Preparing pupils for a diverse world: the role of education

As the UK, like many societies worldwide, becomes increasingly diverse, Antony Spencer, principal of St Lawrence College, Ramsgate, explains the benefits of choosing a school that supports diversity.

Preparing pupils for a diverse world: St Lawrence College

St Lawrence College

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Though the word ‘diversity’ can seem overused, the concept it expresses is one that is essential in today’s globalised world. Antony Spencer, principal of St Lawrence College, Ramsgate, explains the part schools can play in championing diversity, to the benefit of pupils and society.Diversity is such a provocative word these days – one that can drive some to chain themselves to the railings of social media, and others to hide under the duvet in despair.We have the BBC vexed about whether its presenters have a spread of regional accents, boardrooms under attack for being male dominated, and commercial advertising that clearly struggles to get its quota of minority group representation. Independent schools are not immune from this current societal obsession.You may have inferred that I find some ‘diversity’ campaigns perhaps well-meaning but rather self-regarding, when in fact it’s intrinsic to most of us in education to treat our fellow human beings without prejudice. Yet it’s a fair challenge to make to schools: how diverse are we? It’s also a challenge to make to parents when they are forming their ideas about the kind of school they are looking for.It is common for a parent to look for a school that is filled with pupils whose parents are just like them, or, in some cases, a school that reminds them of the one they went to themselves. So some schools may be – perhaps more in their marketing portrayal than in reality – filled with children from the white, professional middle class.If that is the school a parent is looking for, I wish them well, and there’s a good choice of such schools. But I would make the case for choosing a school that is genuinely diverse. I make this case partly because the United Kingdom has changed more than some parents realise.The Independent Schools Council’s 2016 Census provides interesting information about independent schools in the UK, including the statistic that 30 per cent of pupils in UK independent schools are now from a non-white background, a rise of 7 per cent in the past seven years. For state schools, the figures are broadly the same. London is probably leading the way, as ever; here, more than 50 per cent of pupils in independent schools are from the inappropriately named ‘minority ethnic’ category.In aggregate, the UK is increasingly ethnically diverse, although the distribution is patchy between schools and areas. It is a similar picture with socio-economic diversity, with 30 per cent of all independent-school pupils receiving some degree of fee support. The trend is away from a 25 per cent or 50 per cent scholarship for a good rugby player or whatever, and towards full means-tested support in scholarships or bursaries.

Making the diversity case

The case for a diverse school is essentially based upon what we think the purpose of an education is. If we see education as preparing pupils not just to take exams and get into university but to thrive in the future, then the sooner our children get used to living in a diverse world, the better for them. Their future will involve working in coalitions of people across countries, in fluid teams with all kinds of backgrounds, where communication across cultures will be fundamental to success, and where insensitivity to difference could lead to failure.This isn’t about an anodyne passivity to avoid causing offence, but about genuine understanding that allows us to get the very best out of those we work with, that appreciates the existence and value of differences.Retreating into gated communities and ethnic and religious ghettos would not be a successful future. A boarding school where all the pupils are from white, high-income English families is no better than one where all the boarders are from Hong Kong.The alternative isn’t about reading Diversity for Dummies, but goes deeper. Seeing the value of everybody, whether in a school or in a workplace, requires a moral underpinning, whether that comes in school from a faith position that sees all people as made in the image of God, or from a more secular focus upon the value of humanity.National differences – regardless of Brexit – are breaking down in significance. Increasing numbers of international pupils have dual passports, whether EU or UK, and a past stereotyped link between ethnic background and nationality just doesn’t work; my black pupils may be from Nigeria or London, or all kinds of passport and residence variations. I also have Nepalese pupils, ethnically Asian but UK nationals by virtue of their Gurkha fathers in the British Army.In an area that has traditionally been one of the most homogeneously white communities in the UK (now rapidly changing), I have local white and non-white day parents who have chosen the school precisely because they see the benefits of such diversity.So among all the other criteria when considering schools, I would add this: does the school have a healthy mix of pupils (and ideally staff) across a range of national, ethnic, religious and socio-economic backgrounds? Is it ultimately a diverse school preparing pupils for a diverse world?
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