How we embedded greater diversity and inclusion in our school

There is no school without the students, and so we must not only include them, but be prepared to learn from them.

By Bex Bothwell-O’Hearn, History and Politics teacher at a high school and sixth form in Suffolk

As an educator, I pride myself in equipping children with the knowledge and skills to be able to succeed later in life. With growing globalisation, I’m convinced that it is more important than ever to prepare children for the diverse future that awaits them.

Recent events such as the Covid-19 pandemic, and the murder of George Floyd have vividly exposed the extent of inequalities that exist today.

This has led many educators, including myself, to demand an urgent review of the education system, and to ensure schools truly represent and reflect society. I’ve learnt that integrating greater diversity into our school has not been a sprint, but a marathon.

Whilst we have kick-started our school’s journey towards better representation, I am under no illusion about what we still we have to do.

So, this is my personal take on what our school did, the challenges we faced and the things we have learned along the way.

Create safe, diverse spaces

This was such a priority for our school when we started committing to make our school more diverse and inclusive.

Creating open spaces where students and staff can meet creates a sense of belonging and safety.

This is important in all settings, but particularly in schools where there is not a range of identities reflected in the school staff.

This certainly was the case in our school, where the staff were predominantly white, and where I was the only openly LGBTQ+ member.

It is imperative that young people do not go through their entire educational timeline without ever seeing or having the opportunities to communicate with somebody who looks like them or identifies in the same way.

Bex Bothwell-O’Hearn is a history and politics teacher at a high school and sixth form in Suffolk.

Due to the intersectionality of students in our school, we formed a Diversity and Community Group – this was open to all ages and to all staff in order to create an inclusive forum.

The group meets every week to discuss ways to make the school more inclusive and raise awareness of current struggles for equality.

It might be that the students in your school prefer a number of separate groups to cater for each community, or it might be that a broader human rights or diversity group is appropriate for your school.

Our school also has a human rights group, a sixth form wellbeing committee and a student ambassador scheme to tackle anti-bullying. We involved the students and staff in making this decision and let the students lead and set the agenda.

However, it is important to remember that whilst students should be at the very heart of a school’s diversity approach, it is staff and leaders who must be the real drivers of change.

In our school, the approach is very much being championed from SLT; one deputy head is responsible for diversifying teaching and learning whilst another is leading on diversity with regards to pastoral intervention and behaviour policy.

I personally have witnessed the impact of this. There has been notable increase in conversations between staff about the importance of diversity and inclusion, there is a buzz about this work and a real collective understanding about why we are doing this.

Action student voice

Conducting regular student voice has become a big part of our school’s diversity and inclusion approach.

We felt that a failure to gather quality student voice and an unwillingness to listen would result in disengagement and leave students from underrepresented groups feeling marginalised.

Why would students go through the sometimes traumatic and triggering processes of sharing their lived experiences with the school if nothing changes? We cannot expect that our whole-school approach will change just by listening and not acting.

We facilitate online, face-to-face and focus group discussions in order to help us identify areas for development as well as things that are working well.

As a result, we recognised the need to represent more black, Asian and ethnic minorities in our curriculum and in our physical environment.

This has led to a revamp of our tutorial resources and our History and Geography curriculum to include more black and Asian role models, writers and topics.

Audit and ask for help

This is the moment where your journey towards greater representation and inclusion can really start accelerating, but it will be an uncomfortable and difficult leg! You cannot make progress if you do not know where you are at currently.

Schools must begin by auditing their policies, practice and curriculum. This process can be scary at first; the discovery and realisation that institutional structures might actually have deep-rooted inequalities can cause schools to go on the defensive, and shy away from making progress.

Whilst we thought our history curriculum was quite global and representative, we realised that we had missed so many opportunities to speak and engage with our students.

For example, there was ample opportunity to include the rich cultures of Africa and scope to deliver less Eurocentric and Westernised narratives. I personally remember a feeling of ‘imposter syndrome’ - here I was leading diversity student groups and my own lesson planning was not even hitting the mark!

