachers
Do all your colleagues feel accepted and equal at school? Take a little time to give it some thought, says ex-teacher turned writer Jeffrey Boakye…
When I started teacher training back in 2007, I was the only black student on my course.
Armed with a tweed blazer, leather satchel and head full of bright ideas, I wasn’t going to let my minority status get in the way of making a difference – it was going to be just like the recruitment campaigns said it would be.
But looking back now, there are conversations that I think I would have benefitted from, and that would have helped me in my journey to the classroom.
I’m talking about my blackness. How refreshing it would have been for my racial identity to be acknowledged, considering how much of an anomaly it made me at the time. What I needed was recognition of my identity in full, especially the so-called marginalised parts.
Recognising lived experiences
We all need this kind of recognition. Sixteen years after I first stepped up to the whiteboard, I now visit schools and meet teachers across the country. It’s a community of my peers, like you, if you are a teacher reading right now.
One recurring theme is the responsibility held by schools and the wider educational system to celebrate identity and recognise lived experiences, plural, from our various and differing perspectives.
It sounds obvious, but many (maybe all) of us have parts of our identity that can be side-lined by dominant society, be it ethnic heritage, race, sexuality, disability or unspoken trauma, to list just a few examples.
Diversity in schools
It’s not controversial to suggest that every sector needs to be inclusive, but what does that really mean? A useful metaphor is that of the host of a dinner party; because there’s a huge difference between the host who neglects to consider the needs of their guests, and the host who actively builds those needs into the evening’s shared experience.
At its best, inclusion is this process of welcoming the whole person out of the margins and into the centre. As a teacher marginalised by race, I know what it’s like to be the ‘guest’.
And in terms of my black identity, I initially did what any good guest fearing for their safety in an unknown context would do: I left it at the door. I kept a low profile. I decided not to say anything that might upset the host and lead to me being thrown out. Assimilation as survival.
Teachers who are racialised as white will never have to leave their racial identity at the door in order to survive the system. Their safety within dominant society is not jeopardised by the colour of their skin.
This is a fact of how white supremacy has been constructed in modern western society, in the exact same way that my maleness will never be a problem in a sexist patriarchy, and my heterosexuality will never be questioned in a homophobic context.
Equally, my Britishness means that I will never be a ‘foreigner’, while my able-bodiedness allows me to live freely without any issues of accessibility.
For white teachers, the task becomes recognising how whiteness aligns you to social dominance that you didn’t ask for. Whiteness will always make you welcome and comfortable – so much so that you might not have spent any real time thinking about it at all.
“For white teachers, the task becomes recognising how whiteness aligns you to social dominance that you didn’t ask for”
In a profound sense, the modern west is built out of values that are inextricably tied to white supremacy, seeded way back in the 17th century for reasons of colonialism, European imperialism and global economic exploitation.
We can see this echoed in the curriculum, which historically fails to include narratives outside of a white, western, European paradigm.
It’s not about feeling guilt or shame. None of us designed this society or its structures. But education provides an opportunity to address structural inequality and seek truth.
Over 90 per cent of current UK teachers are white and British; we can’t allow for blind-spots regarding the history of race politics.
With disproportionate exclusion rates, higher levels of stop and search, attainment bias and discrimination that can sit at policy level and beyond, racism is a safeguarding issue. And safeguarding, as you know, is a shared responsibility.
So, challenge the curriculum. Disrupt the party. Question the hosts and seek a greater breadth of representation within your specialism.
If it helps, start with what you notice from the perspective of your most marginalised identity, then consider how these insights might illuminate your approach overall.
If you can do that, then you might be able to do the same thing from perspectives outside of your lived experience too, creating empathy in a system that can so often pull in the opposite direction.
Jeffrey Boakye is an ex-teacher turned writer, speaker, broadcaster and educator, with a particular interest in issues surrounding race, masculinity, education and popular culture. His books include Musical World, Kofi and the Rap Battle Summer and I Heard What You Said.