Facing up to privilege

A personal view of confronting the advantages you’ve had and sharing this across the school community

Dan Colquhoun Director of Sixth Form at Dr Challoner's Grammar School, 20/21 Big Leadership Adventure leader

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The past few weeks have been a time when I’ve been doing a huge amount of thinking and taking action on a lot of things relating to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. The starting point was the brilliant session led by Hannah Wilson (@DiverseEd2020) and Adrian McLean (@Character_Guy) where we were all encouraged to actively engage in a range of deep-thinking tasks regarding what the key ideas meant to us as well as being encouraged to reflect on what our responses were to some challenging videos, pictures and ideas. What made this experience so powerful for me was the lack of judgement in the session alongside the feeling of psychological safety which enabled me to be honest with myself, and others, about my relative naivety with some of the issues raised. 

The idea that particularly chimed with me was around Privilege. Having heard this bandied around previously I have to admit that I found it a word with many negative connotations – akin to spoilt, selfish, arrogant… I knew that I’d been fortunate in my upbringing: a loving, stable family; good school; various opportunities etc. but the idea of seeing myself as privileged didn’t sit well with me and I felt it was more suitable for those in the very highest echelons of wealth.

The video that we were shown of the race for $100 (here) where a range of statements were read out and if they applied to the individual (e.g. had a father figure in home, never worried where the next meal will come from etc.) they get to take two paces forward. After 10 statements the difference in starting position is massive, but as the video states: ‘where you are has nothing to do with anything you’ve done’. 

I have watched this a number of times now, and it still causes a very emotional reaction in me. How can I not have realised just how fortunate – how PRIVILEGED – I’ve been all of these years? Having now shared this video with our SLT, my Sixth Form Team as well as with our team of Senior School Officials in both Y12 and Y13, it has been fascinating to listen to their responses and the different aspects that they pick up on. The extra large steps that people are trying to take to get any little additional advantage, the strong link between race and starting position, the importance for those at the front to turn around otherwise they don’t realise quite how far ahead they are of everyone else, and the incredible, powerful, way that many of those at the back still give their absolute best in the race. It gets me every time.

So, do students leave our school realising the extent of their privilege?

At the moment the answer for the vast majority would have to be a resounding no. They attend a selective school in an affluent town in the commuter belt and this bubble that they live in means that they are not exposed to the full breadth of society. They often end up comparing themselves to their, similarly privileged, peers or others in independent schools (the few who are “ahead” of them in the race of privilege) and actually convincing themselves that they’re relatively disadvantaged. Finding ways to encourage them to see themselves within the bigger picture, to take a more global view, is going to be really important.

For some students this can come from when they head to university and mix with a wider, more diverse, group of people. At reunion events it is a regular comment: “I just thought that all schools were like ours until I started speaking to friends at university.” This leads to increased gratitude and awareness of their privilege from attending our school, however it doesn’t suggest that they really understand the depth of privilege from across all aspects of their life that has put them in the position that they are in.

To me it is so powerful to think of what they could achieve if they do have this awareness of their privilege and the moral duty that comes with it to use it to help others who haven’t had the same level of advantage. Equity vs Equality.

So, what has happened since this experience of seeing with fresh eyes?

Back in my school I initially shared my key learnings with my SLT colleagues. This led to some really fruitful discussions and we now have DEI as one of our two key school targets for the coming academic year. Sharing thoughts with a number of different teams of staff and students has been amazing and the quality of engagement and contributions at all of these has been so brilliant to see. It is as though everyone is desperate to talk about it, but often doesn’t feel confident enough to always say what they want to. To ask the questions. To simply say they don’t know. By sharing my vulnerability and recent journey has had a very positive impact on the atmosphere in these sessions and allowed people to feel safe and talk openly. ‘Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.’

I have also had a number of discussions with my team in the Sixth Form about what this all means to us, and what are the key aspects for us to work on with the students. We have also started to make things more visible to students with: posters from Bold Voices around the school; names and email addresses of who to contact if a student has any concerns; policies more visible; a standing agenda item in our meetings; sharing of interesting articles and webinars.

What does the future hold?

We have arranged sessions in a couple of weeks’ time (once Y13s have got their final assessments out of the way), where all interested students are invited into school for two hours, to share their feelings regarding Sexual Harassment, Sexual Abuse and Consent. We’re initially going to have these meetings split by gender to encourage open sharing of what is the reality of things at the moment. We will then see what people are happy to share more widely and capture the honest views of our Sixth Form students as well as thoughts on how we could proceed. Involving the whole school community, and particularly the students, is going to be key in shaping how we move forwards.

Getting all staff on board is vital and we have very successfully embedded positive attitudes towards Mental Health across the school having focussed on working with staff first and then students. I see this as an important path to also follow with DEI too: every teacher needs to have the space to engage with the issues themselves before we can expect them to start working with students. We cannot allow any teacher to remain unconsciously incompetent. ‘Doing the inner work before you do the outer work.’

As a school we pride ourselves in sending out well-rounded students prepared to make a positive impact in the world. We must do everything we can to ensure that this encompasses awareness of their individual level of privilege and this is going to be a key aspect for us to get right for the future. I’m excited for what lies ahead!

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