Empowering teaching and learning communities to promote equality and celebrate diversity

Darlington Borough Council

Running right through EVERYTHING!A local authority community learning provider and a further education college shared common concerns about the limited confidence of staff when addressing equality and diversity (E&D) issues through their teaching, learning and assessment practices.  Leaders in each provider developed new ways of working (often building upon existing policies and structures) to enable staff to work in communities of shared practice. 

Key developments revolved around establishing opportunities for collaborative discussion of E&D practice, using forums such as “Padlet” and the creation of E&D “Toolbox Talks”. High profile CPD and community events were also utilised to help empower staff to confidently promote equality and celebrate diversity. As the project progressed, learners became more actively engaged in shaping E&D practices within each setting, as the project team investigated learners’ experiences.  They explored learners’ views on how E&D teaching, learning and assessment might better reflect learners’ own concerns, experiences and gaps in knowledge.


Darlington Borough Council and Bishop Auckland College shared common concerns about the limited confidence of staff when they addressed equality and diversity (E&D) issues through their teaching, learning and assessment practices. Both partners are situated in largely white, semi-rural communities with little immediate experience of diverse cultures. The partners agreed that staff needed to go beyond “tokenistic” attention to E & D issues, and they hoped to create the conditions that would encourage them to take greater responsibility for making E & D central to each practitioner’s teaching.

Project Activities and Outputs

Approach and Methdology

A prompt sheet that says

What do we do with our equality and diversity learning? Feedback from Functional Skills L1 and L2 learners

The core project team was headed by the local authority team lead and included twelve representatives across each institution.  The project aimed to use collaborative practice and high quality CPD to improve staff knowledge and skills so they felt better equipped to

promote and celebrate E&D. The aspiration was that staff would feel more confident exploring E&D within their teaching, learning and assessment practices. It was also hoped that staff would feel better empowered to create space for meaningful dialogue, as well as respond effectively to prevailing issues as and when they arose.

The project research approach involved colleagues investigating their local practices.  The project was initiated by a collaborative CPD event led by an experienced facilitator. This participative approach was consolidated by subsequent activities that sought and valued learners’ contributions at all stages, as the learners were the ultimate recipients (and evaluators) of the project’s effectiveness of raising staff confidence. Case studies illuminating stages in the cycle of planning, implementation, individual and collaborative evaluation leading to wider adoption of approaches can be found in Appendices 1-4.

A prompt sheet that says

Issues that are important to us/ that we can teach others. L1 Functional English

Improving staff confidence relied on a strong participative ethos to create communities of practice; thus, the process of Joinery students constructing signs for the FE College’s Pride event was considered as important as their attendance at the event (See Appendix 4).  “Toolbox talks”, was a practice taken from the workplace, whereby workers would have an introductory briefing on that day’s jobs whilst sitting on their toolboxes.  Fundamental topics from E & D issues were foregrounded in this way to become central and integral in each session in the Local Authority provision. As the project progressed, the ‘Toolbox Talks’ became increasingly informed by learners and by staff, with the project team facilitating, rather than determining their content.  The final phase of the project focused upon strengthening learner voice, as well as collecting staff- narratives (e.g. Appendix 2) in relation to how their engagement in the project had affected both their confidence and ability to open up spaces of enquiry for E&D within their teaching, learning and assessment practices.

Professional Learning

Evidence of changes in teaching, learning and assessment practices.

There was high staff participation in pedagogic and research events, and these evaluated very positively. Changes in staff practice were evident in revised lesson plans, schemes of work and assignment briefs; staff and learner self-assessments of fresh approaches to E&D practice within their sessions; learner testimonies; and resources from local initiatives (annotated with staff and learner reflections).  Encouraging staff to ‘try one thing and reflect upon it’ led to a rich data set and generated a locally tested and validated bank of resources and reworked ideas for E&D teaching. Some staff reported reduced levels of fear to take risks and try new things as a result of the project’s emphasis on supportive, collaborative practice and shared problem solving (Meaby, 2018).

Evidence of improved collaboration and changes in organisational practices

Both the established FE College and the small local authority provider benefited from sustained exploration of their comparative approaches.  Within both contexts, staff collaboration and opportunities for focused “teacher talk” proved the basis for organisational change. This was evidenced through the adoption of new practices across both organisations; through contributions to the online shared spaces such as Padlet, and from staff testimonies which report on individuals’ personal and professional growth. Each setting had an existing ‘enrichment calendar’, (Appendix 3) or ‘diversity diary’, and the potential for these E&D topics to be brought to life through the project were explored by the project leads for each setting.

Meaningful debate also took place about how “naturally-occurring” opportunities to promote E&D might be better exploited; with suggestions tested and constructively evaluated within the newly established communities of practice. This “re-centring” of E&D was a progression from previous tokenistic approaches where E&D was regarded as another “add-on” in sessions. Staff more confidently assumed responsibility for introducing topics into their teaching and as such the E&D “champion” in the Local Authority now operates more as a facilitator than a director of activity.  The cultures of both organisations have been influenced as E&D became more actively highlighted through organisation of flagship events, redesign of institutional logos to visually reinforce organisational commitment and active engagement on social media.  (See Appendix 4).  Working more closely with organisational LGBTQ and SEND specialist groups ensured minority learner voices informed each settings’ inclusive approaches.

