Driving anti-racist education through student leadership
Driving anti-racist education through student leadership
-Natasha Boyce, Associate Assistant Headteacher for Community Participation at The Winstanley School
‘What we are ethically called to do is create a safe space in our schools and classrooms where all students can walk in and, for that day or hour, take off the crushing weight of their armor, hang it on the rack, and open their hearts to truly be seen.’ (Brené Brown)
Schools should be places where all students feel a sense of belonging and community. In October 2019, a group of students of colour raised concerns with our headteacher about Black History Month. They felt the school didn’t give enough space to recognise the diversity within its community and celebrate the contributions of all groups to British society. Our headteacher shared the situation with me and, as a result, we set up a group of student ambassadors whose main focus would be to bring the change they wanted to see.
The murder of George Floyd on 25th May, 2020 served as a tipping point in discussions around race and racism. Many of our students had most likely watched the recording of the murder. As an adult, I was traumatised! We can only imagine the impact it had on young people watching this horrific act whilst quarantining at home.
Lockdown came in March 2020, and it seemed as though the work of the group had stopped before it could get started. However, the murder of George Floyd on 25th May, 2020 served as a tipping point in discussions around race and racism. Many of our students had most likely watched the recording of the murder. As an adult, I was traumatised! We can only imagine the impact it had on young people watching this horrific act whilst quarantining at home. As a school, we recognised our whole school community would need support to navigate a changing world filled with unfamiliar language to them around anti-racism.
Our school is based in Leicester, which is one of the most diverse cities in the UK. However, our school is on the margins of the city. We are a small school with a total population of 615 students. The percentages of students receiving free school meals and having special educational needs are above the national average. In terms of the cultural demographic of the school, the majority of students come from White British backgrounds. Some of the parents have racist views and have no problems vocalising these to the school. I think it’s really important to share this information, as I have heard colleagues say antiracism work isn’t a priority in schools where the demographic seems to be White homogeneous. My argument is that the less visibly diverse the school population the greater need for these conversations to happen!
Furthermore, since the murder of George Floyd it would be judicious of education settings to take action in racial justice as a response. As Olayinka Ewuola stated in a Schools Week article in June 2020, ‘[t]his is a time of incredible opportunity. We know that there are significant issues with racial equality in education, from well-documented problems.’ So, what has our journey to becoming an anti-racist school looked like? The fundamental step was to have social justice as a key priority for our school.
Our strategic wheel outlines the priorities for each year. It states how we are going to ensure a high level of education for all our students. Our anti-racism work is centred around social justice, because as a school we recognise anti-racist education is not only beneficial for minoritised students, but through this work the whole school community gains a framework for valuing diversity and difference. The cycle of action used in community organising is an extremely effective tool for driving systemic change. The first step in the cycle is to build relational power with a diverse alliance of organisations who share similar self-interest.
We then had to find out more by listening to our communities. We are very fortunate to have the Stephen Lawrence Research Centre in Leicester, based at one of our local universities. A key action was to develop a collaborative relationship with them and this began when we were invited to participate in a listening activity with our schools across the city in 2019. It was this interaction that led to an alliance between the centre and our student ambassadors. Initially, the ambassadors received training from the centre on race, anti-racism, and the legacy of Stephen Lawrence.
We wanted to genuinely develop our students’ agency, which can only be achieved if students research the issues, identify what needs to change, and present these concerns to those with power to implement change. Through this process we enable students to change the world from what it is, to what it should be.
Driving anti-racism through student leadership was an explicit intention because the students who were frustrated about the situation needed to see they had the power to bring the change they wanted to see. Also, we recognised there was an incredible opportunity for us to create a culture where students feel safe and able to vocalise their experiences, and present issues to leaders demanding action. Therefore, we wanted to genuinely develop our students’ agency, which can only be achieved if students research the issues, identify what needs to change, and present these concerns to those with power to implement change. Through this process we enable students to change the world from what it is, to what it should be.
Through the training from the Stephen Lawrence Research Centre, our ambassadors gained an understanding of the presenting issues. Students were then able to progress to the next stage of the cycle of action which is to listen to the community. The ambassadors targeted their peers in every year group and undertook primary research using semi-structured interviews. The outcomes of the listening revealed a range of issues including inappropriate touching of Afro hair, teachers showing stereotypical expectations of Black students and the general school community having a lack of understanding of how racism operates within society and its effects on individuals and groups.
The third stage of the cycle is to plan a strategic response to the issue. The ambassadors decided to harness Stephen Lawrence Day 2021 to address the issues raised from the listening campaign. The ambassadors recognised that Stephen’s story highlights the nature of racism in all its forms, and they provided the burning platform to educate the school community on racism and the importance of being anti-racist.
The fourth stage of the cycle is to take action to get a reaction. The ambassador group had now morphed into Stephen Lawrence Ambassadors, and they relished the opportunity of planning activities to celebrate the life and legacy of Stephen Lawrence. The result was a whole week of vibrant and fun activities which included: working with the Right Honourable Stuart Lawrence, liaising with the Stephen Lawrence Research Centre to host lesson takeovers, planning PSHE resources, wearing orange in Stephen’s memory on April 22nd, participating as part of the panel in a national webinar alongside Baroness Lawrence of Clarendon OBE and planning competitions with prizes.