But I have learnt that it is better to be proactive. In our school’s experience, asking for help from experts and organisations has given us a fresh, outside perspective rather than an insular one, and as a result, a more holistic, authentic review is taking place.

One of the biggest things I have learnt is that individuals must also check their own knowledge and privileges on both a personal and professional level.

In doing this personally, I was able to identify specific areas of learning that I didn’t think I needed before.

The support from Ipswich Council of Racial Equality (ISCRE) and Vision and Voice has helped review all of our organisational policies through the lens of all protected characteristics.

In addition, our school teamed up with the Suffolk Archives for their Pride Exhibition, which saw students contribute contemporary works whilst the school benefited from integrating historical local LGBTQ+ stories into the curriculum.

Furthermore, our school has worked with Outreach Youth, a local LGBTQ+ charity, to provide staff training.

Partnering with these organisations, I have learnt that we do not know everything. They have given us insight into the different demographics in our community which has helped us better understand their needs - something which I, as a classroom teacher with the daily pressures that come with the job, might have not been able to find out about.

Communicate with families

A big part of achieving a real cultural shift in schools is to ensure that families of students and the wider local community are kept up-to-date with what is happening with regards to embedding greater diversity and inclusion.

One of the barriers our school faced was that much of the work we had started doing with regards to black history, anti-racism and disability education had been happening but parents and carers were unaware.

This ran the risk of alienating specific communities. As a result of this realisation, our school started to use social media accounts to showcase our diversity work to families and the community.

For example, students created a video showcasing the organisations we were working with and shared posts about their work for International Women’s Day, Deaf Awareness Week and Trans Awareness Week.

Similarly, information about anti-racist staff training, changes to curriculum and homemade staff videos have allowed us to be transparent in our approach. A recent video where staff named their LGBTQ+ icons received an outpouring of support from parents and the local community.

Consider the ways in which you involve families and the local area in your work.

Are you telling them that you are committed? Are you asking for their input?

It’s important for everyone to go on this adventure together.

Collaborate on curriculum

This is where we can make the biggest difference to our young people - in the classroom itself.

This is where the lessons children receive can truly speak to them and have an impact, not just on their acquisition of knowledge but on their self-worth and wellbeing.

After auditing the curriculum, consider where you can make the most significant changes. It does not have to involve re-writing the entire scheme of work overnight.

In our school, we decided to start with three subjects first; History, Geography and PSHE. We did this because we felt this was where we could make the most significant changes and be able to bring the content right up-to-date with current affairs, offering better scope for representation and diversity.

We also agreed to prioritise our Key Stage 3 curriculum because we felt we could really hit the ground running with Year 7 - we wanted students to see diversity fully embedded all through their time with us. Initially, we started to look at the lack of role models and significant individuals within those subjects and used this as a starting point to then tailor our topics and units.

Whatever you decide, it is essential to involve students and staff in this work. This shows students that their willingness to share their own lived experiences was worth it - they will be able to bring about actual change.

For example, our Diversity and Community Group wrote an LGBTQ+ Language Toolkit to equip staff with the terminology to discuss and embed LGBTQ+ themes into their lessons.

It is also important that staff, senior management and governors are held accountable for implementing and reviewing diversity strategies in schools. In our school, embedding greater diversity and inclusion now forms part of the School Improvement Plan as well as the Performance Management criteria.

This ensures that a cohesive, unified and consistent approach to diversity takes place.

Consider who is accountable and responsible for this in your setting.

Does it always fall to one person? There must be a whole school buy-in when it comes to diversity and inclusion.

I’ve found the experience of embedding diversity and inclusion strategies both revealing but humbling.

I have learnt the importance of asking for help and working collectively.

As a school, this journey has shone a light on the power of acting upon student voice. After all, there is no school without the students, and so we must not only include them, but be prepared to learn from them.

We are pleased with the progress we have started to make but we really want to get to the point next year where our more authentic curriculum starts to be delivered so we can assess the impact.

Our priorities moving forward are to reach out to parents and families more, lead regular cultural celebrations, review our physical environment, and have a whole school push on stamping out prejudiced-related behaviour and language.

We don’t just want to improve things for now. We want to create a legacy.

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