Teaching can so easily become a platform for hypocrisy. I plan lessons on healthy lifestyles whilst eating a Greggs, for example. I chastise my pupils for neglecting to read at home, whilst making little time for it myself. But one hypocrisy would be particularly hard to stomach. I tell my pupils in fairly blunt terms, considering their age, that if they want to live in a fair society in which people are treated equitably, they need to do more than just talk about it; they need to act.
I have spent all six years of my career thus far working in one primary school in the London Borough of Newham. My reflections on diversity here are drawn from my own experience in this community, which is why I shall be focusing on BAME in relation to different South Asian groups in education, particularly pupils and parents of the Muslim faith.
The borough is one of the most ethnically diverse and densely populated areas in the UK, with many different groups and communities calling Newham home. In my area just off of Green Street, the community is predominantly South Asian, with Muslim, Sikh and Hindu families of Indian, Bangladeshi and Pakistani descent making up the majority of our school community. Green Street is famed as both the home of West Ham United and as one of Europe’s largest and most popular Asian shopping streets. The road signs here direct pedestrians to and from the mosques, temples and gurdwaras.
Our school staff is mixed. Roughly half of our teaching staff and almost all of our teaching assistants are from BAME backgrounds. Our Headteacher is British-Indian Muslim, our Deputy Head is a British-Indian Sikh and two of our six Assistant Heads are also of South Asian BAME backgrounds.
Our pupils achieve excellent grades in schools in which they encounter diverse leaders. With comparatively strong representation in school, a thriving local community and highly successful community schools across primary and secondary sectors, one could think that #BAME is a redundant cause for our pupils. One would be wrong.
For one thing, there remains a disproportionately low number of BAME teacher and leaders nationally, particularly at the very highest levels of school leadership; this includes headteachers, but now also includes the CEOs of Multi Academy Trusts. Along with similar disproportion in relation to gender inequality, BAME women leaders are doubly disadvantaged as things stand. I would not like the example of my school to serve as a riposte to the claim that schools are not diverse; a small smattering of representation does not cancel out the system-wide disproportion.
Secondly, as the recent LKMCo study into Ethnicity, Gender and Social Mobility has demonstrated, whilst pupils of Pakistani and Bangladeshi descent are making rapid gains in academic attainment, these gains are not necessarily being reflected later on in the system, into gaining graduate-level employment. A point of caution to explore further is one raised by Sameena Choudry of Equitable Education; Sameena’s data research highlights the different school experiences and academic attainment of pupils of (among other groups) Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Indian pupils in different geographical areas, noting that whilst attainment may be rapidly accelerating for South Asian pupils in London, the pace of progress is not necessarily as quick in other areas, particularly in those areas which have a comparatively smaller population of South Asian descent.
These disadvantages do not exist only in spreadsheets and research publications, but they form the lived reality.
As a white male teacher working in a predominantly female-staffed school in a predominantly South Asian working-class Muslim school community, I try to be critical and sensitive to my presuppositions. I recognise that I have a phenomenal amount of learning to do, but that no amount of interfaith events or community workshops will alter the fact that I am white in a country that systematically favours white people; across all prestigious industries and up the rungs of all professional ladders.
My views on the need for greater equitability in the school system with regards ethnic and cultural diversity bridge many professional areas of school life – staffing and recruitment, promotion, culture and curricula and the ever-present question of what we are seeking to achieve for our pupils.
In the last six years, I have met many phenomenal children, young people and educators who seem to defy categorisation. I have worked with teachers who, just by being themselves brilliant, challenge and subvert all the pernicious stereotypes and expectations that exist in society about Muslim women. I have taught pupils so exceptionally passionate and academically-engaged – so ambitious for themselves – that I feel confident that many obstacles of an unequal society will be trampled in their wake. I have taught South Asian pupils from humble backgrounds whose steadfast belief that they will go to Cambridge to study engineering – or to Oxford to study medicine – exists not as a pipe dream or a limp aspiration but as a concrete plan of action that seems pretty probable.
The most gut-wrenching thought I am forced to entertain as a teacher is when I have to consider the fact that these children – talented, ambitious, dedicated and studious – are being misled by me when I help them to grow their ambitions. Am I part of what LKMCo’s study identify as the ‘broken mobility promise’?
I aim to be realistic with them, telling them that wanting to do well isn’t enough, and that even getting good grades alone might not set them apart from the crowd. I am not blind to the reality here, and I won’t act as though I am.
I have taken them to Cambridge to demystify Oxbridge. I have taught more British BAME children in one class who want to go to Cambridge than I actually encountered in three years there. For a pupil who was keen on inventing, social justice and on mathematics, I took him to meet a computational linguist whose invention has made a genuine impact on the world of global development. But for all of their dedication and passion, which I love to feed and love to see, I occasionally get blindsided by the recollection that their chances may be scuppered by the mechanics of an unequal society.
By an Admissions tutor who perceives that Muslims girls are all passive so would lack spark compared to the other. By an employer who – upon reading similar job applications of a Harry and a Hassan-Abdul – chooses the former because the business has a good track record of diligent Harrys already doing stellar work. These characterisations may seem blunt and groundless, but for the statistics to be borne out, these are the kind of episodes that must happen. These inequalities are not typos, they are systematic and long-standing, replicated annually in order to persist.
I have written previously about the ways in which I profit from being a man in the primary school, rather than being a pariah in a feminised workspace, as is often reported, often by the selfsame men who also benefit from the system they criticise. I could write a similar post about the ways in which I have benefited from being white in a school community that is predominantly South Asian. I have benefited enormously; some of my success is warranted by my effort, and some of it is not.
I spend every working day with children, parents, teacher and leaders from a range of different backgrounds, and until they are able to pass through professional and educational life without needing to contemplate being disadvantaged by their skin colour, their culture or their religion, there is a pressing need for #BAMEed. Our schools need to be more than agents of stony neutrality, too; it is the responsibility of anyone who genuinely wants to live in a society free of discriminatory prejudice to act on this. For your colleagues and for your pupils, and with your colleagues, with your pupils.