'After assembly, I cried': Surrey school grapples with race issues

School became scene of protest against perceived ‘white privilege’, though students say concerns are starting to be addressed

The clip, which lasts just under a minute, shows a schoolgirl, blurred out to protect her identity, addressing a crowd of children – most in their school uniforms – carrying placards. Her voice echoes across the playground, shaking with emotion.

“After the assembly on Tuesday, I cried. I cried out of sadness because I felt the school had invalidated my feelings and experience as a black person. I cried out of frustration because I was told that instead of standing up for myself I should stay silent,” the girl says.

The speech was made in the playground of Nonsuch high school for girls in Surrey. Though the degree of racial diversity at the grammar school has been described as “incredible”, it found itself at the centre of a mass demonstration in October when hundreds of students from all backgrounds protested against perceived “white privilege”.

While students there say the school is taking steps to address their concerns, it has been a bruising few months.

It all started when a student posted a comment online that some perceived as racist. The message, published on a social media platform during lockdown in May, allegedly included the phrase “all lives matter”, belittled upset over use of the N-word, and maintained the deaths of George Floyd and other black Americans at the hands of police were accidents.

Some pupils confronted the student behind the comments, but it was not until 9 October that the school was made aware of the incident, when an allegation of bullying was made by the student who posted the comments.

Four days later, the headteacher, Amy Cavilla, spoke to a group of students to understand what had happened and “stem the circulation of rumours”. She held assemblies to reiterate and clarify the school’s “stance against racism”.

However, some pupils felt like they were being reprimanded for raising their concerns about the online comments. “A lot of students actively followed the Black Lives Matter movement and expected to see it reflected in the school’s response. That assembly sparked so much anger within us. But that anger united us all in a way we never have been before,” one student, Anise Sloper, told her local paper at the time.

Another student, who wanted to remain anonymous, said: “We should not be told, by someone who has never experienced racism, how we should react.”

In the following days the situation escalated.

The protest took place on 15 October. More than 500 students, joined by some teachers, gathered together on school grounds after morning break, holding placards bearing anti-racist slogans such as “tolerating racism is racism” and the raised fist associated with social protest and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement.

“Standing there in front of that crowd – I’ve never felt so proud to be a Nonsuch student,” Sloper said. “To be part of a student body that was able to pull together and do that in just two days? Nothing but pride for the students of Nonsuch at the moment.”

Afterwards, pupils singled out the school’s response to the BLM protests for criticism, claiming staff had taken down posters, with one reportedly saying “all lives matter” to pupils.

“The protest was about something bigger – we were frustrated at the way the school looked at race and racism,” said another student, who wished to remain anonymous.

At the time the headteacher emphasised the school “does not tolerate racism” and was working internally with students, staff and external authorities including the police and council to ensure the concerns of students were addressed.

That week nearly 900 alumni of the school co-signed a letter urging the senior leadership team to take action.

“As alumni, we would ask what action Nonsuch is committed to taking to decolonise itself as an institution and become actively anti-racist, which should include the removal of racist staff and the hiring of people of colour in leadership and pastoral care positions,” it said.

Emily Carewe, a theatre producer who studied at the school in 2002-08 and co-wrote the letter, said: “I was angry that off the back of hollow statements after the BLM protests, the school was immediately belittling the experiences of their students of colour.”

Another co-author of the letter, Lorjah Raja,, a recruitment consultant, said: “During my time at the school I never suffered any racism from other pupils or teachers. We felt a responsibility as former students to somehow protect the children that are there now.”

Since the protests and the letter, students have reported the school has taken steps to address the criticism and implemented training of staff.

“Fortunately, quite a few things have changed. Some teachers are undergoing training and we’ve heard micro-aggressions are covered in this,” said the anonymous student. “We are on the right path but I want to make sure that this isn’t just a token gesture and we will continue to address racism.”

Cavilla told the Guardian the school, like many others, was trying to improve diversity and inclusion. She acknowledged there was a miscommunication on her part with the students but said she had been trying to crack down on behaviours that could cloud the investigation into the online post incident.

Allegations against staff were also followed up in accordance with the trust’s safeguarding policy.

In response to the removal of the posters, the headteacher clarified that some were taken down by cleaners but that when she became aware of this, staff were told to leave them in place so students did not feel their voices were being silenced. In addition, some of the protest posters were now on permanent display in the school.

“This lack of understanding and awareness of the depth of feeling among our students led to a student protest to show their support for BLM in general and to protest against the handling by the school of a racist incident,” Cavilla said. “[The protest] took on a momentum that was impressive and importantly cathartic for our students.”

Last June, a race advocacy council was formed at the school, and a trust-wide race equality steering group.

“Our staff have been trained to hold supportive BLM drop-ins for students to be heard and ask questions; and we have engaged the charity Stop Hate to deliver PSHE [personal, social, health and economic education] on understanding hate crime and hate speech versus free speech. Our training programme is ongoing and sustained – we are in this for the long haul,” Cavilla said.


Nazia Parveen Community affairs correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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