Tackling racism is more than a duty. It is the promise of education, says Olayinka Ewuola

The senseless killing of George Floyd has reopened old wounds and rekindled difficult conversations. There is immense pressure and pain across our communities, and as a chair of governors it isn’t enough for me to hear of just sympathy. It falls on us as school leaders to find solutions.

These conversations have been hundreds of years in the making, so while it’s great to hear “we’re listening now”, the question is “why weren’t you listening before?”. That anger is justified.

This is a time of incredible opportunity. We know that there are significant issues with racial equality in education, from well-documented problems around the experiences, retention and progression of black staff to the shocking statistics for the progress of young black boys.

And all this happens against a backdrop of platitudes and lofty ideals. I have never met an educator who doesn’t believe in the role of education to improve the life chances of our children. Yet we continue to see little black boys entering the school system and transitioning simultaneously into adulthood and into the justice system in their droves.

This is not always in spite of the system. It is too often because of it. Something about the classrooms, lunchrooms and hallways of this country is not working; the chance to change things is an opportunity not to be missed.

The right time for action should not be led by what happens to be visible

The worst thing that school leaders can do is to do nothing. To say “we’re listening” and not follow up with anything tangible or meaningful qualifies as doing nothing. This is a time for powerful and dynamic action to act on education’s promise. Fighting entrenched racism requires three things from us – humanity, integrity and commitment.

Taking a human-first approach means heeding the words of Patrick Hutchinson, who was pictured rescuing a far-right protester at the weekend: “It’s not blacks vs whites, but everyone against racism.”

When someone calls out racism – whether accurate or not – it is someone telling you that they’re hurting. The response should not be defensive or focus only on the facts. It should be caring and concern. It may be a misunderstanding or blatant racism – or many things in between – but the pain is real, and that’s what needs addressing. Your community needs to feel seen, heard and understood.

As to integrity, it’s always the right time to do what is right, as the saying goes. The right time for action should not be led by what happens to be visible. Ask yourself, “what is the right thing to do, even if no one is watching”, then do that. Integrity demands that approach.

Even if there have not been overt acts of aggression and prejudice, there will have been racism within your school, and it may be there now. We may wish it not to be the case, but wishing doesn’t make it so. It’s there because in a country with systemic racism, it doesn’t require individual acts for racism to exist.

So to commitment. Go and find it. Go and see how it manifests. Is it inadvertent? Is it blatant and unchecked? Is it overlooked because it’s subtle, or isolated, or inconvenient to notice? If you ask, and truly care to know the answer, you will find it. In people. In the curriculum. In assumptions. In language, expectations and a lack of voices at the table.

Wherever it is, tackle it. If you don’t know how, ask for help. And if you’ve dropped the ball, apologise and commit to doing better.

It doesn’t require anyone to be explicitly racist for racism to occur, but it will take everyone – and especially school leaders – to ensure it no longer blights our colleagues’ lives and ravages our children’s futures.

It’s not a responsibility anyone asked for, but it is the promise we made and must fulfil as educators.