Written by Nii Cleland, CEO/Co-Founder of Flair.
Back in June, when I read the open letter detailing a culture of racism at a number of leading independent schools, including The Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School and Haberdashers’ Aske’s School for Girls, I had mixed feelings. The experiences described by ex-Habs students really resonated, as I had also been through similar things. But I also felt a huge sense of opportunity to help Habs Boys and Habs Girls tackle these problems.
My desire to help was probably driven by the fact that I knew I owed so much of what I’ve achieved to the mindset Habs gave me. It was also partially due to my own love for solving complex problems – my first venture was a social network called Flair Football, and many people in the technology industry believe creating a social network is the most challenging design problem to solve. My work led me to become obsessive with the science of solving problems from first principles. And at Flair, we had come up with a simple three-step process to addressing problems, which I felt Habs and any other organisations facing issues related to race could leverage to make meaningful change.
If more organisations approached problem-solving in this way, they would see step-shifts in their ability to tackle their problems. Far too many organisations skip steps one and two and jump straight to coming up with solutions without deeply understanding their problems. It often leads to ill-directed interventions that don’t address underlying problems. This was something I was very worried many schools would fall victim to. As more schools received open letters from their ethnic minority students and alumni, I was seeing far too many responding with their action plans to address racial inequality a number of days later. I knew how unlikely it was that they could have carried out the necessary research to have solutions that had a high likelihood of achieving their aims.
When I called Gus Lock, Headmaster of Habs Boys, and explained to him my thoughts, he was very receptive to Flair helping Habs properly embark on this three-step process. He was well aware of the scale of the challenge and that it would not be a quick fix. But, he was also keen to be accountable for beginning that journey, which I hugely commend him for. My old school had now become our client, and it was time to get to work on a product that we felt could help not just Habs Boys and Habs Girls, but the independent sector as a whole.
“Flair worked with Haberdashers’ Aske’s School for Girls to provide us with a student diversity and inclusion survey. They were totally responsive to the needs of the School and I was so impressed with their understanding of the issues that we wanted to find out more about with our student body.” Rose Hardy, Headmistress at Habs Girls.
Step 1 – Work out the problems
The open letter that pupils sent to a number of independent schools gave Flair a good starting point for working out the issues that Habs, like so many other schools, was facing. But, we knew we needed to go deeper. This led us to conduct an analysis of 30 open letters sent to independent schools across the country, to identify the trends amongst them. We also held interviews with independent school students and staff members from all ethnic backgrounds and did some introspection of our own, from our own lived-experience. We were careful to avoid a mistake that a number of schools seemed to be making – by the end of the research, we came up with four over-arching categories of the problem:
- Racial Inclusion – Students from certain ethnic minorities were feeling less included. Which ethnic groups were feeling least included depended on the specific school.
- Racial Diversity – There was an under-representation of different ethnic minorities across student and staff bodies. The problem seemed particularly accentuated at staff level in the independent school sector
- Racial Awareness – Both students and staff were not confident in identifying racism, challenging it or talking about it. They also felt they did not have a base-level understanding of the history of racism.
- Racist Behaviours – Instances of racist jokes, racial discrimination and microaggressions were commonplace in the independent school sector. It was not just students perpetuating the behaviour either – staff were also often the perpetrators.
Step 2 – Set Clear Metrics
There is an old cliché that ‘what doesn’t get measured, doesn’t get done’. We knew we had to find a way to measure the four areas mentioned to give Habs a clear understanding of how big each problem actually was. This would be the baseline that the two schools would then compare with over time.
But one of the biggest issues with problems related to racism is that people feel uncomfortable talking about their experiences and perceptions. We felt a way to overcome that was by protecting people’s identity as they shared these thoughts. We decided that an anonymous survey product that went out to all students and staff would be the best way to gather this voice, clearly indicating that it was being conducted by a third party, so that no one would feel intimidated when sharing their thoughts and lived-experience.
We also did a lot of research with diversity and inclusion professionals to understand how we could measure concepts as abstract as racial inclusion and racial awareness. Situational judgement became our primary tool for measuring racial awareness. Whilst we created our own index of racial inclusion – this was calculated by asking people if they felt their ethnicity had excluded them for accessing basic rights at school, such as being themselves and receiving recognition. Lastly, we created our own measure of diversity which indicates how distributed a school’s population is amongst the five ethnic groups in the UK’s census.
Step 3 – Come up with solutions
We spent four months coming up with recommendations that could address problems relating to: racial inclusion, racial diversity, racial awareness or racist behaviours. Back in June, we did not know with certainty what the results would actually show when we got round to conducting the survey with Habs in September. So we made sure to create a broad database of recommendations. This involved analysing the same thirty open letters from a variety of schools for solutions recommended by students, speaking to diversity and inclusion experts in the corporate space, and also doing our own ideation – as our team love coming up with our own solutions to problems.
We knew from our own experience of building solutions to our app that one of the biggest barriers to change is simply the effort involved in implementing solutions. I could think of numerous times where the data would show the need to make a big enhancement to our app, but we simply did not have the resources available to do so. So, we were conscious of making sure that we included enough recommendations that were quick to action, but could still make a meaningful impact.
Lastly, we spent a month creating algorithms that triggered each recommendation, depending on the specific data revealed by the survey, ensuring that our recommendations were data-driven. This was to help remove any bias from recommendations – we knew we would likely be rolling the product out to more schools, not just Habs Boys and Habs Girls, and wanted to ensure each school was recommended the exact same solution if their data was similar to another’s.
Launching the Survey
A few weeks ago, after months of hard work, we launched the survey to Habs Boys and Habs Girls . Through Flair’s dashboards, we were able to show the schools clear areas of strength, areas to improve and also provided them with recommendations that tied to the data. The beauty of the data-driven approach is that we ensured that the solutions were guided by the voice of the whole school community – we think this is hugely important for something as interconnected as racism, where the problems don’t just lie with minorities, but also the majority as well. In total over 1600 students from Year 7 to Year 13 from Habs Boys and Habs Girls were able to share their honest, lived experience and perceptions related to racism, and the school was provided with clear actionable insights on where to improve.
What started off as an idea to help my own school, is now growing into a movement in the independent sector. Since the start of the school year, twenty independent schools have signed up to participate in the survey, and we have received glowing feedback and recommendations for our work from the Independent School Council, the Girls’ School Association and the Headmasters & Headmistresses Conference.
The article in The Independent was aptly titled ‘Independent schools, please stand up for your black students, listen to them and respect them’. Habs Boys and Habs Girls have begun their response and it is now time for other schools to conduct as meticulous a process to stand up for all their ethnic minority students.
“It was very good and helped us reflect on certain issues that have to be discussed” – Year 10, White-British student
“I think this survey was really good, as you could express your feelings without anyone looking” – Year 7, White-British student
“It was fun and enjoyable to complete, but simultaneously educating, and gives you useful information” – Year 7, Pakistani student
“Hearing the voice of the pupil body as a whole and with such clarity is both exciting and empowering. I have no doubt that it will support us in targeting improvements in our work on inclusion throughout the school” Gus Lock, Headmaster at Habs Boys.
“The delivery and execution of the survey was seamless and the way that we can now use the dashboard to analyse the data is fantastic. Flair have been instrumental in enabling Habs to move forward with our diversity and inclusion strategy” Rose Hardy, Headmistress at Habs Girls.