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Where does it all go wrong?

Where does it all go wrong?

Are schools doing enough to promote diversity, tolerance and equality? Jason Whiskerd, Headmaster of Brentwood Preparatory School, explores what is being done to make sure the lessons learnt in school last a lifetime.

Children are not born racist. In the playground, skin colour is unimportant; difference is celebrated and discrimination is unheard of. So where does it all go wrong?

I have worked in a number of schools for nearly 30 years and, in my role as an ISI inspector, visited many more. I know of no school that does not extol the virtues of diversity, tolerance and equality.

If we are instilling the right message across a child's formative years then what is going wrong? Are we paying lip service to the issue? Are we doing enough? In terms of urgency and appropriate timescales, perhaps we should be using the enduring mantra of Hillel the Elder, 'if not now, when?'

It is more important than ever to fully educate young people. After more than a year, the world continues to reflect upon the senseless killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement. This, coupled with the anxieties of COVID, has given us all a sense of perspective, and I believe it is more important than ever to fully educate young people about the need for respecting others regardless of race, colour or creed.

We can no longer skirt around the issue or pay 'lip service' to the growing threat we face. More recently, we have seen the spectre of racism rearing its ugly head after the final of Euro 2020. Three young black players abused in the most cowardly way with trolls using social media to blame them for defeat and missed penalties based upon the colour of their skin. A depressing tale of our times which needs to be tackled head on – and where better to start than in school?

We should relentlessly celebrate all forms of diversity in our communities. At my own school, we have children from a wonderful mix of more than 40 nationalities, races and religious backgrounds, and we celebrate this diversity in many meaningful ways: themed days, visiting guests from world faiths, flags of nations proudly displayed, parent talks from various racial backgrounds. I suspect all independent schools do much in this regard, but can you honestly say your school does everything it can to promote the notion of us all being equal, respectful of each other and wanting to learn from the breadth of knowledge and cultural differences that a diverse community has to offer?

We must not leave anything to chance. We need to be very clear that celebrations such as Black History Month are not treated as 'one off' annual events. Such important matters ought to be celebrated throughout the academic year through conscious cross-curricular planning and the delivery of thought provoking and meaningful lessons. As always, ask the pupils what they feel is important to discuss and what they want to learn more about.

People are meant to be with people regardless of the colour of their skin. Humans need companionship, shared challenges, mutual understanding and this has always been the case and it always will be. We need each other and it's vital we do not forget that powerful message. This sentiment is clearly expressed in the wonderful poem, 'People will always need people', written by Benjamin Zephaniah who lost his own cousin in similar circumstances to the meaningless death of George Floyd.

Let's harness a 'togetherness'. The need to work together to overcome adversity and ongoing significant challenges has never been greater. Let's harness a 'togetherness', let's use Benjamin Zephania's wonderful poem as the starting point for transformational conversations; let's target those pupils old enough to see the need for action, and to be in prime position to make the change happen. We must encourage pupil, staff and parent workshops; a cross-curricular approach to the theme in PSHE, RE, history and geography; themed days, and more opportunities for us to listen to children and their parents.

Another kind of diversity is needed - that of thought coupled with a willingness to listen to and then accept an alternative viewpoint. We must secure the support of parents, build stronger relationships and forge a truly 'joined up' approach to an increasingly important issue. This is where another kind of diversity is needed - that of thought and the willingness to accept an alternative viewpoint. In schools, there are often well established protocols and 'ways of doing things' that can be barriers to change, but we must develop a culture of greater understanding of others no matter what position they have in society. We must build in opportunities to listen to people, as they often approach such challenges with a unique and personal perspective that has value for all.

Trust children to provide an insight from their world and be open to admitting that you have made mistakes. Most importantly, we should never underestimate our pupils who will always be the greatest facilitators and advocates of important future changes that will (hopefully) make the world a better place for all of us to live in. Trusting children to provide an insight from their world can mean admitting that you may have got things wrong through a genuine lack of understanding of issues that young people face in 2021.

So maybe the question we should be asking ourselves is not 'where does it all go wrong?' but 'what can we do better?' – we must make sure the lessons learnt in our schools last a lifetime.

Jason Whiskerd is Headmaster of Brentwood Preparatory School.