The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Candice West

Overcoming three barriers to promoting equality, diversity and inclusion

Finding ways to defeat EDI obstacles can be challenging. Candice West offers tips to locate where unconscious bias, privilege and lack of representation may cause problems.

Educators are passionate about teaching and want young people to have the best possible experience in their classroom. However, several barriers can prevent people from effectively engaging with the equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) work necessary for this to happen.

Below I outline three of these barriers and steps to overcome them.

1. Unconscious bias – 'I'm not prejudiced, so I don't need to take part in this…'

People can perceive they are not prejudiced and do not need to participate in equality or bias training. Being told they may carry bias can lead to people becoming defensive and shutting down. This defensiveness can stem from the idea that prejudice is about hate crimes or other acts of discrimination or harassment.

Implicit prejudice can be hidden and manifest in our expectations of pupils and staff, one-dimensional representation of people and biased policies and practices.

Science writer David DiSalvo explains that people are presented with 11 million pieces of information every second. However, our brains can only consciously process around 40 pieces of that information simultaneously.

Our brains make cognitive shortcuts to help us to process these pieces of information. These shortcuts are handy as they prevent us from consciously thinking about everything we do, freeing our minds to concentrate on other things.

When making decisions about people, these processes can become a problem. For people who have grown up in an unequal and prejudiced society where they are regularly exposed to stereotypes and misinformation, unconscious bias leads us to make assumptions, misinterpret information and judge others unfairly.

Let people know that you are a safe person to talk to and that you will take action to support people if they open up to you.

Questions to ask yourself

In September 2020, the young, Black female barrister Alexandra Wilson was one day mistaken to be a defendant rather than a lawyer at her place of work three times. Wilson tweeted about this mistaken identity and was flooded with responses from other Black and ethnic minority professionals who had had similar experiences.

Incidents such as these have a severe and long-lasting impact. People experiencing negative stereotypes and assumptions can feel like they don't belong and are unwelcome; they may decide to hide aspects of their identity so that they might better fit in. They can also mean that people are subject to low expectations, which can impact pupils' achievement, or that staff are overlooked for promotion opportunities.

Everyone is impacted by unconscious bias. We can take steps to reduce the impact of unconscious bias in our teaching are outlined below.

  • Slow down your thinking and reflect on your assumptions. Ask yourself, how do I know what I know, what sources have I used, and what value judgements am I bringing?
  • Consider whether your expectations of behaviour are the same for all pupils. Do some learners get away with worse behaviour? Are some learners disciplined more harshly? Who gets picked to answer the most questions?
  • Recognise that everyone comes to the classroom from a different cultural perspective. Imagine other people's perspectives and interpret behaviour through their cultural lens rather than your own.
  • Consider your resources: do you have a particular pupil in mind when preparing them? Does everyone see themselves reflected? Whose voices and perspectives are represented?

(Adapted from Soyei & Hollinshead, 2022)

2. Lack of representation – 'Our pupil body isn't very diverse…'

It may be the case that school communities in some areas of the country lack visible ethnic diversity, but this should never become an excuse not to engage with equality work. Education specialist professor Chris Gaine found that children who didn't mix with people from other backgrounds at school developed more intolerant attitudes and believed themselves superior to other groups (Gaine, 2005).

Children from minority backgrounds in mainly White schools are more likely to experience racist bullying and can feel invisible and alone (Soyei & Hollinshead, 2022).

Schools that think their cohort is primarily White British can find that, if they dig a little, there is lots of ethnic diversity under the surface. One school that EqualiTeach worked with that had thought this way asked pupils to share the ethnicities of their parents and grandparents and found over 50 nationalities represented.

New places and new people

Ethnicity is also only one area where school communities may be diverse. School communities are also diverse regarding gender, religion, disability, sexual orientation, and gender identity.

All schools must ensure that they engage with EDI work across the many different aspects of identity and recognise that these other parts of people's identities also intersect. When young people move into the next phase of their life, whether that be a secondary school, college, university, or workplace, they will likely encounter a more diverse range of people.

Pupils need to be prepared to live and work alongside people who may be different. Not just for their benefit to thrive in diverse teams and businesses but also to celebrate diversity and champion equality and inclusion.

Everyone is impacted by unconscious bias.

3. Privilege – 'We should just treat everybody the same...'

Many believe that if we ignore the difference and treat everybody equally, there will be equality. This comes from a well-meaning place, but it fails to recognise that people are different, so it is essential to adapt our provision to accommodate these.

To understand why this approach is flawed, we need to recognise that society provides accommodations for some people who are seen as normal, natural or traditional, which privileges them over other groups. 

Many people struggle with the idea that they have privilege, believing that somebody is suggesting that they are wealthy or live an incredibly comfortable life.

Consider everyone

Regarding equality work, an understanding of privilege is to recognise that other people experience the world differently. If we are privileged in a particular aspect of life, we are often blind to the barriers that impact other people because they don't affect us.

This usually means that any support or accommodations that may be required for some people are not considered.

The school's winter and spring holidays have been designed around Christian celebrations. This benefits those who celebrate Christmas and Easter but disadvantages people of other faiths who may struggle to take time off work to celebrate Eid, Diwali or Rosh Hashanah.

Schools may make accommodations to recognise pupils' different needs, such as a table which doesn't have fixed seating in the dining hall for wheelchair users. However, if this is done without consultation, they may not recognise that pupils who use a wheelchair cannot have lunch with their friends. 

Because the barriers which impact pupils and staff may be invisible to us if they don't affect us, we must create a culture where people share the issues that they are facing so that we can overcome them. Let people know that you are a safe person to talk to and that you will take action to support people if they open up to you. 

By breaking down these barriers and fully embracing work to promote EDI throughout the whole school, we will be taking steps to create equal and inclusive environments where all young people and staff feel welcome, safe and able to succeed. 

Useful information

EqualiTeach is a not-for-profit equality and diversity training and consultancy organisation that works with schools throughout the UK.

For more information, including free resources, please visit:


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