Inclusive Education: A national treasure

My grandson Nehemiah turns two in August. He is a super cute, charming, smiley, funny, fearless, energetic toddler who is into everything. He already loves his music and books and he seems to be under the impression that he is a world class gymnast! His curiosity about remote controls, electrical appliances, people, and the world around him is boundless. Watching him grow and explore is pure joy, and a reminder of the importance of creating a future where every child, regardless of their background, has the opportunity to thrive.

British-born, Nehemiah has a rich heritage with great-grandparents and grandparents originating from Ghana, Sierra Leone, and Jamaica. A 2023 survey by ITV News revealed that 81% of Black Britons consider themselves British, but only 49% are proud to be British. We want Nehemiah to grow up proud of all sides of his heritage, and to feel a strong sense of belonging in the community his parents have settled into in the north-west of England. We want him to know that there are no limitations or barriers to what he can achieve.

This little boy is a shining light in our lives. His school experience will be heavily influenced by the policies and priorities of the winning party in the upcoming July 4 election. Decisions made at the Department for Education will shape his educational experience and wider policy will have enormous impact. From his earliest days, his parents and I have discussed what lies ahead in his education.

We talk a lot about our hopes and aspirations for Nehemiah and ponder the opportunities that will be accessible to him throughout his time in school. What do we want school to add to ensure that he thrives? How will the schools he attends help nurture his curiosity and inspire a love of learning? Nehemiah will always benefit from the love and support of his extended family. We’re strong believers in the African proverb, “it takes a village to raise a child”. What more will schools do to make sure that his light isn’t hidden or dimmed, and his potential not overlooked or limited?

As a family, we are very aware of the research, reports and statistics suggesting that black boys, particularly those of Caribbean heritage, often lag behind their peers in academic outcomes. They are overrepresented in exclusion figures and – even in 2024 – frequently face stereotyping and biases that can affect their educational opportunities and experiences. The Runnymede Trust’s 2020 report, “Race and Racism in English Secondary Schools,” refers to racism as an enduring and fundamental problem for our times, citing Brexit, hostile environment policies and Covid-19 disparities as evidence. The report discusses how wider racism resulting from political discourses permeates our schools. This is not the landscape we want for Nehemiah.

When air time is given to Nigel Farage, leader of Reform, I reach for the off button on the TV or whatever I’m listening to. I worry about the rhetoric coming from Farage, who believes he will be leading the opposition after this election and possibly even leading the country by the time my grandson is in his teens. Surely we cannot allow this to be, and it is right to criticize and loudly voice concerns about his divisive comments, and openly racist remarks made by some of his supporters, from whom he has tried to distance himself.

Such divisive, harmful rhetoric is damaging to all children. It creates an environment of fear and exclusion. When public figures use their platform to stoke racial tensions, it leads to increased bullying, discrimination, and a sense of alienation among children of global majority heritage and their families. I have the privilege of working with schools who are actively working to counteract these negative influences by promoting inclusion, celebrating diversity, and ensuring that all students feel valued, respected, and represented. These schools, alongside others, are not waiting for government or the department for education to act. They are doing what the Runnymede Trust advocated for in their 2020 report, reimagining schooling and placing a commitment to anti-racism at its core.

The next government must collaborate closely with the leaders of schools like these to understand and prioritise inclusive education. Such collaboration will enable the success of all children, including those from diverse backgrounds, in our increasingly interconnected global society.

Other parties also have a lot to do to address systemic inequalities, and ensure equitable opportunities for all children, regardless of background or heritage. The Tory party’s immigration stance, including their handling of “small boats” and deportation to Rwanda, along with the mishandling of the Windrush scandal, dehumanises and excludes, and deeply affects children and young people by fostering fear, uncertainty and anxiety. As a senior vice principal in a London school, we spent considerable time after the Brexit referendum, reassuring children struggling to understand what was happening, and whether their families or friends would be forced to leave the country.

The Labour Party talks about breaking down barriers to opportunity and emphasises systemic changes to ensure equality in education. The party talk about focusing on creating inclusive curricula and supporting anti-racist training for teachers. This will undoubtedly positively impact how children like my grandson experience school. However, the treatment of prominent figures like Diane Abbott, the first black woman elected to Parliament, is troubling, revealing a lack of respect and highlighting the ongoing barriers faced by leaders from global majority backgrounds. What messages does this send to our children about equality? As the saying goes “you can’t be what you can’t see”. Children and young people need diverse role models at all levels and in all sectors to inspire them and demonstrate that all paths are open to them, regardless of their background.

When I go to vote on Thursday, I will have Nehemiah and the world in which we want him to grow up in mind. I will be hopeful for the change that will come, to guarantee he enters an education system that will help ensure that he thrives.

Amongst my asks of the new government is that they lead by example, deeply committing to achieving racial equity and addressing disparities in a richly diverse modern-day Britain. Leaders need to exemplify the principled behaviours we want communities, schools and children to adopt, not indulge in practices that breed hostility and fear of difference.

If the next government is serious about doing right by Nehemiah and future generations of children, education has to be a top priority, elevated as a national treasure. This means supporting, championing and investing in public sector education, starting with affordable nursery and early years provision in inclusive, well-resourced, learning environments. This will go some way to ensuring that children from all backgrounds, whatever their needs, have the strong foundations they need for successful living and learning.

Beyond their immediate family, early years practitioners, support staff, teachers and school leaders are probably the most important and influential people our children will ever meet.

The government needs to invest in them, not just financially but in every possible way. Funding high quality training that builds capacity is essential if they are to develop engaging, inclusive curriculum, create enriching learning activities and opportunities, support children in overcoming barriers, and nurture a love of learning from the outset. We face a shortage of practitioners, teachers, leaders and support staff in our schools. The government must work with others to remove barriers to recruiting educators from global majority backgrounds who reflect the diversity of our country. They must be seen and heard to value these professionals, promoting the sector as an attractive and honourable profession invested in the future of all children, including Nehemiah, whatever their background or starting point.

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