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Inclusion and equalities at Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School, Derbyshire

By Tim Chow, SSAT Leadership Legacy Fellow

In his think piece, Tim Chow shares his school’s initial progress with improving inclusion and equality for all stakeholders in the wake of the Black Lives Matters protests in the market town of Ashbourne in the Derbyshire Dales.

With this year’s SSAT mission on ‘Fighting for Deep Social Justice’- I believe that improving inclusion would be central to this aim. The need to accelerate the role of inclusion within the school came about due to a series of global events having a profound and politically charged impact on the local community. I will explain the context and rationale and the steps we undertook as a school working group and how we utilised student involvement to improve inclusion within the school.

Throughout, I hope to share the barriers of trying to improve inclusiveness in the school and the next steps we plan to undertake.

Context and rationale

On the 25 May 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, George Floyd died after a police arrest that involved a knee on his neck for several minutes whilst being pinned to the floor. In the recording of his death, he is heard repeatedly saying “I can’t breathe” before losing consciousness. He is pronounced dead later in hospital.[1]

On the 26 and 27 May the protests spread across the USA, with threats of military response exacerbating an already tense situation. On 7 June, international protests in solidarity for anti-racism were held across Australia, France, Germany, Spain, and the UK.

It was on the 7 June that protesters tore down a statue of a 17th Century Slave trader and threw it into the harbour.[2]

It was at this moment in time that discussion over a caricature of a black head in the market town of Ashbourne in the Derbyshire Dales was subject to an online petition for its removal. The town itself has only a single secondary school; Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School where I work. Students past and present took an active role in protesting the existence of a caricature of a black head above the gateway into the town that year.

The resulting response to the petition from the local community was in equal parts supportive and shocking. Many people praised the socially conscious members and were supportive of the motion, however there was an immediate and equally impassioned response from other members of the community as well as staunch online opposition. Such was the furore around the statue that it garnered national attention.

The progress started

Kate Moore is a former student of the school and shared with us the revised plans for the sign. This involved a full digital design with a key focus on the traditional aspect of the town around the Royal Shrovetide Football game.

The mock-up was meant to demonstrate the inclusiveness of the town around the shared culture and heritage. Unfortunately, despite the aim of uniting the town and creating some form of compromise, Kate, and the students past and present who arranged the petition were met with a series of abusive comments online.

The petition to the remove the statue was incredibly divisive. Despite 30,000 signatures for the removal of the statue, the local response was to take the head down for safe keeping.

Most disturbing of all were the vitriolic responses to sound arguments and compromise. Deeply personal verbal attacks were made upon current and former students by members of the local community; further highlighting the scale of the challenge of improving inclusiveness- a concept that in my previous experience of working in London had never been viewed as problematic or demonstrative of being “woke” or a “snowflake”.

Seeing the events unfold in real time online; across the online petition site, Twitter, and the local Facebook group, along with the names of current and former students, created a strange range of emotions and challenges.

On the one hand there was anger and disappointment as the young people of the local community were being lambasted and insulted for their believes in social and racial equality; but on the other a genuine sense of pride on how current and former students of QEG’s conducted themselves with poise, grace, and critical thinking in their responses.

They were able to clearly articulate themselves, put forward rational arguments and even maintain a sense of sardonic humour in the face of abuse from members of their own community, the majority of whom are grown adults.

From the perspective of the school however, it was essential that the views and values which we hold be communicated to staff, students, parents, and carers. Anything less than a statement clarifying our support for progressive and inclusive values would, I feel, be seen as a failure to support those that are current and past students. Silence in this instance would act as approval for the status quo in terms of social justice.

What happened: The result so far

On 19 June, the headteacher of my school, Mr S Garrity, released a letter to QEGS students, staff, parents, and carers. In the letter he acknowledged the events on a local and global context and reaffirmed the school’s position on equalities; whilst acknowledging a need to reflect on how we as a school and community can become more inclusive. It mentions at the formation of a staff working group with the aim of promoting equality across protected characteristics which I was asked to lead.

Read Tim’s think piece in full.

[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-52861726
[2] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-bristol-55248263

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