1 The importance of addressing diversity issues

Figure 1 Diversity is in every school.

Successive governments recognise the central role of education in creating an inclusive society that celebrates diversity. As a school leader you will need to be able to identify the diversity that exists within your school community and know how to best utilise this diversity as both a resource and an opportunity for learning. You will also need to identify where diversity issues may be a barrier to learning, and develop strategies to improve learning outcomes for all your students.

The extract below from the NCF (2005, p. 9) illustrates the rationale for the necessity of inclusive quality education and its link with equity.

The education system does not function in isolation from the society of which it is a part. Hierarchies of caste, economic status and gender relations, cultural diversity as well as the uneven economic development that characterise Indian society also deeply influence access to education and participation of children in school. This is reflected in the sharp disparities between different social and economic groups, which are seen in school enrolment and completion rates. Thus, girls belonging to SC and ST communities among the rural and urban poor and the disadvantaged sections of religious and other ethnic minorities are educationally most vulnerable. In urban locations and many villages, the school system itself is stratified and provides children with strikingly different educational experiences. Unequal gender relations not only perpetuate domination but also create anxieties and stunt the freedom of both boys and girls to develop their human capacities to their fullest. It is in the interest of all to liberate human beings from the existing inequalities of gender.

Every school leader plays an important role in ensuring that the provision of education is fit for purpose and meets the needs of everyone in the community. The NCF and RtE, which describe a school as a learning community, require school leaders to have a good knowledge and understanding of the social context of the school. This is further elaborated upon in the NCSL National Programme Design & Framework 2014, which provides school leaders space to explore and understand four special focus areas, namely tribal, small multi-grade schools, schools in conflict areas and difficult geographical conditions.

Activity 1: Difference in your school

Write down in your Learning Diary five sentences about your encounters with diversity or difference in your school environment in the past week. For example, you might have heard several different languages being spoken, seen male students being treated preferentially over female students, witnessed different students’ religious practices, or assisted a student in a wheelchair.

To help, you could refer to the types of diversity that were highlighted in the introduction: race, colour, gender, language, religion, caste, creed, community, social group, economic status, literacy level, ability levels, levels of health, professions, geographical terrain, climate and political inclination.

You need to be alert to actually notice the differences. At this stage you do not necessarily need to think about whether the difference is a problem or not. You just need to notice where there is difference in terms of behaviour, appearance, ability, opportunity or engagement.

Discussion

This will be a very individual response. You will be alert to some differences more than others and it might be interesting to get a colleague to do the same exercise and compare notes, as you are likely to identify different differences. There are many dimensions to diversity and each school community will be influenced by different aspects. The school leader needs to:

  • recognise the diversity among their staff and students
  • take action to avoid discrimination
  • celebrate and use the diversity for positive gains, both socially (for the benefit of the wider community and the country) and educationally (to ensure all students achieve their potential).

Activity 2: Understanding the contexts for achievement and aspiration

Reflect on how the diversity of your students’ social context influences the enrolment, learning and achievement of students of your school. What sort of trends and patterns have you been noticing? What are the key diversity issues that you need to address in your context?

The questions below relate to the social context of your students and how this impacts on their learning and aspirations. Make a note of your answers in your Learning Diary. You may want to add or drop some different questions so they relate specifically to your context. You might ask yourself questions like:

  • Do any of your students opt for higher education? How many get a place in a college of their choice? Who are these successful students?
  • Which able students do not proceed into higher education? Why?
  • Which students are focused on moving up to secondary school? Which students are more vague about their education beyond elementary level?
  • How many female students in your school think of a longer-term career or profession?
  • How far do students aspire to build lives beyond their current social status? Which students are they and why do they hold these aspirations when others don’t?
  • How far does students’ poor attendance link to their low aspirations at school? Does one cause the other or are there poor attenders who are keen learners?
  • What impact might the students’ language skills have on their learning and longer-term aspirations?

Discussion

Were you surprised by any of your questions? Did you recognise you were probably responding on the basis of gut feelings or general observations? You will probably have realised that you needed more evidence or hard data to confirm your identification of an issue. Before you take action, is it wise to check that you have accurately identified the issues and the extent to which it is prevalent in your school’s community. Equally important are understanding and assessing the attitudes and beliefs of teachers, students, local community members, the SMC and parents to the various issues.

To do so requires the collection of data to support your initial reactions and your justification for making changes. Such data-gathering will also give you a baseline from which to monitor or measure any impact on learning.

Activity 3: Mapping diversity within the school

Students enrol at your school with a wide range of experiences and resources. These will obviously impact directly and indirectly on their learning outcomes, and as a starting point you need to map the actual diversity within your school.

Figure 2 Mapping diversity.

