However great our foresight, surely none of us could have imagined the various challenges and tragedies of the past year, nor the astonishing kindness, resourcefulness and ingenuity which has arisen in response. 

Of course, 2020 will primarily be remembered as the year in which our world was struck by a terrifying pandemic. But other critical things have happened and one of them, the clear, penetrating and often uncomfortable scrutiny of race-relations in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, is perhaps one of the most important. It has certainly felt vital for those of us in education, charged with the privilege of directing and guiding the next generation. The task is both extraordinarily simple and fiendishly challenging.

Of course, we all want to embrace inclusivity and diversity of all kinds, and to celebrate the rich, exciting range of social, cultural and racial backgrounds throughout our school communities. But how best to do that? To address such long-standing and endemic issues is very much easier said than done and requires a comprehensive scrutiny of pretty much everything: curriculum, co-curriculum, school calendar and pupil and staff recruitment. 

"Almost half of English schools have no BAME teachers."

That last one is a particularly tough nut to crack, because many schools have been trying unsuccessfully, for years to do so. Indeed, researchers from UCL reported recently that almost half of English schools have no BAME teachers. The school I am taking over in January is no exception. Alleyn’s School, a wonderful, historic, warm and exciting school in the heart of Dulwich is dedicated to challenging unfairness and has been for centuries (as its long-standing service and partnership programme indicates).

But the racial diversity of the staff body is lower than the 32 per cent minority representation of the part of London in which it sits, particularly amongst the academic staff.  Again, the solution looks deceptively simple: just employ more ethnic minority teachers. But that’s a whole lot easier said than done. How can you employ those who don’t apply, or encourage more people to do so? Who may not connect with or respond to the job adverts?

The answer, of course, as it has been to so many of this year’s problems, is to think differently. To be as imaginative and ingenious as possible in tackling the problem and to be as single-minded as it is possible to be in addressing it. Certainly, that has been the approach at Alleyn’s and although it remains a work in progress, there is widespread buy-in (governors, staff, students) to increase and welcome diversity in all its forms. The governing objectives are to make Alleyn’s the warmest, most comfortable place it can be for all who are here or seek to join and thus we need to attract people from as many backgrounds as possible. And this cannot be a bolt-on, it must be lived and be visible to the whole community on a daily basis.

"Like all schools, we are acutely aware that we are feeling our way."

This means increasing awareness in all areas of the school. With that in mind, Alleyn’s has taken a variety of actions in recent years. The community has established a dedicated diversity and equality committee (made up of staff representatives across the community), which has ushered in a whole suite of inclusion-based activity. The school has held unconscious bias training for staff members, with specific focus for those involved in pupil recruitment, on recognising and addressing such bias in the admissions process. The equal opportunities monitoring form for staff recruitment has been revised to collect data in a more progressive and more inclusive way; all options are presented in alphabetical order and there is greater clarity on why the data is collected. There has been celebration of a wider variety of religious festivals in the school calendar and there have been discussion events for students, staff and, importantly, parents. Alleyn’s former Scientist-in-Residence, Dr Adam Rutherford, ran an illuminating discussion inspired by his book: “How to Argue with a Racist.

There is also the minorities’ student union, established and led by pupils, as well as a newly appointed MSU prefect, too. Alongside this, dedicated staff members have launched the Alleyn’s anti-racism and inclusion initiative (which provides a safe space for students to talk about concerns around racism and micro-aggression).

"Specialist recruitment consultants can help us focus on the language, tone and assumptions of our job adverts."

Like all schools, we have been acutely aware of the fact that we are feeling our way. We accept that we don’t have all the answers, the starting point, which we are now at, is recognising the right questions and how to ask them. We are humble in our desire to learn and grateful for the sharing and engagement on this issue shown by our partner schools. We have relished the chance this gives us all for sharing of resource and best practice. It’s good, for example, to be part (and founder member) of the Schools’ Inclusion Alliance, a focused group of HMC schools, set up specifically to address all issues relating to diversity and inclusion.

We are also engaging with pupils and former pupils, who can tell us how Alleyn’s is and was for them from their unique perspectives.

All of this, we hope, will help to attract and encourage those representing minority groups to consider applying to roles that we advertise and to feel comfortable about accepting them when they are offered. Like many major employers, we are preparing to include profiles of staff on our website to help promote the diversity of backgrounds, expertise, and interests already amongst our community to reassure potential applicants. We also recognise the value that specialist recruitment consultants can give here, in helping us focus on the language, tone and assumptions of our job advertisements.

So, as the next new year looms and we say goodbye to the trauma, challenge and opportunities of 2020, this is something we are delighted to be carrying with us into the upcoming year and decade and beyond. Our founder (Ned Alleyn, Elizabethan actor and philanthropist), founded his “College of God’s Gift” precisely to make the great opportunity of education, as widely available as possible. The Renaissance was a time of rich discovery and wide social change. And in many ways it feels that the upheavals of 2020 have created a similar melting pot of awareness, opportunity, and impetus.