Diversity in schools

Attending a truly diverse school gives pupils significant benefits for later life. Rose Hardy, Headmistress of St Margaret's School, looks at how schools can provide an environment which supports all children.

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Today, most schools seek to be diverse and multicultural in their environment. It has become an important feature for parents when selecting a school for their child as it is widely understood that diversity can enrich both the formal and hidden curriculum now and into the future. But what do we really mean by diversity?

Maintaining and developing a diverse pupil roll is becoming more and more important today and in many cases it is a 'unique selling point' for schools. Diversity provides a real strength both for individual pupils and also for the school as a community. Many would agree that having such a diverse pupil roll in school can lead to a more unified school body rather than a fragmented and disparate environment. But diversity applies across the board, to staff too because it means that pupils are taught by teachers with various backgrounds and skill sets which can also enhance the learning experience.

Having no racial, cultural or sociological 'norm' means that individuals, be they pupils or staff, can truly be and become anything they want to be – that in turn builds independence, resilience and confidence. For Heads, it's important that we nurture and support diverse communities so parents also understand that a diverse school means there is no 'typical' or 'type' of pupil who fits the profile of the school. True diversity means breaking down barriers and accepting that everyone is different and brings a new perspective to the school. If an environment is truly diverse, there isn't a 'mould' that pupils must fit into, everyone is unique and different both in personality, learning style and ability.

Many believe that children work better in a diverse environment because it allows them to push themselves further when there are people of varying backgrounds working alongside them. Creativity is heightened and education is generally stronger because having a plethora of differing viewpoints also allows the potential for greater collaboration. Often a school's history or ethical background can have an impact on the diversity of its community. My own school was founded as a school for clergy orphans in 1749 and, like many others, by the twentieth century had evolved into an independent boarding school. By the 1980s boarding was falling out of favour with many British families as they preferred to have their children at home and improvements to transport meant that journeys to school were possible from some distance. This meant that the country's boarding population across independent schools became increasingly international and this was perhaps the first step along the road to building the diverse communities that we see in many schools today.

"Many believe that children work better in a diverse environment because it allows them to push themselves further when there are people of varying backgrounds working alongside them."

Schools that can offer communities of pupils that represent a wealth of nationalities and religions can really offer a powerful dimension to the learning environment because everyone brings something different to the table. Those schools that really build on that cultural diversity will also enable the provision of a diverse academic and co-curricular programme. But becoming a diverse school also means walking the walk and practising what you preach. Ensuring that celebrations of different cultures, nationalities and religions form part of the academic and co-curricular programme in school is hugely important. It's not just about inclusion either, it is about shared cultural knowledge. For example, celebrating Chinese New Year, Harvest Festival, German Lantern festival and more means that a variety of events and important dates are celebrated and experienced across the school community.

School caterers today will also often arrange themed evenings around specific celebrations to allow pupils to experience traditional foods and customs. Through special assemblies and chapel services, all cultures and religions should be addressed and celebrated, making inclusion and respect a key part of the ethos of a truly diverse school. Interestingly, despite a variety of cultures and traditions, I have never had a request from a parent for their child to opt out of our weekly chapel service, which every cohort in the school attends.

Embracing diversity also involves acceptance of other cultures and beliefs and understanding what it means to be different. This also helps children to feel a greater sense of comfort with these differences and, in turn, to feel more comfortable in themselves. Having said that, while it is important for pupils to understand everyone is different, by the same token it is also about learning that fundamentally, as human beings, we are all the same and should be treated with the same respect and consideration. It is reassuring to see that most parents are happy for their child to learn about those around them too because this will be important in their future daily lives.

"The fact is, we now live in a world where integration and diversity should be at the very heart of the school system and ethos. As teachers we have a responsibility to seek out the cultural building blocks that our pupils already possess in order to help them to build a greater understanding."

There are of course many challenges of having a diverse pupil roll and there are a number of key strategies for turning these challenges into positives. For instance, making time to include activities and not just paying lip service to issues and events thrown up in such a diverse community, is a real challenge today. Advance planning and preparation is vital, particularly through the co-curricular programme. Linking with other schools and the wider local community also offers opportunities for celebrating diversity in school. What may be acceptable for one family is differently received by another so not making assumptions is important and responding quickly and with a listening ear to issues if they are raised is important. Having a very clear understanding of your identity and what you stand for as a school offers the umbrella of kindness and hard work under which a diverse pupil roll can feel comfortable and confident to achieve its goals whatever they may be.

The fact is, we now live in a world where integration and diversity should be at the very heart of the school system and ethos. As teachers we have a responsibility to seek out the cultural building blocks that our pupils already possess in order to help them to build a greater understanding. All children respond differently to the curriculum and we must continually adjust and ensure that our methods of teaching pupils about diversity are also evolving both in theory and in practice. Creativity, critical thinking and the mechanics of problem solving are all fostered in diverse classroom settings. Being around other people who are different also helps pupils to confront and combat certain stereotypes and behaviours, while also understanding the complexities that are present in the human race.

Diverse classrooms and schools really do prepare pupils for careers in job markets with much less concern or confusion around national or community boundaries. Through integrated classroom environments, children will learn to communicate and collaborate with people from other backgrounds and cultures. As they grow and move forward in their educational journey and beyond, they will adapt to new environments and cultural differences with much greater ease and confidence.

Rose Hardy Photo

Rose Hardy was Headmistress of St Margaret's School, Bushey when this article was written and is now Headmistress of Haberdashers' Aske's School for Girls.

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