As Holocaust Memorial Day is upon us, I thought it would be timely to pose a question; where are we now on diversity in Scottish education? The intense heat caused by Black Lives Matter last summer has given way to popular fixation on the pandemic, and the turbulent transition of one US presidential administration to another. We should be very careful if we think that real progress has been made, because the kind of structural change that is needed in society - and our schools - has scarcely begun.

I was encouraged by the many admirable efforts being made in Scottish schools last term to increase the focus on diversity. In particular, Black History Month provided a focal point that in previous years was largely passed over. However, I fear we are now in a state of ‘churn’; the period in which people disengage after the initial enthusiasm has waned. Our attention as teachers, and school leaders, has been monopolised by the return to remote teaching, when there is still so much more to be done.

One of the key priorities for me is recruitment. I have seen some impressive language going into adverts that show surface-level commitment to welcoming applicants from different backgrounds, but we have a long way to go if Scotland’s teaching profession is to show the same rich diversity of our pupil populations. I strongly recommend the work of Professor Rowena Arshad, who is our leading academic on race in education. Until recently she was Head of School at Moray House, and is an associate with the Centre for Education for Racial Equality in Scotland (CERES). Her keynote presentation at researchED Glasgow in February last year showed the barriers that Scotland’s BAME teachers face. We need to look at the whole range of professional recruitment here, from ITE to senior leadership. What pathways exist that make teaching a more attractive, socially mobile profession?

I also believe we have a lot more to do on LGBTQI+ issues in Scottish education. As with race, this applies both to how effective our curriculum is, and how we model this aspect of diversity in our teaching staff. It has been just over two years since the Time for Inclusive Education Campaign ensured that Scotland became the first country in the world to make the teaching of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex rights mandatory in the curriculum. I remember the appalling section 28 debate of twenty years ago, and Scotland only decriminalised homosexuality in 1980. We  are definitely heading in the right direction now, but, again, let’s not allow complacency or distraction to creep in at this crucial stage.

I did a Masters degree on sectarianism in Scottish history, which was inspired by the public lecture by the composer James MacMillan at the Edinburgh Festival in 1999. It was called ‘Scotland’s Shame’, and he accused the country of suffering from “sleepwalking bigotry”. I think we could equally apply that to racism, and many other ‘isms’. 

If 2020 was a year in which we woke up, 2021 needs to be a year in which the deep-seated structural change needed in society takes place. Schools should absolutely be at the forefront of that process. The post-pandemic world will be full of possibilities and I hope that commitment to diversity is writ large in this new era.

Robin Macpherson, Head of Robert Gordon's College