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‘Racism exists in me’ – a challenge to Scottish education leaders to reflect on their positionality

Cross-posted from Centre for Education and Race Equality in Scotland – Blog post by Lesley Whelan, Head of Professional Learning and Leadership at Education Scotland

Great educational leadership might previously have acknowledged that racism exists. A bigger challenge within educational leadership, and our collective professional learning, is to take the step towards understanding that ‘racism exists in me.’ And, perhaps the biggest challenge, the most jarring of all, is to acknowledge that racism exists in my school or organisation. Scotland’s education system is on a journey towards this zone of self-discovery from both internal work, including the enshrining of UNCRC into legislation and the Teaching in a Diverse Scotland report, and from the external seismic shift in understanding racism that global movements like Black Lives Matters creates.

A sobering reminder of how far we still have to go in this journey was provided at a recent discussion when a contributor shared that when it came to being considered for promotion at school level completing an Education Scotland professional learning programme ‘held more value for some than others.’  The Teaching In A Diverse Scotland (2018) report was a crucial moment in this national journey that helped school leaders and system leaders to understand the lived experiences of BME educators and the barriers they face into formal leadership posts. Attempts have been made to support change across the system however that has not impacted greatly on systemic issues. A progress report  Teaching in a diverse Scotland – increasing and retaining minority ethnic teachers: 3 years on was launched in March 2021 and stresses once again the crucial role school leaders play where they can be enablers or disablers.

Designing and leading professional learning and leadership as part of Education Scotland we realised that we needed to improve our own racial literacy in order to best support the racial literacy of others.  As a team we engaged in learning around bias and anti-racist education sessions with partners. Some joined the Scottish Government’s Race Equality Network and engaged in internal provision, including sessions on critical race theory, and are now participating in the Mutual Mentoring Programme within the civil service. We’re leading on actions directly from the Teaching in a Diverse Scotland working group and from the Race Equality Action Plan and as a result we’ve made changes and additions to our programmes to better reflect the current context including sessions focused on anti-racism being built into each professional level of the programmes we deliver.  And, where expertise existed in the system already, we have supported through funding and otherwise, the expansion of BME-led professional learning.

So, more widely, what role do Scotland’s education leaders play in supporting the system in its journey? Firstly,  leaders in any system support that system to evolve (or not).  A key role of leadership is to work to ensure that systems, processes and procedures do not discriminate but promote and include and that barriers are removed.  We know that leaders set the tone and shape the culture, ethos and practices in an organisation. Active engagement by leaders in developing and supporting anti-racist practices in schools and across the education system is needed to make greater progress.

Through leadership, we can model the changes we want to see. For example, ensuring that we actively recruit for diversity. Data in Scotland shows there is a disproportionately small number of Black and Minority Ethnic teachers in our schools and that this disproportionality is further heightened when looking at senior leadership roles. When recruiting how widely do we cast the net? Who do we encourage to come forward for leadership positions (formally and informally)? What are we actively doing to provide opportunities to broaden leadership experiences?  Through our actions, what messages are we sending out and promoting about what’s valued in our school and community?  Is ‘diversity’ a picture display in our school reception area, or is it an active part of our recruitment and retention of staff and wider succession planning?

Reni Eddo-Lodge writes, “insinuating that any current majority white leadership in any industry has got there through hard work and no outside help, as if whiteness isn’t its own leg up, as if it doesn’t imply a familiarity that warms an interviewer to a candidate… [is] wilful ignorance” (Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race).

Through leadership we can challenge perceptions.  We can recognise, and encourage others to recognise, our biases and to work to ensure those don’t inform decision making. We can ensure our colleagues have opportunities to develop cultural competency and culturally-responsive pedagogies. We can design and encourage culturally-responsive curriculum and amplify the voices of those already doing this in our system.

However we also need to recognise that this takes focus, energy and effort. It takes challenge, robust reporting and support systems for when things aren’t working as we would want them to be and where educators and young people don’t feel engaged, included or able to see themselves represented fully in the life of the school. This new way of working must be co-created with BME educators and learners. We can change the dynamic in our system but only through sustained effort and a shift in our thinking.

As part of our programme planning and development this year we have ensured BME educators who have engaged with our work and, importantly, BME educators who haven’t, are invited to be involved in early discussions to help shape our offering. Listening to lived experiences and acting on what we hear should be embedded in our planning and shape our practice.

It’s fair to say that during the pandemic issues of racism have been amplified however it has also provided space to talk more about issues and to break down some barriers.  As we begin to move out of the pandemic Scotland’s education system has an opportunity to move forward having learned more about itself and it needs its leaders, now more than ever, to take the opportunity to move things forward. It’s not enough to talk about diversity in education, as leaders we need to recognise that racism exists – in us, in our schools and establishments – and accelerate our work for race equality through anti-racist leadership actions.