Hundreds of past and present pupils have signed letters to their alma maters, including Harrow, Westminster, University College School, Alleyn’s, and St Paul’s Girls’ School, telling of “shocking stories” from black students in private education.
The move has ben repeated at exclusive institutions around the country, with students from Eton, Cheltenham Ladies College and Winchester also demanding new curriculums and school policies.
In former student Esther Ayowande Adebajo’s letter to the school, which was signed by more than 500 alumni, she said: “The encounters of myself and other black students across many independent schools throughout the UK is testament to how much this is a global problem.”
Another letter sent to south London school Alleyn’s, which counts Florence Welch and Pixie Geldoff as former pupils, suggested methods to tackle racial discrimination and demanded that BAME students’ “shocking stories” be recognised.
These included increased diversity in staffing, mandatory teaching on “decolonisation of the canon”, inclusion of “white privilege education” and disciplinary procedures against racism.
It also read: “Given that privilege is a significant common denominator amongst the student body, it is important that students are educated on the extent of their privilege”.
Students also called for the “teaching and reflection on the damage inflicted on fellow students by casual racism passed off as ‘banter’.”
The idea to approach the schools began on a small Whatsapp chat last week, set up by former Haberdasher’s Aske School for Girls student, Tiwa Adebayo, 21.
She told the Standard how she gathered six friends to discuss the institutional racism they had encountered during their education at several London private schools.
Within days, around 200 people from UK-wide independent schools had joined the chat to share similar experiences of discrimination, amid a groundswell of worldwide anti-racism movements following George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis.
In an open letter to The Independent, orchestrated by Ms Adebayo, black alumni anonymously shared their stories.
One described how students repeatedly used the word n*****, how they were told “to go back to my own country”, and how bananas were left outside their lockers.
A second student said they faced the daily embarrassment of peers mispronouncing their name. They described their humiliation as classmates put on an “African accent” and even made “jokes about the one black teacher that I ever had, who was a supply teacher for two weeks, being my uncle”.
Many have also opened up about how their schools allegedly failed to respond to reported racist incidents.
Another pupil said: “Near the end of the first year in a rugby sevens tournament, I was called the n-word and told to pick up my banana peels. This was hurtful and I reported it to teachers who promised they would take it up.
“However, it was only when I took to social media and told people to repost that my school took hold of the situation but still I received warnings from teachers that it was an inappropriate use of social media.”
Ms Adebayo also said that most of the black students had spoken about being featured on the front cover of their school’s prospectus.
This perceived tokenism was interpreted as school bosses trying to exhibit an image of “diversity and acceptance” while systemic discrimination remained a daily reality, she said.
Ms Adebayo continued to say that former students have discussed how some controversial or political issues were often met by a “silenced atmosphere” while debates on other topics, like British elections, were openly encouraged.
Nevertheless, she was also quick to stress that she, like many, had enjoyed their schooldays and “feel incredibly lucky to have had the privileged education we’ve had”.
“But there were a lot of things that weren’t OK,” she added. “We just want productive change.”
The 21-year-old said she had been impressed with how schools had reacted to the letters.
She said that several had acknowledged, and some even apologised, for past failings and had promised to work with the students to tackle any institutional racism.
She also said the Independent Schools Council had written to her expressing its support.
On those who have signed the letters, Ms Adebayo said: “It’s also been amazing the support we have had from students who aren’t black putting pressure on the teachers because they recognise that they too were let down.
“A lot of these schools are so focused on academics and exams that they can neglect educating you in a broader sense. Students often weren’t made aware of these issues and had to learn about them at university and even beyond.”
Ms Adebayo said the group are now in plans to formalise their network and move the conversation into all education and ethnicities in the UK.
“We don’t want this to be elitist in any sense because it’s a huge problem across the educational spectrum. And it doesn’t stop here,” she said.
Gary Savage, headmaster of Alleyn’s, told the Standard: “We have been engaged in conversations across our community, and many pupils, parents and alumni have been in touch with us to share their thoughts, views and experiences.
“The issues that they raise and the experiences that they share are incredibly significant to society as a whole, and the Alleyn’s community is no exception.
“There is a need for all of us to re-examine ways in which our institutional structures, habits and practices might contribute to racism and how we can take positive steps to eradicate it.
“Specifically, how we can work together to move from being passively non-racist to actively anti-racist, and generally to assert and enshrine those universal values of equality, respect, empathy and justice – for all, irrespective of difference – which any liberal institution should be proud both to express and actively to promote.”
Emma McKendrick, headmistress at Downe House also said: “We can all sense that something powerful is happening in the world, which is ensuring all of us in education (and outside it) listen more carefully, reflect and act.
“Increased awareness and understanding will underpin this change. The momentum and scope of current events are rightly encouraging developments to take place quickly and comprehensively.
“Meaningful and lasting changes as a result in education and in our own schools can only be to the good; we are committed to making this happen.”
Meanwhile, a spokesman for Haberdasher’s Aske School for Girls told the Standard: “Rose Hardy, the Headmistress, met with Tiwa this afternoon in what was a very positive conversation about the issues that Tiwa has raised about racism in schools.
“Mrs Hardy has pledged to working with current students, alumnae and staff to find ways to promote anti-racism at the school and to review all associated policies and practices and the curriculum.
“Working together we will strive to ensure that the school’s commitment to diversity is a tangible reality for every pupil and member of staff.”