The Everyone’s Invited revelations of rape culture in British schools, the Black Lives Matter protests following the killing of George Floyd and the murder of Sarah Everard all sent ripples of outrage throughout society.
Every school and university in the UK became aware of the surge of determination among their students to overturn attitudes to such violent demonstrations of racism, sexism, scorn and intolerance by those “in power”.
Shortly after the murder of Sarah Everard, the prefects at Rugby (the Levee), staged a vigil in Chapel and shared some personal experiences on Post-It notes which everyone could read. There was a strong emotional response from both students and staff which resulted in a group of sixth-formers addressing the whole school – students and staff – about the importance of living and working in a global community in which diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) are not only acknowledged but practised.
Rugby had already decided that the single Council of Students, established in the late 1970s, did not represent the breadth and intensity of our pupils’ interests, so in 2017/18 we created six new student councils, each led by a member of the Levee, covering academic, co-curricular, charity, pastoral, sustainability and social issues.
“Current and former students reported that their own school experience had not always been inclusive.”
To this was now added, at the recommendation of the Levee, a council dealing with DEI matters, which would lead the school community in understanding that “inclusion” does not just mean “acceptance” but “belonging”.
They sought the views of current and former students who reported that their own school experience had not always been inclusive; they felt that there was a lack of confidence and/or awareness among staff about how to address the needs and views of students of different ethnicities.
A video was made including some of these personal testimonies from which a four-part training course was devised which is now not only used in PSHE sessions across the school but has to be completed by all staff. The council created some specific inclusion-enhancing groups such as the Afro-Caribbean, Women’s, LGBTQ+ and Multi-Faith societies. They also regularly devise and organise events across the school community that contribute to the breaking down of hierarchical barriers.
“Staff and students are now more prepared to have difficult conversations about race, gender and privilege”
At Rugby, DEI is an important part of safeguarding and great importance is paid to any use of inappropriate behaviour and language. All school policies are checked to ensure they are fully inclusive and we believe that staff and students are now more prepared to have the potentially difficult conversations about race, gender and privilege. The DEI council team leaders have also been part of, and played key roles in driving, a strategic DEI committee of staff, governing body members, parents and students which meets two or three times a year.
The same energy, creativity and determination to make a difference are features of the other student councils, each comprising representatives from all of our 15 houses. They are supported by a member of the school’s senior management team (SMT) who writes the job descriptions to ensure that applicants for the headships consider whether they have the attitudes and drive to carry out the role if they are appointed.
Applicants must show commitment, consider their academic and co-curricular workload, and show that they have not only thought about changing policy but how to put those changes into practice. We believe this is excellent preparation for the workplace where collaborative problem-solving and good communication skills are paramount.
“It did not take long for initiative and responsibility to be demonstrated.”
In the early days, the student heads expected to be told what to do by the supporting member of staff. Student leadership was a new concept. It did not take long, however, for initiative and responsibility to be demonstrated. Now, the councils create their own targets and objectives and are held to account by the heads of school at weekly intervals, with members of the SMT speaking last and least at meetings.
We believe our approach to student leadership has resulted in a more collegial approach to our school life. It has helped to drive meaningful change in our culture, with the enthusiasm of students frequently inspiring teachers.