Family Hub 19 April 2000


Allana Gay, Headmistress at Vita et Pax Preparatory School and co-founder of the charity BAME Ed, shares her views on the sector’s efforts to promote equity, diversion and inclusion in schools.

What are the key issues surrounding issues of diversity and inclusion in UK schools currently?

There is recognition that it needs to be about more than just the values on the wall, and it needs to be about impact and not just intent. For many organisations, that was brought into focus by the death of George Floyd and the backlash that made itself felt everywhere, including schools. Many schools reacted by asking how they could make things more inclusive. They all put out statements about what they do and of intent. But real inclusion requires a cultural change and unless the culture pervades every single facet of your organisation and work is inclusive, at some point this will fall short.

Dedicating the resources and the time to ensure equality, diversity and inclusion has become one of the greatest challenges, especially as schools are already under high pressure to deliver exam results. But unless we look at the wider picture of what we’re providing in schools and incorporating inclusion into everything we’re doing, the actual change we’d like to see is going to be minimal.

What can schools do to encourage a more pragmatic approach to equity?

For schools, it begins with a small change to the terminology. Look for the term ‘equity’ in terms of equality, and the understanding that some students may need more support than others, and that this is OK. I try to explain very clearly to parents that we can make interventions and provide additional support, and that some students may get more attention than others as result. It is always a system of balance. It isn’t holding your child back if your child is advancing, and the aim is always to help that child advance faster than they normally would.

What are independent schools doing to support BAME children and parents?

There are children who, given the opportunity, would be able to get better access to preparatory and independent education but it comes down to breaking a stigma: a third of the population of our schools are of non-white British background and that’s a message that is not really made clear enough. If we don’t measure who comes from a deprived background and are not reporting that, we are buying into society’s stigma.

95% of us are simply schools that provide independent education and do it to the best of our ability. This stigmatising requires organisations to work alongside state and independent sectors in a manner where the state sector doesn’t feel as if we’re robbing them of students and for parents to know that they’re not putting them in an unfamiliar environment where their child will never return to them.

What do you think parents perceive as the main barriers to school entry?

I think parents typically come in with two fears: fear of selection and fear of cost. My school is non-selective, so any child that comes to us, we can shape into an intellectual being and provide a strong work ethic, as long as you have a supportive home environment. But not all schools are non-selective! If parents ask, ‘what if my child tries and isn’t good enough?’ then the message to that child becomes, ‘I know who you are, I know who you can become, I really want you to do your best to get into this school and if not, we’ll still make it work.’

And then there is the fear of the cost. If children do require extra help, we can help parents access this. There are also lots of parents who, for example, don’t know that a child can move at Year 9 to an independent school and unless you’re in the sector, knowing how to prepare, where to get papers, and where to find the syllabus isn’t well known. It shouldn’t be a hidden secret that creates competition. That’s why, on the ISEB website, having the links all in one place is something that really helps make admissions more accessible, which helps to convince those parents that open access and open competition is something that is worthwhile.

How has the pandemic affected the sector and its efforts to promote diversity?

One of the challenges that has emerged from the pandemic is about making life better for those people that are right in front of you. Delivery via remote testing has been successful, for example, but lots of schools want to go back to paper because that’s where they feel safe. The whole system itself is such a minefield to navigate, and the deadlines are such that you have to really be in the know. There are so many different deadlines that you have to meet, and the vast majority of schools use three providers or their own exams. If you’re a parent outside the system then so many talented children can feel excluded.

All these things prevent us from having a diverse sector, and if, as a parent, I have to sit and research for three hours a week when I work all the time or spend a lot of money to drive a child to school or buy a subscription to super tutors, then all those things can diminish the sense of inclusion. Parents need to have access to all the programmes available and match them up to their own knowledge and expectations.

What can schools do to address inclusivity in their admissions processes?

I would say that it comes down to culture. When we asked schools to remove bullying from the culture of their schools, we made an entire strategy around it. We reviewed, made gains and measured these in our school. We couldn’t just say we are an anti-bullying school without doing the actual work. You cannot say you’re an inclusive school if you’re asking, ‘Why am I not attracting students from different socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds?’ Look at the level of interaction you have with those communities. Those all build up the culture of equity, diversity and inclusion in those schools.

On the brighter side, the Independent Schools Council is spreading an excellent programme to get Heads thinking about inclusivity. Schools now have trial access to experts and my own charity BAME Ed is working with state schools and thinking about where their students can access. We need to break down the barriers between state and independent and we need to work together. I believe that the ISEB is instrumental in making this happen. Genuine inclusivity is really the key to the best educational experiences.

Allana Gay is Headmistress at Vita et Pax Preparatory School, a Co-Ed Independent school based in North London. The school has a long tradition of excellence in shaping attitudes for learning and an environment for achievement. She is also co-founder of the BAME Ed Network, a movement that calls for intersectionality and diversity in the education sector.

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