I have read some really good pieces on inclusivity over the last few days. The first was an enlightened article by Rev’d Jonathan Draper, General Secretary of Modern Church and former Dean of Exeter (and a previous Chair of Governors at ECS), where he focused on what it means to really be inclusive. Whilst the context of his writing was liturgical and to do with the broader Church (note the capital C), his thoughts about inclusivity being about ‘more than just being nice’ are pertinent to 21st-century society (both secular and profane) more widely.
The second piece extolling the virtues of inclusivity came from the Spectator, and is a ‘letter to the editor’ written by our neighbour and colleague Rev’d Canon James Mustard, Precentor of Exeter Cathedral, ECS Governor, and stalwart supporter of choristership, of musicianship, and of the central importance of the strong links between School and Cathedral. His piece is a response to an article bemoaning the scourge of the non-all-male choir in cathedrals, colleges, and churches, and he speaks passionately and convincingly about the very great benefits brought about by the School’s move to full co-education in 1994 and by the Cathedral’s (then very forward-thinking) establishing of the Girl Choristers.
Inclusivity in Schools is important: as places of learning (in all its forms), we must absolutely send the right messages about what matters. Tolerance and acceptance of, along with respect and admiration for – and, if you get it really right, a nonchalance towards – the diversity of a community is what needs to be promoted and modelled in a really good school.
Co-education can be a good starting point. Schools tend to be single-sex largely due to historical accident or precedent: if one were to sit down and design an educational environment for today’s children, I suspect one would steer well clear of carving up learners by gender. Having worked in a pastoral management position at a school when it went through its transition from boys-only to full co-ed (numbers increased by 76% overnight), I can hand-on-heart say that my experience of teaching across the age range and of leading the pastoral and wellbeing provision leaves me in no doubt that the argument about boys being disadvantaged by the presence of girls and vice versa is one that holds very little water indeed. Over a 3-year period (the time taken, it is thought, for a new culture to begin to take effect), the environment became at once more gentle and more purposeful, and an already-positive atmosphere became even more buzzing and supportive. (I quite quickly got used to the question ‘Sir, do you want to see the dance we made up?’, something that I’d never been asked by a group of boys, but which became a pretty much weekly question from some of the younger girls). Life inside the classroom didn’t change much: we updated schemes of learning to ensure, for example, that our English literature courses contained books with female protagonists, and we made sure in the MFL department to spend a bit more time on the feminine agreements of past participles. I’m being slightly glib about it: there was a good deal of research, planning and training that went into ensuring a smooth transition, of course, but the point is that good schools cater for individuals and focus on the development of each pupil. Good teachers teach a class of (at ECS) 15 individuals.
The independent sector is (rightly) proud of its record of enabling pupils from a variety of backgrounds to access its provision through (often hefty) bursary funds and a continued (and determined) effort to keep a downward pressure on tuition fees. But inclusion is about more than just demographic make-up. It’s about the opportunities that are afforded to all pupils. It’s about making sure that every child in the School pulls on the blue and gold top to represent the School on the sports field. It’s about making sure that concerts and performance opportunities cater for the full range of abilities and confidences. It’s about a culture where everybody, in every year group, sings in a choir. It’s about a culture of community engagement and bringing in visiting speakers to open the eyes and the minds of the children they address. It’s about a culture which places pastoral care at the very top of the agenda, and where bespoke provision and effective communication means that nobody slips through the net. It’s about a passionate commitment to fostering creativity for all, both inside the classroom and without. And it’s about knowing and valuing pupils as individuals, and welcoming each family into a warm, supportive, purposeful and nurturing environment.
We’re proud of that provision at ECS, which all plays its part in helping us to be ‘a gently-Christian environment in which the values of love, tolerance, acceptance, gentleness and compassion are endorsed and modelled through our daily interactions and in our decision-making.’ That’s a culture of inclusivity of which, given their own writings, Jonathan Draper and James Mustard (wise men, both) would, I hope, approve. Final word, then, to Canon Mustard, via a copy of his letter published in the Spectator: