Headteacher Kelly Hawker and Assistant Headteacher Simon Wright from Cherry Garden School share their journey into anti-racist practice…
Cherry Garden School is an outstanding special school for pupils aged 2-11 years, who have severe learning differences. The leadership team have worked closely with trainer and consultant Liz Pemberton to begin their anti-racist journey.
“I attended a free webinar that Liz was running through Tapestry”, says Simon. “Some of the things she talked about felt relevant for us, and so I met Liz in person after being introduced to her by Stephen Kilgour (SEND Advisor and Outreach Teacher for Tapestry). She then visited the school and really took time to understand Cherry Garden.”
“We didn’t want to create an action plan,” explains Simon. “The problem with action plans is that you complete them and then say, ‘Okay, we’re done now’. With work around anti-racism, you can never say, ‘We’re finished, we’ve achieved it’.
“There are 85 children and 80 staff at Cherry Garden – 165 people in this building and everyone’s life experiences are incredibly different. The range of cultural and religious backgrounds is vast.
“The long-term aim for us is that when people walk through the door, they feel completely comfortable to be who they are and don’t feel they need to keep quiet about anything,” adds Simon. “We’ve found that people are more open since we began our anti-racist journey – we’re having better conversations.
“One of the challenges we had, which you have in every setting, is that there was a gap to bridge between our leadership team and our wider staff team. We’ve found that staff now feel more comfortable to come and speak to us and share their thoughts and ideas.
“As an example, lots of our staff and pupils celebrate Eid, so it’s a big event here. Quite a few members of staff were really forthcoming this year with ideas and ways we could celebrate. I think in the past we would’ve guessed and maybe got it wrong. That’s where you can get yourself into difficulty.”
The staff at Cherry Garden consider carefully whether to explore a subject or celebration as a whole school, as part of an assembly, or as a class activity, explains Simon:
“At the moment, our teachers are looking at individual countries each week, focusing on the countries their children are from. I just went into a classroom and there was a lovely Spanish exercise set up, because there are some Spanish children in that class.”
Cherry Garden’s anti-racism work has focussed on an ongoing shift in the culture and ethos of the school. “It can be difficult to have conversations around anti-racism directly with our pupils because you have to pitch it at the right level.
“The children here have learning differences, including communication needs. There’s a lot of need around understanding and so we’ve talked with Liz and SEN early years leader Kerry Murphy about that.
“If our culture’s right, it naturally affects how we communicate with the children and what we deliver – from thinking about assemblies and the way we set up classrooms, to lots of play activities focussing on particular countries or cultures.”
Kelly and Simon have also reflected on how they communicate with parents and carers. “Our staff really care about and understand the pupils, and we now have more of an understanding of their families, too.
“Kelly and I have that level of white privilege, which I’d never considered before I met Liz – and now I think about it a lot in school. I can’t put myself in the shoes of our parents and carers, for lots of reasons – I’m not a parent, I’m not a parent of children with learning differences and I’m white British.
“So there are different factors that mean I can never fully understand what it’s like for them. But at the same time, we now have more of an open door and we’ve thought a lot about parent/ carer engagement.
“For example, we’ve been looking at our home visit process for new children. We’ve always perceived that to be a really nice, supportive way to introduce ourselves. However, some parents/carers might find our visits intrusive.
“Previously, we would ask a lot of questions about the child – how their child eats and drinks, how they do things. It’s useful knowledge for us, but the parent might feel that we’re judging them if they say they feed their child.
“We’re not. We totally get it – some parents do just need to feed their child and that’s fine. We’re just asking so we know what to expect in September. But on reflection, we can work that out on the first day. You can tell if a child’s usually fed, because they’ll wait for you to feed them.
“We want to reframe home visits as being an optional chance for families to meet staff and ask us questions. We understand that for six hours a day, families are handing over their extremely vulnerable child to us, and we want them to know their child is going to be safe and they’re going to be okay.
“We’re also planning to intersperse our virtual school tour with staff speaking about our setting and explaining things. For some parents, English is their second language, so having a video to watch may be more helpful than us telling them everything in one go during home visits.”
Cherry Garden’s anti-racist journey involves continual reflection on their practice. “At times, I’ve thought, ‘We’ve got this badly wrong, we’ve made a mess here’,”, says Simon.
“But when we reflect and speak about it with Liz, we haven’t. We’ve reached the point where we are having these really good conversations and we’ve come a long way.”
“You have to be prepared for difficult conversations,” says Kelly, “particularly at the start of your anti-racism journey. You have to be open to feeling quite awkward and thinking, ‘I didn’t know that? Why don’t I know that? Okay, fine – I know it now. So, what can we do about it?’”
Simon agrees, “As a leadership team, you have to hear things you don’t like hearing about your school, because everyone sees their own setting through rose tinted glasses. There’s a level of uncomfortableness, but that’s so important because that’s how you get out the other side.”
“We’re always learning and we don’t always get things right,” Simon tells us. “But we’re human – we make mistakes and we learn from them. Admitting that and moving forward is really important.
“I feel strongly that work around anti-racist practice is what the sector needs. We know Liz well for her work in the early years sector, but it’s not just the early years; the whole education sector needs anti-racism work.
“I know there are some schools that aren’t ready for that yet, but wherever your school is, in whatever part of the UK, this is relevant because it’s a massive global issue.
“When I moved to London, I was 25 and had been brought up in a very white British background,” says Simon. “I went to a very white British school. I’ve learned more in my six years at Cherry Garden by far than in my previous 25 years of life.
“It’s really important that we teach and model anti-racism. We owe it to children up and down the country.”
“Anti-racism needs to be embedded in education settings,” says Kelly. “It isn’t tick box statutory training or a standalone training session. It’s about a cultural shift.”
“The impact on our school has been phenomenal in what has been a fairly short space of time,” Simon tells us. “It’s had a really positive effect on wellbeing, and children are exposed to a much broader curriculum now.”
“The staff feel empowered,” adds Kelly. “And if you have happy staff, you have happy children – it’s a continuous circle.
“It’s now about how we continue that journey year after year. I don’t quite know exactly where we’re heading next with our anti-racist journey; I just know that we’re in a much better place.”