The Importance and Power Of Strong Leadership to Create Sustained Change With Respect to Inclusion and Diversity

I was a head in the independent sector for 10 years – until 2010. Since then, I have worked with many schools and leaders at all levels, focussing on leadership development, so I am still very much involved in the world of education. I am keen to do all I can to support leaders so that THEY can support, and constructively challenge, those they lead to achieve their professional best.

I think it was Vic Goddard, the head of Passmores Academy, who said ‘as a head, you make the weather’. School leaders can model the behaviour they hope others will emulate – students, staff, other leaders across the organisation, governors, even parents – all members of the wider school community. The best leaders I know have a strong sense of moral purpose, integrity, and humanity. Their leadership is based on clear principles, and the groups and communities they lead know what these principles are. Ideally, leaders need to LIFT those they lead, rather than grinding them down.

How do leaders model this commitment? It’s about being determined to stand by those who face barriers because of their ethnicity, religion, culture, age, gender, sexuality or disability – whichever protected characteristic, or, considering the issue of intersectionality, whichever multiple characteristics, apply. It’s about giving support to ensure others can take a seat at the table, and they can use their voice and be heard. Can we help to amplify those voices and ensure we model receptivity, especially when what we hear may be challenging and difficult? Can we be strong, powerful allies and encourage those we lead to embrace allyship too?  Can we stand up, not stand by? Can we embrace discomfort and recognise that saying nothing doesn’t show respect? Following the killing of George Floyd and the #BlackLivesMatter drive, I was really struck by the Martin Luther King quotation:

‘In the end what we remember will be not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.’

Sometimes when a situation is sensitive, we can feel reluctant to speak up out of fear of saying the wrong thing, choosing the wrong words. I think we’ve realised in recent months that saying nothing could be the worst thing of all. We must have dialogue.  We need to listen and learn, raising our awareness and acting on what we learn.

How can leaders be effective allies?  I’d suggest the following:

1. Be clear about your school’s vision and values, and how a respect for diversity and inclusion is reflected in any statement of purpose and priorities and what your school stands for. Ensure your principles are clearly communicated and understood within and beyond the school community, and that these principles are LIVED in the day-to-day life of the school – in your relationships, practices, and policies.

2. Be prepared to talk openly about the importance of respecting diversity and fostering inclusion – keep listening and learning.  Accept it will be uncomfortable at times but be willing to embrace the complexity rather than shrinking from it. This involves heads and governors working together, having robust conversations, and ensuring you are aligned and pulling in the same direction. It also involves engaging your students in discussion so that they know they are listened to, and they are aware of different perspectives and the importance of equitability. They are the next generation – the future and our best chance of achieving sustained change.

3. Be willing to advocate for your students where there are tensions, for example between parents and their children over any issue to do with inclusion. I think this is what good schools have always done – while trying to bring parents and children together when there is conflict, helping to resolve difficulties and find a way forward, schools still need to be clear that they are on the child’s side. If their principles and moral purpose clearly indicate that this is the right thing to do. Schools must do the RIGHT thing, not the EASY thing.

4. Lastly – work on the curriculum, alongside subject experts, to consider the curricular repercussions of a commitment to diversity and inclusion. I’ve recently read ‘Leaders with Substance’, by headteacher Matthew Evans and he is excellent on the centrality of the curriculum and the focus on WHAT we are teaching and WHY we are teaching it, rather than just HOW we are teaching.

In summary, I think strong leadership is about being a strong ally and encouraging those you lead to do the same. Courage is clearly needed – there may be pushback from some parents, some governors, some students, some staff. As a head I remember the “This isn’t the kind of community I want my child to be a part of” conversation.  But if the behaviour or approach behind that sort of comment is discriminatory, we must be strong enough to stand against it.

You can read more of Jill’s blogs on Kent-Teach.To find out why Jill made a choice to stay in teaching for 30 years– Making a choice to stay in teaching. 

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