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Herts and Essex High: Bishop's Stortford secondary works with BAME community to create 'healthier and safer place'



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Black and Asian former students have spent the past year working with staff to make Herts and Essex High School "a healthier and safer place".

Last summer, the Warwick Road secondary was accused of failing its pupils from ethnic minorities. In the wake of Black Lives Matter protests across the country, powerful testimonies described how the girls felt isolated and alienated in a school where they were treated as curiosities or tokens of diversity.

More than 900 past and present pupils, led by former deputy head girl Jessica Enemokwu, signed a petition calling for change and, 12 months on, she and her fellow campaigners agree significant progress has been made.

Herts and Essex High School, Bishop's Stortford – from left, executive head teacher Cathy Tooze with former pupils Jada Walker-Mitchell, Shaliza Malik, Jessica Enemokwu and Zoe Moore-Martin, who have been working with the school to improve its performance on anti-racism. Picture: Vikki Lince (48520674)
Herts and Essex High School, Bishop's Stortford – from left, executive head teacher Cathy Tooze with former pupils Jada Walker-Mitchell, Shaliza Malik, Jessica Enemokwu and Zoe Moore-Martin, who have been working with the school to improve its performance on anti-racism. Picture: Vikki Lince (48520674)

On June 10, 2020, an open letter was written by Jessica, who left in 2017, and 40 black alumni sharing their experiences at Herts and Essex High, calling for racism in the school to be addressed and for an active commitment to becoming an anti-racist school.

Over the last year, Jessica, Aphra Bruce-Jones, Jada Walker-Mitchell, Zoe Moore-Martin and Nyasha Chikunya have been working closely with the school to advise and assist with the work that is being done.

Jessica said: "So much progress has been made just one year on from the initial call to action. Although there is still work to be done, we are very happy with how far the school has come. The commitment from the senior leadership team and staff is commendable.

"We are so grateful to the wider school community, who came forward to show support, sign our initial petition and volunteer their time to help us reach this point. We are committed to pushing forward for years to come to ensure that Herts and Essex becomes a safe space for all."

At the same time that Jessica raised her concerns, Shaliza Malik wrote a letter on behalf of herself and 12 other Asian and Middle Eastern (AME) former students.

She said: "The letter and testimonies were submitted to highlight the problems that AME alumni had faced, with the aim to work with the school to come up with a solution to tackle the issues brought forward and make the school a safer space for all students.

"Since receiving the letter, the school has been very receptive, working with myself, Zobia Haq and Sara Seylani as part of an AME alumni committee.

"It has displayed an active commitment to making the learning environment more inclusive and anti-racist. We would like to thank the school community for working closely with us, giving special mention to Sarita Mistry [the school's careers leader], who has been a great support and has kept the momentum going.

"Overall, this has been a very encouraging experience and we look forward to continuing working with staff and students to further our progress of achieving an inclusive and safe space for all."

The secondary's executive head, Cathy Tooze, said: "Herts and Essex is all the better for letters received in summer 2020 from our Black, Asian and Middle Eastern alumni.

"Herts and Essex placed anti-racism and celebration of ethnic diversity at the heart of its development work for 2020-21, to good effect.

"As a result, our school is a healthier and safer place for our students, our staff and our families. Awareness of racism, responses to criticism and development in a vast range of ways is manifesting in adding quality and integrity to the school's work.

"We are hugely grateful to the inspirational young women who instigated and guided this work and who have expressed their intention to continue to volunteer their services to our school."

They will continue to work with the school on its anti-racism development and work to value creativity.

So far, as a result of the campaign and a year of collaboration, a raft of changes has been implemented, including the appointment of Black and Asian governors and a strategy to support the recruitment of more staff from those minorities.

Existing BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) teachers and support workers have received tailored support during the programme and all staff have been trained on unconscious bias, micro-aggressions and how to respond appropriately to issues.

For current students, "Show Racism the Red Card" has been incorporated into PSHE (personal, social, health and economic) classes and consultants from The Black Curriculum, a social enterprise founded in 2019 by Lavinya Stennett to address the lack of Black British history in the UK, has audited the curriculum for Years 3 to 9.

In addition, a well-received Black History Month in October was planned by a diverse committee of students with input from former students and the new governors, and the secondary has pressed exam boards to include more Black and Asian researchers and content.

Herts and Essex now has diversity and inclusion prefects and senior prefects, and has reviewed its mental health provision, home-school agreement and its behaviour and exclusion policies to ensure they accord with the new ethos.

After pupils described how their names were mispronounced in class, phonic pronunciations are to be recorded and added to electronic registers from September and there is a new policy to outlaw overseas trips and visits which could be described as "voluntourism".



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