Evidence of improvement in learners’ achievements, retention and progression.

There was evidence of learners experiencing a broader curriculum as redesigned assignments more explicitly explored E&D issues. Teachers also developed activities that supported learners’ assessed and formative work. These practical outcomes are complemented by staff and learner testimonies in reflective diaries and online on message boards. Some staff reported learners’ increased confidence to raise issues as a result of revised classroom activities, including the ‘Toolbox Talks’ sessions.

Learners’ participation in the design and running of E&D events, as well as their attendance, signifies the value of E&D contributory activities. Some learners reported their increased input into the nature and scope of E&D practices within their settings helped their E&D work feel more relevant, engaging and accessible. Learners were also keen to share the more implicit aspects of E&D exposure that being in learning had afforded them (e.g. ESOL as a way for learners to connect with their communities, make friends and access employment opportunities; or the simple process of ‘learning together’ as a way of exploring rich and diverse local, national and international identities).  (See Appendix 1 for a full account of the evaluation.)

Concluding Remarks

Learning from this project

  • This project initiative enabled both organisations’ existing written policies on Equality & Diversity to be revived and more effectively implemented. Practitioners on this project demonstrated how a range of practical strategies could be used to put theory into practice.
  • This project, which had focused on developing wider social education, used the extension period to plan and conduct a well-triangulated evaluation of project activities. The evaluation process demonstrated careful planning, and avoided becoming a retrospective collection of disparate positive outcomes, which can too easily occur in project.
  • This convincing evaluation of the project went beyond surveys of learners’ and practitioners’ satisfaction. The evaluation drew upon discussion activities based upon evidence produced in learning and teaching situations and was thus validated and triangulated. Carefully planned and comprehensive evaluations were more likely to share limitations and frustrations as well as highlighting successes.
  • The project built upon existing E & D policies and structures in each organisation. This supportive ethos helped staff to go beyond “tokenism” to actively explore E&D and address prevailing issues.
  • Creating a “community of practice” required project leaders to create: time and space; a focus for discussion; support to try new things; encouragement for teachers and learners to share all outcomes; and constructive feedback to stimulate continuing experimentation.
  • Encouraging staff to ‘try one thing and reflect upon it’ proved effective in changing knowledge, skills and attitudes, as evidenced by fresh resources and ideas to share.
  • The foregrounding of E & D at the start of sessions in “Toolbox Talks” has helped raise its status with staff and ensured that learners’ contributions reflect an active and constructive learner “voice”.
  • For some staff, a secondary outcome of the project was that it helped develop digital confidence as the use of online discussion and new opportunities to ‘virtually’ share resources were embraced. However, this open forum inhibited other staff who feared sharing their views and resources online in case they were “getting it wrong”.
  • Vocational Qualifications’ assessment criteria sometimes appear to “allow” rather than “require” sustained exploration of diversity. This can reduce aspiration and permit merely tokenistic approaches to diversity.
  • The relative success of this initiative may stem from the fact that both organisational leads who headed up the project saw it as “an opportunity” rather than as “a responsibility”. As such, learning from the other institutions was stimulating and highly productive.
  • Discussions with observation teams across each setting revealed that whilst overall E&D practices appear to be improving, outside of the core project teams, the greatest improvements in practice came from teachers who were already engaged and interested in E&D. The feeling was that some staff continued to ‘drag their feet’ and that other approaches would need to be initiated to encourage and motivate change.
  • The observation team also heightened their own sensitivity in relation to how they conceptualised the E&D practices they were observing. For some, this was seen in moving beyond ‘ticking off’ E&D and taking a more considered and critical analysis of how E&D practices were both explicitly and implicitly happening in sessions.


Appendix 1 – An exemplary evaluation of teachers’ professional learning- a case study

Appendix 2 – A teacher’s reflections on developing resources and appropriate strategies

Appendix 3 – College Central Tutorial Enrichment Calendar

Appendix 4 – The Bishop Auckland College Pride event

Appendix 5 – Establishing a professional learning community for practitioner-led action research


Bhopal, K. & Preston, J. (eds). (2012). Intersectionality and race in education. Routledge: Oxon.

Briggs, S. (2014). Why Self-Esteem Hurts Learning But Self-Confidence Does The Opposite. Available at: https://www.opencolleges.edu.au/informed/features/self-efficacy-and-learning/ [accessed 24.7.18].

Golman, D. (2004). ‘Foreword’. In Zins, J., Weissberg, R., Wang, M., & Walberg, H. (eds). Building academic success on social and emotional learning: What does the research say?, pp.vii-viii.

Hooks, B. (1994). Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. Routledge: London.

Lave, J. (1991). ‘Perspectives on Socially Shared Cognition’. In Resnick, L. B., Levine, J. M., & Teasley, S. D. (eds.). (1991). Perspectives on socially shared cognition, pp63-82.

Lave, J, and Wenger, E. 1991. Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.

Maxwell, J. (2012). The Importance of Qualitative Research for Causal Explanation in Education. Qualitative Inquiry 18(8) pp.655–661.

Post Project Dissemination

Meaby, V., (2018) “Establishing Professional Learning Communities to Support the Promotion of Equality and Celebration of Diversity: Reflections from a North-East Community Learning Teacher”, Teaching in Lifelong Learning 8(2). doi: https://doi.org/10.5920/till.538