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Why Diversity matters in Education: Preventing the single story

4 A-C GCSEs. That’s what I left school with and out of those, maths was not one of them. I then moved on to college and spent my first year retaking maths whilst doing some sort of critical thinking course.  After obtaining my much needed C in maths, I spent the next two years doing my A levels. I passed just two out of three of them but somehow convinced my parents otherwise. Fortunately enough for me, I was accepted into university and spent the next 3 years studying Criminology with Sociology. is this information important at all ? no not really. Or is it?  It certainly highlights the fact that I was never an ‘academic’ person in my educational experience and I certainly wasn’t a high achiever. If there’s anything to take from my educational experience it’s how much I failed from the age of 11 - 18. Or did the education system fail me?

Being a lover of sociology I am more than happy to apply the sociological approach that suggests there are many factors to the development of a person such as the family, media and religion. But Education… this one has my attention because I can’t link it directly to my current position in life yet it may be the most important factor in determining someone’s future. I can’t say I’m a teacher because I was inspired by a previous teacher to be one. Absolutely not.  I can’t say i’m a teacher because I obtained the best exam results in my GCSE’S and A levels before getting a 1st Class honours in University. I just can’t. So what was it about my educational experience that made me go on to be a Primary school teacher?

Being the eldest of 3 in a Nigerian household, there was a lot of pressure on me to do well in school. However, when I look back to my experience of school, It was a relatively negative one. Minus the lifelong friends I made in school, I’ve never looked back and thought of school as a place that I loved to be. I didn’t have much ’success’ [failing the majority of my GCSE’s] , it wasn’t a place where I had achievements worth remembering and there were more teacher’s whose tyres  i’d enjoy slashing than the ones I can remember helping me [Can I say that? Too late]. Amongst my peers I was the funny, popular class clown Emmanuel. Amongst the teachers in many different staff rooms I was ‘the pain in the a**” and during parents evening I was Manny.. the boy with potential. So why was I never able to reach that potential before I left Secondary school and why did I  continue to fall below expectations in my 1st, 2nd and 3rd year of College? 

I clearly wasn’t very bright [You just have to look at my GCSE results], I didn’t enjoy the feeling school gave me and I can name maybe 1 [or 2 depending on how cynical i’m feeling] teachers that inspired me to make something out of my life. And that is exactly why I am a teacher. No child deserves to leave school feeling like they can not accomplish anything, no child should leave school without knowing what their best skills are and having the experience  and environment to work on those things you love whether it becomes a hobby or a future profession. No child should feel as though they will never amount to nothing because they are not valued and certainly no child should be told “ You’ll never amount to nothing when you’re older”. Because that’s what a teacher once said to me and from the bottom of my heart, I thank you.

You see those very words at some stage in my life became the catalyst in my pursuit to make something of my life. It was my fuel, to be able to prove that actually you’ll regret writing me off. But that isn’t why I am a teacher. It was never about saying “Hey, look at me. Finally made something of myself. Screw you” . I made that decision because I believed not a single child deserved that injustice and I was going to do my best to make sure it wouldn't happen on my watch.

Regardless of race, socio-economic background or disability, every child deserves an opportunity to a great education but also a great experience of education.[Quick Pause] Did that sound familiar to you? Did it look like buzz words you may have seen in a Department For Education document? or maybe even a phrase used by an Educational leader at a teachers conference set up to tackle inequality? Well you’re right, they are. They’re words and phrases we see time and time again yet why is it the same ethnic groups are underachieving consistently in our schools? and why is it young black boys leave school disillusioned as opposed to being inspired. 

I was in secondary school between 2001 - 2006 when the BBC’s analysis of GCSE results in 2004 showed: only 25% of black caribbean teenage boys achieve five good grades - compared with 40% of girls.

34% of Black African boys achieved five good grades- compared with 47% of girls.  24% of pupils who were eligible for free school meals scored five good grades compared to 55% who are not. This highlights two key things. 

1.Black pupils were massively underachieving in schools.

2. It was those who came from the poorest families.

By the time I finished college in 2009, The Guardian’s analysis of GCSE results showed: Only 52.9% of blacks boys getting free school meals obtained 5+ GCSE A-C grades - compared with 62.7% of black girls. Overall, only 57.9% of black children receiving free school meals obtained 5+ GCSE A-C results. Stark contrast to the 55.8% of black Caribbean boys and the 69.7% of black caribbean girls who were not receiving free school meals and obtained 5+ GCSE A-C grades.  Similarly, 65% of Black african boys and 74.1% of Black African girls, who did not receive free school meals, obtained 5+ A-C GCSE grades.

