BSA conference: boarding schools sector must ‘recognise tokenism’

Joanna Wright, head of King Edward’s Witley, said progress is being made with diversity but schools must recognise what tokenism really is

Diversity is improving in the boarding schools sector, but work remains to identify tokenism and build a strong culture of inclusion, one headteacher has said.

Joanna Wright, head of King Edward’s Witley, spoke yesterday at the Boarding Schools’ Association’s (BSA) Annual Conference for Heads, which was hosted digitally after it was postponed from May.

“As a HMC head I think I can say, categorically, progress is being made in terms of diversity,” said Wright; but she reminded senior leaders to be “honest about prejudice” and “admit that it is more prevalent than we care to see”. 

During her address, the King Edward’s Witley head recalled her experience as the only non-white pupil at a UK state boarding school.

She told senior leaders: “We can make that difference when we recognise tokenism – what it really is – and when we are honest about prejudice. When we can admit that it is more prevalent than we care to see, we can actively seek change, not because we want to meet some political sensitivity but because we know that it is the right thing to do.”

“I think as heads we are able to [prepare students for the future] by creating the right culture, a strong culture where we hear the underhand comments. And when we notice the unconscious bias, not just in ourselves, but in our colleagues. And when we address the unintended prejudice and when we dispel ignorance.

“Only then do I think that we have the right culture to live in and to be fit for purpose in our model of authenticity, and our ambition to be socially mobile and genuine in our preparation for our people in life.” 

We can actively seek change, not because we want to meet some political sensitivity but because we know that it is the right thing to do Joanna Wright, King Edward’s School Witley

Wright said it was important to “create runways” for pupils to help guide them into the future “as they prepare to go into the corporate world and the global world”. 

She was joined on the BSA conference panel by Gavin Horgan, headteacher of Millfield, Kate Martin, headteacher of Mowden Hall School and Mark Ronan, head of King’s Hospital School, Dublin. 

Horgan told the audience that he, and Millfield’s staff, had reflected on the school’s teaching and curriculum over the summer months, in response to the global Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. 

Millfield was founded in 1935 and aimed to be a school “where the needs of all could be met”, Horgan said, adding: “I’m not sure we reflected that sufficiently in our teaching. What came across to me in the staff over the summer is that our children are expecting us to be more articulate and more explicit than perhaps we have been in the way we approach things.” 

Martin, who became a headteacher at the start of this term, said she aimed to improve staff diversity.

Ronan said he had asked a black former pupil to return to the school to help create a diversity and inclusion programme, a project inspired by a similar scheme the student had worked on while at the Boston College of Law. 

“We also want to connect [the project] to an anti-bullying project; we’re working with the anti-bullying Centre at Dublin City University, which holds a UNESCO chair in anti-bullying. We are looking at a three-year, long-term student-led current research project where they will work with two researchers from the anti-bullying centre,” he added. 


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