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No Progress Without Challenge

On Friday 16 October at St John’s we’re wearing red to mark Show Racism the Red Card’s annual Wear Red Day. This national day of action encourages schools, businesses and individuals to support antiracism education for young people and adults across the UK. In anticipation of this day, my assembly earlier this week focussed on the role we all need to play in tackling racism.

Earlier this month I attended (virtually) the HMC Annual Conference where, alongside heads from many leading independent schools, we discussed issues relating to education and to the pupils in our care. The wide-ranging agenda covered topics from the future of the exam system to diversity, inclusion and the decolonisation of the curriculum.

One of the messages most powerfully expressed came from Sonia Watson, Chief Executive of the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust. She explained to the assembled – mostly white – independent school leaders that it is not enough for us and our schools to say that we are not racist; we need to be emphatically antiracist. As I listened to Sonia Watson and the other speakers, it became clear that not being racist is a passive statement; it is almost a way to absolve yourself of any responsibility towards the racism both individually and structurally that exists in the UK. Ibram X Kendi, director of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University, asserts in his book ‘How to Be an Antiracist’: “The opposite of ‘racist’ isn’t ‘not racist’. It is ‘antiracist’. One either believes problems are rooted in groups of people, as a racist, or locates the roots of problems in power and policies, as an antiracist. One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an antiracist.” Kendi continues, “There is no in-between safe space of ‘not racist.’”

Alongside my white colleagues, I reflected on this and listened to the first-hand experiences shared by the small number of headteachers present who were from black, Asian and other ethnic groups. What we came to understand was that without active participation in confronting racism, without actively reflecting upon what needs to change to stamp out racism, it will persist in schools. Even seemingly insignificant factors such as school appearance policies can be racist and the racism being unintended is no excuse.

Last month a former St John’s pupil, who left in 2010, got in touch to make me aware of a blog he had written about his experience as a black pupil at our school. The introduction reads as follows: “There are many like myself who are black and attended private schools around the country and it is important to share our experiences of our time at these institutions where in most cases racism, overt or covert, is still a problem and has enduring effects on said pupils, lasting into their adult lives.”  He lists a litany of racist experiences throughout his time at school, including describing a lesson given by a former St John’s teacher in which some of the content was overtly racist and “lots of sniggers and awkward looks were directed my way as no one came to my defence over what he had said.” Fortunately, he was able to make lasting friendships at St John’s that he still values, but I found myself wondering whether any of those friends challenged what he experienced. Did they feel powerless to act or did they think that nothing would change even if they spoke out?

While I believe things have changed at St John’s, these experiences took place only a decade ago – within the lifetimes of even our youngest pupils - and I have dealt with racist incidents since I became The Head, so I know we need to do more. It is not a comfortable topic for anyone but if we don’t have these uncomfortable conversations, how can I give our pupils the confidence to call out racism and abuse when they see it, and to know that if they experience racism first-hand they have my support? It is my hope that with a core value of kindness at our heart, it is unequivocally clear that there is no place for racism, sexism, any other inequality or abuse at St John’s. I don’t consider kindness a ‘soft’ sentiment; it is a powerful quality that can deeply impact how we interact with each other.

I’ve used the phrase ‘moral muscle’ before to describe the way that I want our pupils to develop the courage of their convictions and the confidence to stand up for what they know to be right. We all have a role to play in shaping our ‘tribes’, our communities and wider society. Our pupils need to be self-policing, secure in the knowledge that they have the support of our staff to stand up for equality and to reject any form of abuse. And as parents, work colleagues and friends, we should take a look at our behaviour and set the example that we want our children to follow by being brave enough to act when we see injustice in our own work places and communities. Our former pupil ended his blog with the following words: “I hope people read this and have the courage to challenge racism whenever they see it, have more conversations about their experiences and turn uncomfortable conversations into lessons. There is no progress without challenge and through continued effort and willingness to learn, we will be able to bring about change. Slowly but surely.”

Rowena Cole is The Head of St John's School.  Follow her @rowenacole01 and stay in touch with all the news at St John's by following us @StJohnsSurrey