Using a table like the Table 1 below, complete as much of the information as you can using the data that is currently available to you. In the left-hand column, you will find a list of factors that influence the participation of your students in their learning. You may well need to subdivide the categories further to indicate the range of religions and languages represented by your students.

Think about how each of these factors influences your school community and fill in the columns. You may not have data available for all the categories. Make a note in your Learning Diary where you have gaps in data and then try to make an estimate wherever possible. Often the actual figures are very different from the estimates, so where you are guessing, make sure that you are cautious not to draw conclusions without further investigation.

Table 1 Mapping diversity within your school.

Factor Data                    Suspected or proven impact on learning outcomes
Male:female ratio  
Low socio-economic band    
High socio-economic band    
Language spoken at home    
Number taught in familiar language    
Learning disability    
Physical disability    
Distance travelled to school    
Religious affiliation    
Health issues    
Other    

Write down in your Learning Diary about what data in this table surprised or worried you, and the questions that arose in your mind.

Discussion

This activity should highlight how aware you are of the context of your school and should have made you curious to find out the rest. You may have noticed that there are disparities that you had not recognised before, or that you had made assumptions. You may also realise that there are many more factors in your school community that you perceive need to be looked at and have data gathered on.

You have probably realised that there is a lot that you do not know for sure, but you may feel apprehensive about how to locate this data. This is natural, especially if you are finding all this very new and are worried about your ability to use the information. As you go along you will find your confidence rising. Keep your focus on your intention: to make a difference to the life chances of every one of your students.

Here is a case study for you to read and reflect on, with special attention paid to how this school leader used the information she had gathered about her school’s context to make a difference to the achievement of the female students in her school. It is about a highly respected leader of a school situated in a community of craftspeople who used her knowledge of the students to improve their learning.

Case Study 1: Mrs Kumar returns

The text in this case study is from a letter that the education officer wrote to his colleague.

Mrs Kumar knows every student in her school and knows who she needs to support and how to ensure they are learning to their full potential. Having looked at the achievements of her students, Mrs Kumar is aware that students from low socio-economic backgrounds have the lowest educational outcomes in her school. Therefore she makes every effort to prioritise their needs in order to raise their ambitions and achievements.

She has convinced her SMC to support the education of her economically backward students instead of spending money on birthday celebrations. She has influenced her staff to provide five sweaters every winter to the students whose families are unable to afford them for their daughters. She has convinced teachers’ families to invite her students to their family functions, where they decorate attendees’ hands with henna, as they are naturally talented and it provides them with much-needed pocket money.

Her teachers recently convinced the local education officers to place a satellite dish on the roof of their school because their students are not allowed by their families to travel into the city’s satellite transmission centre. They did not want the cultural norms to affect the audio-visual instruction that their students now receive in school.

Today, her student alumni are in colleges of the city, some of which are co-educational. She ensures that her teachers are supported to reach every child and know the unique talents they possess. Absenteeism is low, drop-out is virtually nil, the most popular classrooms are a science demonstration room and the working science laboratories, and the use of technology in classes is higher than most government schools.

Mrs Kumar knows the family of each student and extends a helping hand where necessary, but demands their partnership in her endeavour to raise the standards of personal and family health and hygiene. Medical camps are extended to the mothers of the students.

The poems she writes on the school noticeboard are original and impassioned, exhorting her teachers that they are change agents. She earns every bit of the adoration that she receives from her ‘school family’.

Activity 4: Mrs Kumar’s school context

Mrs Kumar seems to be a very passionate and committed school leader who knows her school context well. Make notes in your Learning Diary in response to the following questions:

  • In what ways does Mrs Kumar understand her school context?
  • What data do you think enabled her to improve the outcomes of her students?
  • What are the direct and indirect effects of her leadership on student learning and achievement?

Discussion

Mrs Kumar has a genuine interest in all her students and has taken care to understand their family and community contexts through conversations and relationships with her students and their parents. She had probably involved her staff in gathering information on the students’ backgrounds from the very beginning and continues to involve them in her goal of providing learning opportunities to all her students and building their aspirations. This data meant that she was able to lobby for the satellite dish. They must have discussed as a team how all the staff could work with her to make a difference to the students.

When thinking about student learning, it is helpful to think about direct and indirect impacts. In Case Study 1 you may have identified direct impacts, including the low absenteeism, the use of technology in classrooms and the access to excellent science equipment. The indirect impacts are more likely to be associated with the general wellbeing of the students in order to provide an environment and a community where they can all access learning.

This is not accidental. In order to instigate changes that have the most impact on student learning, it is important to identify the barriers that cause the most difficulty for students in your school and the opportunities that exist but are under-utilised. How you, as a school leader, identify those barriers and opportunities relies on data collection and analysis.

What school leaders can learn in this unit

2 Using data to improve learning outcomes for all