In this post, Lindsay Jack, Director of Student Experience, and Senior Teaching Fellow at Edinburgh Law School, shares some practical answers to the following questions: How can you support diversity of cultures in the classroom if you’re not in the classroom? How do you engage with inclusion if you’re not responsible for reading lists?…
My role as Director of Student Experience gives me the responsibility of creating a vibrant and distinctive culture for entry to and learning at Edinburgh Law School (ELS). No small task then! As part of this, I have responsibility for all the widening participation work ELS does. My unique position sees me work with under-represented groups from age 10 right up to 17/18, and then with all our students as they transition into, through and out of, ELS. I can confidently say I work across all four areas of the university’s new Widening Participation strategy – Aspiration and early engagement, Support to get in, Support to succeed, and Support to progress.
I used to say we embed support that is open to all students no matter their entry route, but I have changed this to taking account of their route into ELS. This is an important distinction as, on reflection, ‘no matter’ can sound dismissive when of course our community is stronger and better because of our different experiences. Context, story and journey are very important in creating an inclusive culture – not to mention a more diverse legal profession should students choose to enter that field.
One way ELS promotes inclusion is through our Peer-Assisted Learning Scheme, LawPALS. Set up in 2006, its pilot year was funded by FE/HE Articulation Funding but thereafter it was embedded within, and funded by, ELS. Incoming students are immediately part of a peer group, which meets weekly with two trained Student Leaders who share their experiences within the frame of academic and social transition. It has always been open to all LLB students, and we have developed the programme to include three separate strands designed to meet the needs of the various cohorts: 4-year LLB, 2-year (Graduate) LLB and Visiting/Erasmus students. This recognises that these specific groups of learners have differing needs, but of course does not tell the whole story.
LawPALS gives us multiple chances to promote inclusivity and celebrate our diversity, and I list just a few examples below:
- We aim to have Leaders who reflect the diversity of our student population. Student Leaders are role models within the school, and their roles are often aspirational to new students. Within social mobility, there can be a lot of focus on ‘you cannot be what you cannot see’. While this can be true to an extent, it somewhat belies inclusivity as we are more than what we see when we look at each other.
- I thread equality and diversity throughout the mandatory Student Leader training. Each session reminds the participants of the variety of backgrounds and context our students may come from, and the importance of not making assumptions about each other. We have also added a session within the training that explicitly looks at inclusion in its own right. This gives Student Leaders a chance to reflect on this and consider how it will affect the way they run their sessions.
- In promoting LawPALS to students, we ensure we mention the variety of backgrounds they may have come to us from – and in this context I mean whether from college, school gap year, employment, previous study etc – so that students can recognise the programme is for them.
Whilst I am also currently ELS’ Director of Equality and Diversity, I find it more helpful to talk about inclusivity, as that allows us to broaden what we mean and not just stick to the nine protected characteristics of the Equality Act 2010. Those are very important characteristics, of course, with protections in law, but it seems that by constantly asking ourselves ‘Who might be excluded if we do it this way? Who is left out?’ – and encouraging others to do the same – we can start to think about inclusion in a more rounded way. It becomes less of a separate task and more a way of thinking and working.
By trying to listen to, and understand, the intersections between various characteristics, and seeking to redress the balance of power to ensure previously under-represented voices and stories are heard, we can really begin to move towards much more diversity in representation in all areas of life. As John Amaechi OBE said at the recent Bridge Group annual conference, people make choices and choices make culture. We all have a part to play in thinking about who may be left out, and how we can include them in a meaningful way.