Opening the BAMEed Network’s inaugural conference, founding member Amjad Ali jokingly declared: “BAMEed, as sponsored by WhatsApp”. It is amazing though, the speed with which things moved for this grassroots organisation, much of it facilitated by simple technology. The initial idea came about through a Twitter chat between Allana Gay, deputy headteacher at Lea Valley Primary School, and Amjad, assistant headteacher at Aureus School. Abdul Chohan, director at Olive Tree School, joined them as the vision took shape, shortly followed by me.
It sounds like the opening of a bad joke: “Two Muslims, a Catholic and a Jew meet in a hotel room and…”, but this is what happened. After months of late night and early morning WhatsApp group chat to fit around our day jobs and other commitments, and sharing plans through Google docs, our steering group foursome met together for the first time in the same room the day before the conference in a hotel room in Birmingham. Nothing could compare with the joy with which we embraced each other and set about to do some last-minute planning for the next day’s event.
Following that initial online discussion, it became clear that others across the country were excited to get involved in a movement through which people might start to find ways to address the lack diversity in our nation’s schools. Even in areas like London, which serve diverse populations, there is a distinct lack of Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) staff members in schools. Where they are present in schools, BAME colleagues are often more commonly seen in the supporting professions, such as teaching assistants or in junior roles, rather than in positions of greater responsibility.
Our course of action has been clear. Simple, quick wins, can be formulated quite easily. We set up a coaching model that we have seen work in other grassroots organisations, such as WomenEd. We now have coaches and coachees paired across the country, with a commitment to work together to support a greater presence of BAME educators in the sorts of roles coachees wish to occupy in their schools. It can be hugely satisfying to see someone else flourish as the result of one’s support.
Another quick win was to compile a list of BAME educators that are willing to be called upon for public speaking opportunities. All too often, we see conferences and events that have white male after white male in their lineup, and there is little or no diversity represented. Conference organisers struggle because they claim the pool is small. We aim to address that by first calling out conferences as they start to formulate their speakers for the day, and secondly by offering them a choice from our ‘stable’ of speakers, panel members, workshop facilitators and so on, so there can be no barriers to creating a better, more diverse representation at their events. We work closely with WomenEd to make sure we are targeting the right people and organisations.
The idea of our own conference was an obvious next step. We wanted a place to explore, meet and discuss further some of the core issues behind why BAMEed was set up in the first place. The Twitter conversation originally went along the lines of Amjad asking, “Why am I, an Asian man, less likely to be seen in a leadership role at a school than my white colleagues?” To which, Allana asked, as a black woman, “You think you have an issue? Try being me”. Unconscious bias or implicit bias has become quite a hotly debated topic of late, and this seemed like an apt and highly relevant way to access the issues that Allana and Amjad had raised. From my perspective in particular, it seemed like something accessible to all and that affects us all, no matter our declared cultural heritage.
That winter, we set the date for a time that felt suitably far off in the distance, at the start of June. It was an exciting day of keynotes and workshops, covering a range of topics which all explored the overarching theme of unconscious bias. The delegates came from far and wide, ranging from Early Years practitioners to Primary and Secondary teachers, through to university professors. Attendees also included academics, governors and people from unions, as well as charities and social enterprises that work with schools. There was much lively debate and enquiry both online and off, from attendees and those that were following the day from elsewhere. We were trending on Twitter for five hours!
This is just the start for the BAMEed Network. The conference has seen pledges from people to take away things they have learned from the day. We have a list of people volunteering to be regional leads for the network nationally. We gathered lists of people willing to write for education publications. We took down names of people interested in becoming school governors that we will match with schools or who want to participate in a coaching programme for potential London headteachers. There is more work to be done, and much energy to keep building and growing the movement across both BAME and non-BAME educators. In a world where we seem to be increasingly disenfranchised, where people are split across political, social, class, religious and racial divides, it seems just the right time to keep reminding ourselves that there is great strength in difference and together we can ensure that our school workforce reflects the diversity of our society as a whole.