Just as it did in 2006, this tells a story that there was still a distinct link between deprivation and attainment in schools. The pupils who came from more privileged families [even in the ethnic communities] were doing significantly better than those who were disadvantaged.  The bigger picture, that encompasses all of these statistics, tells us that regardless of free school meals or how privileged pupils may have been, only 66.8% of black pupils in the UK were obtaining 5 A-C GCSE grades. The lowest of all the ethnic groups. 

The year 2014 was a momentous one for me as it was the year I completed my teachers training programme. More importantly, in 2014, black pupils had achieved their biggest progress in exam results of any ethnic group. The daily mail had reported a rise of 8.8% since 2010 and the gap between black students results and the national average had been cut by 5.8% to 2.5%. Staggering. Even more compelling, the biggest progress was made by black pupils who came from the poorer families. There's hope! However, despite the progress being made by black students, black pupils are still significantly behind in the results table when compared to other ethnic groups.

So what is needed to change the current state of affairs? Well, more diversity in our education system is a start.

I can vividly remember feeling misrepresented in school. The majority of my teachers were white males and  there were a few asian and black women in school but there wasn’t many teachers that I felt looked like me or at least understood where I came from. Many people underestimate the impact this can have on a pupil especially when there were teachers who made it very clear that they did not understand me, did not like me and had no intention of trying to. Many of the stereotypes that they had of the young black male were recycled by people who were in a position to make a difference, to educate and inspire us to overcome the struggles we were facing as young black males. But they failed. “They’re too argumentative” “Too difficult” “Badly behaved” . These were the comments made by teachers when discussing the black pupils which is fair enough, but a reoccurring theme was their lack of interest in trying to understand WHY. Looking back now, I think to myself, they were not completely at fault. Yes, as our teachers , they needed to show an interest in all of their pupils and  their individual needs but how easy is that when you genuinely can not relate or share few [if any] interests,beliefs,culture or language as the pupils you are teaching. 

Understandably, too much emphasis on more ethnic minority teachers can undermine the amazing job that has and is still being done by many teachers regardless of their race. Interestingly enough, my favourite teacher in school was my English Teacher Ms Sponge,an older, middle class, white and soft spoken woman. I’ll save the reasons for why she was my best teacher in another blog but If I had more teachers who attempted to understand my background, my needs and my culture ,maybe just maybe I may have done a little better in school.. 

So what do we need to do differently in our education system?

1. More diversity.

As it stands, there are only 7.4% of Black Asian Minority ethnic groups in the education sector. The numbers are fascinating, especially when you visit boroughs in the inner city of London like Newham, and experience one of the most multi cultural areas you will find in the whole of UK. This is consequently reflected in local government schools such as mine yet there isn’t a good representation amongst the teaching staff of what the pupil population is. I strongly believe that part of children’s education is to educate the whole child and that process needs to encompass showing people that look like them, who have views, opinions and experiences that can be shared.

 Diversity in our schools will also go a long way to prevent the single story that we often associate with a specific race. There are many stereotypes that remain inside the minds of many teachers and teachers are subconsciously dealing with pupils based on these stereotypes. Even more damaging, many pupils live up to these stereotypes after being managed based on these stereotypes. This is when pupils go through the process of the self-fulfilling prophecy. 

“ They label me aggressive ,difficult and badly behaved. I guess that’s what I am and that's how I'll continue”. 

I have gone through this process myself in school and it’s like a spreading cancer that needs to be terminated. With more diversity in schools, there will naturally be more diverse role models.In communities like the black one, where role models are far and few between, we cannot underestimate the impact this will have on our future generation.

2.Diverse Leaders.

Having more diversity in our schools is one thing, but having more diverse leaders is another challenge altogether. Just like myself, there are more BAME (Black Asian Minority ethnic groups) becoming teachers and it’s fantastic to see. My best friend is acting assistant head in an East London school and a close friend of mine is a teaching assistant, currently applying to be a teacher. The list of people I know from the ethnic minority groups pursuing a career in education is sporadically growing bigger. I’m coming across more BAME who are sharing a passion to impact the lives of young people through teaching but once they become teachers, there is no ambition to go beyond the role of a classroom teacher, Head of year and Head of department. This is completely fine. It’s not everyone’s desire to be more than just a classroom teacher. However, if you share a passion to not only impact the lives of young people but make an impact in our local community and create a better society, there is only so much that can be done in the classroom [as wonderful as the role is]. 

Growing up and working in boroughs as diverse and multi-cultural as Newham and Tower Hamlets, it beggars belief that I can’t recall seeing a Black or Asian head teacher before. In fact, before beginning my Diverse Leaders Programme in January 2017, I hadn’t seen so many ethnic minority leaders before. Even so, I could only recall two of them in the room being head teachers. One was a young black woman called Nadine Bernard who was a primary head teacher [at the age of 32 with two children!!] and the other was ex basketball player Paul Munday-Castle, the first black head teacher in Richmond. Both extremely inspiring people.

