The importance and power of strong leadership to create sustained change with respect to inclusion and diversity

This post is based on my contribution to the Boarding Schools’ Association online conference on Inclusion and Diversity on 14th October 2020. Thank you to BSA and Ammy Davies-Potter for inviting me to be part of this event.

“I want to conclude this opening session by focussing on the role of leaders in schools, if we are to move forward and achieve progress with respect to how diverse and inclusive our schools are.

I was a head in the independent sector for 10 years – until 2010.  Since then I have worked with many schools and leaders at all levels, focussing on leadership development, so I am still very much involved in the world of education.  I am keen to do all I can to support leaders so that THEY can support, and constructively challenge, those they lead to achieve their professional best.

I think it was Vic Goddard, the head of Passmores Academy, who said ‘as a head, you make the weather’.  School leaders have the opportunity to model the behaviour they hope others will emulate – students, staff, other leaders across the organisation, governors, even parents – all members of the wider school community.  The best leaders I know have a strong sense of moral purpose, integrity and humanity.  Their leadership is based on clear principles, and the groups and communities they lead know what these principles are.  Ideally, leaders need to LIFT those they lead, rather than grinding them down.

So modelling a principled commitment to respecting diversity and increasing inclusion is going to be part of this.  I expect that if you’re in this webinar you share this commitment, and you’re not just ticking a box to show you’ve paid lip-service to the issue.

How do leaders model this commitment?  I think it’s about proving yourself to be a strong ally, as Matthew has already mentioned this morning.  It’s about being determined to stand by those who face barriers as a result of their ethnicity, religion, culture, age, gender, sexuality or disability – whichever protected characteristic, or, taking into account the issue of intersectionality, whichever multiple characteristics, apply.  It’s about giving support to ensure others can take a seat at the table, and they can use their voice and be heard.  Can we help to amplify those voices and ensure we model receptivity, especially when what we hear may be challenging and difficult?  Can we be strong, powerful allies and encourage those we lead to embrace allyship too?  Can we stand up, not stand by?  Can we embrace discomfort and recognise that saying nothing doesn’t show respect?  Following the killing of George Floyd and the #BlackLivesMatter drive, I was really struck by the Martin Luther King quotation:

‘In the end what we remember will be not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.’

Sometimes when a situation is sensitive, we can feel reluctant to speak up out of fear of saying the wrong thing, choosing the wrong words.  I think we’ve realised in recent months that saying nothing could be the worst thing of all.  We have to have dialogue.  We need to listen and learn, raising our awareness and acting on what we learn. I really liked what Temi said earlier about moving from ‘intention’ to ‘impact’.

I’m very aware that I only have a few minutes, so I’ve given Ammy some recommendations to share with you – podcasts and readings, including an excellent blog post by Hannah Wilson about how to be an effective ally.  There are also links to two online events coming up – one specifically for governors, which I hope may be useful for you to pass on to others. See the references at the end of this post.

What do I think is important with respect to strong leadership to create sustained change in this area?

I have four suggestions to make this morning:

  1. Be clear about your school’s vision and values, and how a respect for diversity and inclusion is reflected in any statement of purpose and priorities and what your school stands for.  Ensure your principles are clearly communicated and understood within and beyond the school community, and that these principles are LIVED in the day to day life of the school – in your relationships, practices and policies.
  2. Be prepared to talk openly about the importance of respecting diversity and fostering inclusion – keep listening and learning.  Accept it will be uncomfortable at times, but be willing to embrace the complexity rather than shrinking from it.  This involves heads and governors working together, having robust conversations and ensuring you are aligned and pulling in the same direction.  It also involves engaging your students in discussion so that they know they are listened to and they are aware of different perspectives and the importance of equitability.  They are the next generation – the future and our best chance of achieving sustained change.
  3. Be willing to advocate for your students where there are tensions, for example between parents and their children over any issue to do with inclusion.  I think this is what good schools have always done – while trying to bring parents and children together when there is conflict, helping to resolve difficulties and find a way forward, schools still need to be clear that they are on the child’s side rather than (in the independent sector) automatically on the fee-payer’s, if their principles and moral purpose clearly indicate that this is the right thing to do.   Schools have to do the RIGHT thing, not the EASY thing.
  4. Lastly – work on the curriculum, alongside subject experts, to consider the curricular repercussions of a commitment to diversity and inclusion.  I’ve recently read ‘Leaders with Substance’, by headteacher Matthew Evans and he is excellent on the centrality of the curriculum and the focus on WHAT we are teaching and WHY we are teaching it, rather than just HOW we are teaching.

In summary, I think strong leadership is about being a strong ally, and encouraging those you lead to do the same. Courage is clearly needed – there may be pushback from some parents, some governors, some students, some staff.  As a head I remember the “This isn’t the kind of community I am buying into” conversation.  But if the behaviour or approach behind that sort of comment is actually discriminatory, we have to be strong enough to stand against it.

The resources and links will give further information and sources of support as school leaders determine to do all they can to be strong allies, to address inequity, to make progress and to move forward.

I recognise it isn’t easy.

I strongly believe it IS possible.  I don’t think you’d be here if you didn’t share that conviction.

I hope the rest of the day helps to confirm that.

Thank you for listening.”

References:

Anti-racist education – selected resources collated by The Chartered College

Black Lives Matter podcasts

Hannah Wilson (@Ethical_Leader) blog post on how to be an inclusive ally – which contains further resources within it

Forthcoming events:

Saturday 17th October, #DiverseEd: The Big Virtual Conversation II, from 8.45am to 1pm

Thursday 29th October, Diversity and Inclusion in schools online masterclass for governors, from 3-4pm, with Hannah Wilson and Bennie Kara

Photo credit: Boarding Schools Association

6 thoughts on “The importance and power of strong leadership to create sustained change with respect to inclusion and diversity

  1. Wonderful Jill and resonates with me. We have our staff twilight training session with Andrew Moffat next month and I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s event.
    So important that leaders are doing and saying the right things and that staff are well supported personally and professionally.

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  2. I agree with all of what you say but would like to add, the best heads I have worked under, who really make things happen are swift to form working groups of experienced and interested staff to develop strategies and empower staff to help lead real change. They involve students at an early stage in discussions, surveys and enlist the students help in creating meaningful and relevant resources such as artwork, posters/displays, videos, blogs etc. all of which is good practice for them in future careers and life. Links to the curriculum are of course imporant and should be audited, many staff are often doing this already, those that are not, should be reminded and encouraged. Momentum and real change. takes significant effort but sharing this responsibility and providing time is important too.

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