The ambassadors promoted the week of events on BBC Radio Leicester. The actions of the ambassadors were so high profile it was a feature on BBC East Midlands news. Through the work of the ambassadors, I have realised the key to success in work towards systemic change is having proximity to people in power. One of the most precious parts of this journey has been creating an opportunity for our students to work alongside a formidable change maker in Baroness Doreen Lawrence. Through this powerful relationship, our students have experienced a personal connection with a woman who made an unchangeable mark on British History in so many ways, including redefining racism, changing the law and being a relentless champion of social justice.
Baroness Doreen Lawrence has personally taught our students that real change is achievable with relentless commitment, and you can change the world from what is, into what it should be. The fruit of the ambassadors’ work is evident in the fifth step in the cycle of action, which is to get a seat at the table and negotiate. Much of this work has been documented in The Stephen Lawrence Research Centre Annual Engagement Report 2020/2021. The report details how our collaborative relationship developed into a pilot offer for schools nationwide entitled ‘Teaching to Transform.’
Initially, the students wanted to create a school culture which provided space to recognise the diversity within its community and celebrate the contributions of all groups to British society. However, the reality is they have far surpassed this expectation.
The high-profile coverage of the work of the ambassadors was good for the school’s reputation and demonstrated a strong message to other schools across our Multi-Academy Trust that schools shouldn’t shy away from these conversations. As a consequence, at student level, the ambassadors are now delivering peer training to other schools in the Multi-Academy Trust and across the city and for the first time all ten schools across our Multi-Academy Trust celebrated Stephen Lawrence Day.
The high-profile coverage of the work of the ambassadors was good for the school’s reputation and demonstrated a strong message to other schools across our Multi-Academy Trust that schools shouldn’t shy away from these conversations.
The mandate of the group is to hold the organisation accountable in the area of race equity.
Creating anti-racist schools is more than educating students about racism. To be truly effective, anti-racist practice must be reflected in organisational systems, policies, and procedures. This is a continuing journey for our Multi-Academy Trust. However, at a structural level, the impact has been that a race equity group has been formed with representatives from across all schools. The mandate of the group is to hold the organisation accountable in the area of race equity.
The ambassador’s anti-racism work was not only recognised across our family of schools. It has also been identified as exemplary across the city and our students have shared this journey with school leaders through the Leicester City and Leicestershire Schools Effectiveness partnerships. Furthermore, our ambassadors presented the case for anti-racism education in schools in the presence of the Assistant Mayor for Education who agreed to this in principle.
We are proud to say reactions to the ambassadors’ work have prompted discussions across the city around systemic change, and we are really excited to have been an agitator and part of the solution. For example, our school has been asked to collaborate with the Leicester Education Improvement Partnership as part of a ‘Diverse Curriculum Taskforce.’ This partnership will achieve real systemic change, as student voice and listening will not only be extended across the city, but there will be an opportunity to create curricula that will be reflective of the communities they serve.
We are proud to say reactions to the ambassadors’ work have prompted discussions across the city around systemic change, and we are really excited to have been an agitator and part of the solution.
Most recently, we have launched an anti-racism in school campaign with students across Leicester and Leicestershire through Citizens UK. Through this newly-established campaign, we did some further listening. The findings have revealed issues that could be found in many schools such as casual racism within school culture – which is unfortunately normalised and teachers failing to challenge incidents of direct racism. We intend to extend our work campaign to more schools in the future and formulate ‘proposals’ for more institutions to adopt an anti-racist approach.
I would argue one of the most notable impacts of this work at The Winstanley School has been modelling how schools can create spaces for meaningful anti-racism discussions and actions to occur. The national organisation Challenge Partners accredited us with ‘Citizenship in Action’ as an area of excellence in February 2022. The report noted:
"The school works with a number of organisations to support active citizenship. Consequently, students are able to experience citizenship in action and see the impact of their involvement in improving their school community… Students become trainers across the wider school network. For example, Stephen Lawrence ambassadors link with other schools’ students across the multi-academy trust. Consequently, students’ awareness of racism is highlighted, not just within the school, but beyond."
However, the most important impact measure of community organising in schools is the experience of the young people. Effective anti-racist approaches in schools should be evidenced by students feeling a sense of belonging and community. Hence, it is only right that I conclude with the selection of student voices so they can share the transformative power of this work themselves:
As someone who hasn’t directly experienced racism, going on this journey with my peers has really helped me to understand racism on a much deeper level. I have learnt about all the ways it can show its face and how to combat that effectively. What I am most proud of is, of course the journey, but also our ability to pass this work on to our schools and students in our
schools so that the work we do will continue with the next year group and the year group after that. One meeting can’t solve an issue, that’s just the start. It’s many meetings over many years that reduce an issue down to a point that is able to be combated effectively on a large scale. Reuben
I am really proud of the progress the school has made and how far we have come in terms of understanding and dealing with racism. Not only do black students speak up more confidently when someone is in the wrong but so do non-black people as they now know the right and wrongs when it comes to race because of the amount of work that’s been done on it. Even when we tell other schools about our work they are shocked as not all schools do what we do. Although our school is small, the work we do isn’t. I also think the work that has been done has brought us closer together as an entirety. Anopa
I am proud of becoming an upstander because back in year 7 I never thought I’d have the voice to speak up about racism. Becoming an ambassador has made me confident and my self-esteem has increased knowing that it is okay to use my voice and not to be scared. Priviledge
Citizens UK is made up of hundreds of member organisations that are committed to taking action together for social justice and the common good.
We believe that faith, education, trade union and community organisations play a vital role as civil society institutions with deep and long-standing roots in their local areas. Through voluntary participation in these organisations, people build relationships, trust, vision and hope - and learn how to work constructively with those they might disagree with, to focus on what they have in common.