 There’s also a point to be made that a lack of diverse leaders isn’t always because we are not aspiring to be leaders, but because there is a glass ceiling we are constantly hitting when we try and progress further in our careers. Multi-academy trusts are doing wonders in boosting the attainment and progress of pupils, especially in the deprived areas of the country. However, the people who decide what curriculum our children are taught, the CEOs and the people who are governing our schools are almost certainly middle aged white men.

We can often be mislead or underestimate how much our curriculum plays an important part in orchestrating diversity. So for many reasons, it doesn’t make sense that we do not have diverse leaders in these roles if we are claiming to meet the needs of every child when we discuss how we will “reform” education. Furthermore, there’s a case to be argued that the vast amounts of money being invested in schools to tackle inequality should be aimed at coaching the white men who are creating the glass ceiling by choosing the status quo.  Our education system needs a “transformation” not a “reformation” and the governance and CEO tier should ultimately reflect diversity. 

3. Challenging our cultural demons.

Growing up in a Nigerian household, there were 3 things I was born to do. 1.Go to school 2.Get a degree and 3. Become a lawyer. If I didn’t want to become a lawyer that was fine, I just needed to be a doctor or a surgeon. Anything else was unsatisfactory. Looking back I can appreciate why my parents dreamed my dreams for me. Their lack of opportunities to education back home in Nigeria is ultimately why they feel they struggled to raise us. But they never failed me and my siblings. They wanted us to do the best we could, be the best we could and create a life for ourselves that was much better and prosperous than the life they were succumbed to.  Being the oldest, I obviously crumbled under the pressure and screwed everything up, up until the age of 22 when I graduated from University. My siblings subsequently learned what not to do and went on to make my parents much prouder at an early age.[ I can accept that and my heart is still open].

My parents simply did not want us to take our education for granted because it wasn’t free for them. Little do they know , their devotion to us was more valuable than the Christmas and birthday gifts they were unable to present to us on special occasions.  As much as I love my culture, there are also flaws in it that can be highly frustrating. Although they mean good, the narrow mindedness, from my parents  towards certain professions, didn’t help me when I was struggling to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. They couldn’t see anything worth pursuing if it wasn’t to be a lawyer, doctor or a lawyer who was somehow a doctor on the weekends. So you can imagine what their reaction was like when I told my parents I  wanted to train to be a teacher. My mum was a little open minded to it  to be fair but I think my dad actually ignored me at first, as if i’d forget what I said two weeks on from then. He just didn’t get it. His perception of a teacher was partly influenced by his own experiences of them but overall he just thought teaching wasn’t something worthy of being called a profession. Harsh, I know.  It was at the bottom of the list of professions to him. The profession you pick when everything is taken [similar to the milky way in the celebrations box] and  the profession that wasn’t respected. 

A few years on, I was able to work out that his problem with me becoming a teacher was more down to the fact that he didn’t think I could grow in the profession, that there was little opportunity to grow in my career [and buy him the expensive Mercedes he’s had his eye on]. Speaking to friends from other ethnic groups, I soon found out my dad wasn’t the only one who thought like this. Many people from the ethnic minority groups have looked down on the teaching profession for similar reasons for a very long time and this plays a big part as to why we don’t have many ethnic minorities applying to be teachers. Ethnic minority families are not happy with us becoming teachers because they don’t see us being leaders and they don’t see us being at the pinnacle of our beloved profession. That needs to change but we need to give them a reason to think otherwise. Although they need to step outside of their ignorance, let’s help them do it by being the leaders in our profession. A combination of these two things will help us challenge our cultural demons.

I'm very aware that much of this blog had an emphasis on black males but that's because the source of this blog came from my experience as a young black male in the education system. My definition of diversity still encompasses women, race, sexuality and disabilities. When I speak of more diversity, it's these things I am speaking of.

Anyhow, all this talk about diversity can take away the simple truth that a great teacher isn’t determined by the colour of their skin. In all fairness, I don’t think anyone has the perfect answer to what makes a great teacher. We do know that teaching is a great profession to be in if you want to make an impact on the younger generation, our future leaders. However, no teacher is an island , regardless of the title they have on their twitter bio or at the front of their office. It takes a community of like minded, passionate people to create success particularly in the field of education. Why not have a diverse community to create that success?. From the CEOs, to the governors, to the heads, to the teachers, to the school caretakers , if our one goal is truly to inspire and educate the next generation, why wouldn't we put the best resources together from every part of our world to make that happen? Can we be humans first and be our own individual self and enrich these spaces with our differences and diversities. 

I would like to give a special thanks to the founders of @BAMEed and @DiversityLeadersEd who are fighting for equality and diversity within education. If it wasn’t for the Diverse Leaders Programme they had created, I may not have ever found a community who shared the same desires as me nor would I have been challenged, inspired and motivated by the amazing people I have come in contact with since the programme has started.

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