The Head of St Margaret’s School in Bushey, Lara Pechard, on the evolution of Black Lives Matter and Everyone’s Invited in schools
Art and other creative outlets so often showcase what matters to young people today. Expression through creativity can help students to highlight personal struggles or address topics they are passionate about. At my school, there are also many elements of pride in heritage and of identity that come through via creative works. If you walk through the art department in my school right now, the impact of Black Lives Matter (BLM) and Everyone’s Invited (EI) is evident. In our photography rooms you will see images of protestors (which include some of our own student faces) and signposts with words like ‘She just wanted to walk home safely’. If you make your way into our Sixth Form art studio you will also see displays of A-level artwork, with students proudly displaying their black faces with Jamaican, Nigerian and Gambian flags superimposed across them.
Freedom of opinion
A year on since Sarah Everard’s life was taken, and a few years since the murder of George Floyd, you can see an obvious knock-on impact of these incidents and other social movements in our schools today. Perhaps most significant, pupil voice has got louder. Fueled by the success of movements like BLM and EI, and by the fluency of their IT skills, young people feel more entitled to share their opinions on any topic important to them. While standing up for one’s beliefs in a respectful way is admirable, not all of this has been positive for schools, as it has led to discipline issues in some cases, which has been tougher to unpick with more children feeling able to share their views, sometimes with force.
As a result, PSHE programmes and pastoral staff in schools are having to respond and coach children around how to convey their thoughts respectfully. The impact of this will have been felt across all classrooms, especially in English and RS lessons. Yet schools are also listening much harder to pupils. The EI movement tarnished many school reputations across the country. It revealed some traumatic issues that schools hadn’t known about or identified before.
Regular drop-in sessions with Headteachers have been commonplace for many years in a bid to encourage pupils to speak up, but so too have other ways of eliciting views, such as questionnaires, pupil focus groups and bystander training to inspire even the most reticent child to speak up. This continues today and schools are continually having to find new ways of leaning into conversations and nurturing pupils to talk more. Pupil choice on everything from English texts to course content, assembly services through to lunch options, is a welcome enhancement to school.
Issues around feeling safe have had sharper focus since the EI movement and schools have had to think this through carefully. In my school we have thought hard about this and have asked pupils to physically draw onto site maps to indicate where they feel safe and where they feel vulnerable, so that we can adapt our common spaces and our duty system. New toilets and changing areas along with newly refurbished library spaces have all been considered along with the style of furniture that might help alleviate these issues.
Further emphasis on how to handle intimate relationships as children get older has been important to explore, but in a way that is clear, open and respectful; it isn’t always easy, but it is welcome. Like many other schools, PSHE now has more time and energy dedicated to it and is part of joined up thinking across all that we do. Reflections of pastoral staff is also considered as we adapt our PSHE offering and the support-driven parent events that sit alongside it.
Change for good
As a school we have ensured that all stakeholders have received diversity and inclusion training, which we will deliver again next year. We are looking hard at how we can ensure our staff and governors reflect our community and we are taking on the best advice we can in this area. There is still some way to go of course. Allowing pupils to run with societies that are important to them whether it is the LGBTQ+ group or a faith service of their choice, things have shifted irreversibly for the good in schools.
Listening to our young people is key but, as ever, keeping up as parents is not easy. Strong pastoral settings in school are providing parents with help on how to navigate this period to best encourage, but also support their children. Next term my school will run a follow up event to previous parental pastoral webinars and events titled: What your teenager wants to tell you but can’t.
Thankfully schools are thinking more about their position on these issues today and how they can help in a positive way rather than simply reacting.