Alongside Oustanding Teacher Learning and Assessment (OTLA) project partners Bishop Auckland College and South West Durham Training, we explored how we might empower our teaching and learning communities to promote and celebrate equality and diversity (E&D) in effective and meaningful ways, helping improve learner access to, and engagement with, high quality, learner-centred E&D provision, writes Dr Vicky Butterby, Access Teacher and E&D Lead at Darlington Learning and Skills Service.
"Mainly I wouldn’t say equality and diversity, I’d just say what’s fair and what’s not fair". Utilising whole class discussion to help evaluate the impact of our collaborative action research project.
We trialled different ways of raising staff confidence around E&D, through CPD, collaborative resource development and via the establishment of E&D themed 'communities of practice'—discussion groups where colleagues could openly discuss their fears, share ideas and problem solve, in person and via online discussion boards such as Padlet.
Staff were encouraged to try one thing, reflect and feedback; existing good practice was shared and innovative and creative E&D initiatives were sparked.
Changes in organisational and staff practices occurred, including: greater emphasis upon collaboration; resituating E&D work as a core component of inclusive practice; renewed commitment to support educationally marginalised groups and a gradual shift from E&D practice as 'knowledge transfer' towards E&D practice as a facilitation of non-judgemental spaces for shared knowledge exchange.
The evaluation process
Our new approaches appeared to improve staff confidence and organisational practice. But what impact did our work have on our learners? To find out, we asked learners about four aspects of E&D:
- topics or issues we would like to learn more about
- what we do with our E&D learning
- important issues that we can teach others about
- how we might promote and celebrate E&D within our setting.
(E&D discussion prompts for learners)
We wanted to discover what learners really understood by 'equality' and 'diversity'. This helped us understand the impact of our work as well as identify where we needed to strengthen our provision. We also wanted to ascertain which aspects of E&D learners felt were important to them; what they wanted to learn more about; and where they felt their own expertise lay.
The project leads visited learners in their own classes, rather than ‘cherry-picking’ learners for focus groups who could be relied upon to provide positive (but misleading) feedback. We met learners across a range of subjects and levels, as well as spending time with those involved in community outreach and apprenticeship learning. Although each of our settings serve predominantly white, working class communities, we were able to speak with learners from a diverse range of backgrounds, including BAME learners, ESOL learners, learners with disabilities and learners with additional needs. This helped us begin to understand how learners really experienced E&D within our settings.
Findings from the evaluation
Using the prompts above, we gained rich insights through learners’ anecdotes and stories stimulated by discussion, developing an understanding of learner experience quantitative surveys would unlikely provide. Proactively engaging with learner voice enabled us to analyse the impact of our project from our learners' perspectives. It was crucial to discover how our perceived increase in staff confidence to promote E&D was being translated into our learners' everyday experiences.
As the title of this article suggests, some learners struggled with the complex terminology of E&D, talking about what was 'fair' or 'unfair' held more resonance for them. Finding out what wasn’t being understood was the foundation for more meaningful next steps, for example, “I know equality because it sounds like equal, but I don’t know the other one.”
Other learners discussed how opportunities to discuss E&D helped raise their confidence to challenge prejudice within their own communities:
- “I used to let it go but now I feel more confident to say it’s wrong if they’re calling me because of my disability.”
- ”For me I want to know more about special needs so I can help my little boy with his learning.”
We found the positive evaluation questions for learners: “What can we do with our learning?”, and “What can we teach others about?” created a motivating (and unusual) sense of responsibility for learners (who are usually passive recipients of diversity messages rather than active promoters of good practices). The evaluation activity thus became formative rather than summative—an energising aspect of their learning and development, rather than a retrospective afterthought that would have little meaning for future action.
(L1, L2 and ESOL groups reflect upon the impact of their E&D learning)
The OTLA action research project proved an immensely rewarding experience. We were able to collaboratively investigate shared concerns and from a personal perspective, my role as project lead provided opportunity to learn from those with managerial, strategic and action research expertise, re-engage with pedagogy and make lasting connections with our project partners. Our project also gave me time and space to critically reflect upon my own practice and my role as E&D lead, helping me reconnect with learners and staff to co-create meaningful, learner-centred E&D practices that resonate within our own settings and beyond.
About Dr Vicky Butterby
Dr Vicky Butterby is an Access teacher and Equality and Diversity (E&D) lead at Darlington Learning & Skills Service. Her PhD explored issues of loss with marginalised young people using storytelling and arts-based research.