Getting Black History Month right in Education

Given the context of the past two years, it’s a no-brainer that black history month in the UK should simply be the pinnacle of an annual campaign to address the disparities within the education system seen between black and non-black staff and students.

Educational providers that invest time this month into social media campaigns and film festivals dedicated to black artists, without a more robust agenda of policy evaluation, curriculum review, and closing their knowledge gaps are up for certain scrutiny. 

Any university or college can celebrate black history month, but to help you get it right you need to be working all year round, in this blog we’re taking a look at:

  • What policies should educational institutions have to support black staff and students
  • How to make sure all black voices are being heard 
  • How data can help you to support black students and staff
  • How to celebrate Black History Month

What policies should educational institutions have to support black staff and students

In an ideal world, policies specifically addressing race wouldn’t be necessary. Unfortunately, the data shows us that black students have a disparate experience within the education system compared  to other students. In order for us to address discrimination, we must recognise the existence of it, and take action to both prevent and undo it.

Positive Action policies

There’s debate around the efficacy of positive action within education. Should educational institutions see race when considering student support and, in particular, student applications? One argument is that in doing so successful applicants may feel, or be made to feel tokenised in the ambition of meeting a quota. Another is that we need to do something about the acceptance and attainment gaps we see between black and particularly white students. 

Handled correctly, and with effective support surrounding the initiatives taken within positive action, we see these as fundamental steps to making the education system equitable for all. 

Take for example the issue of access into higher education; black students make up 8% of the population of non-Russell Group Universities, dropping to 4% of the more prestigious Russell Group institutions. Outreach projects can help black students in their earlier stages of education see Russell Group universities as a viable option, and help to demystify the application process. The LSE Black Achievement Conference is a good example of how universities can invest into progressing social mobility.

Another barrier to entry is student perception of Russell Group universities. Some students have said that they wouldn’t consider these institutions as options as they don’t believe they have inclusive cultures for racially minoritised students. The worryingly high number of harassment cases reported by black students, and the comparative lack of action in many cases only substantiates these feelings.

Universities need to have plans in place to address the experiences of black students, then all efforts to increase access are wasted. Further education providers need to support these efforts, ensuring Black and minoritised students feel safe and supported applying to higher attainment institutions.

Anti-harassment policies

This is where anti-harassment policies come in. An effective anti-harassment policy will have clear definitions of what constitutes harassment. This should take a victim centred approach to defining and investigating harassment claims. By this we mean, if the reporting parties believe that the behaviour or action they have experienced is harassment, this should be believed and managed with their interests centred. 

By clearly defining racial harassment black students can rest assured that they are protected on campus. Any ambiguity in this creates barriers to reporting by students who may be unable to define their experience and therefore minimise it.

A given is the ability for students to report harassment to the university. There are multiple ways in which this can happen. An effective and robust student support team that is visible and accessible is only step one. 

Providing alternative means of reporting that do not require face to face contact is important for catering to different students’ needs and preferences. This can be named, however anonymous reporting provides many benefits too, which you can read about here.

Anti-racism policies

Building on this, how you enrich the learning and participation amongst your black and mixed race students requires policies geared towards building an anti-racist campus. This should lean into teaching and learning; empowering students to feedback safely and influentially on course content and delivery so their history and culture can be reflected accurately. 

It should support student progression, looking at employment data and supporting your academic and student mentoring staff to assist black students beyond the point of finishing their studies. It should support your staff, and ensure fair representation, funding and support for Black employees across the board. 

All of this requires the ability to listen to the needs and concerns of your community. 

How to make sure all black voices are being heard

Most universities and colleges have good systems for listening to students and staff. What might need consideration is how effectively you are listening to a diverse group of students, considering additional barriers created for intersectional groups.

The aim is to get students to speak up about their experiences. If trust within institutions is an issue in the same way data has shown in the United States, then getting students to speak up can be a challenge. It’s important you identify the role of the students union and other student groups, without transferring responsibility for action on to them. Ultimately the onus is on you to develop effective communication channels with students and create a dialogue.

To state the obvious, not every black student will have the same experience, or same barriers to engagement. For example, is a Black students' networking group trained in supporting Black students with disabilities? You should support students in creating safe spaces where marginalised, and multiply marginalised students can seek support and share feedback. 

How data can help you to support black students and staff

To know how to support your students effectively, you first need to understand who needs support, and what support they need. 

Collecting data on the experiences of black students within your institution, and the proportion of students having similar experiences is vital to ensuring that your action is targeted and effective.

Whether that be recording harassment reports using an online reporting system, or measuring attainment gaps year on year. Measuring data can be an invaluable tool when assessing progress.

It can also assist with how you communicate to students, and onboard them along your journey. Reporting annually on how you’re supporting students from minority groups can help your student body to feel heard and supported. It can also help prospective students feel confident that progress is on your agenda, helping to attract more students.

How to celebrate Black History Month

If you’re taking these steps, then Black History Month in higher education doesn’t need to be complicated:

  • Communicate your efforts
  • Create discussion and feedback forums for ongoing participation in change
  • Continue to campaign for change
  • Celebrate your achievements, and those of your staff and students who are contributing to efforts to make your campus a better place.

For more on how Culture Shift can help you to create a safer campus for your students and staff, get in touch.

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