This is not a game: Reflections on the Equality Challenge Unit Annual Conference 2017

Liz Austen and Stella Jones-Devitt

As advocates of social justice and equality of opportunity, we firmly believe that minoritised students should not be pawns in institutional game playing. However, to facilitate discussion of strategies to address the BME attainment gap, we did play a game – snakes of ladders (with a difference).  Aside from appearing in childhood memories, the historical origins of this game are based on lessons of morality, vices and virtues: Quite apt for this context. In this workshop we constructed ladders as ‘enablers’ and snakes as ‘barriers’ to challenge wicked problems and folk pedagogies which may mythologise the BME attainment gap.


The session was challenging in many ways. Firstly, participants had to decide what each of the snakes and ladders (of various lengths) represented.  Ladders (enablers) included: an inclusive curriculum, staff empowered to action change, senior leadership commitment and student engagement.  Snakes (barriers) included: power dynamics, perception and stereotypes, and curriculum restrictions.  ‘Paradise Lost’, Pandora’s Box’ and the ‘Not so Wicked Table’ were some of the suggested team names.


In addition, participants had to answer task cards of folk pedagogies whenever they landed on a snake or a ladder. The tasks were deliberately provocative, but used Romm’s notion of caricature  to enable uncomfortable discussions to take place without reference to personal or institutional contexts.

In our preparation for the session, and in some of our publications before the event, we had suggested that the BME attainment gap risked being treated as a ‘wicked problem’. We also suggested that explanations or solutions can be grounded in folk pedagogies and often lack a suitable evidence base or nuanced consideration of the factors at play.  Whilst the game was challenging (and we probably needed another hour for discussions!), it was clear that we were representing a lived reality for many in the room.

The most recent statistics compiled by ECU, show that overall, 78.4% of white students received a first or 2:1 compared with 63.4% of BME students, representing a BME degree attainment gap of 15.0 percentage points in 2015/16.  STEER is currently exploring the utility of a Critical Whiteness Toolkit with other sector HEIs.  Critical Whiteness is a theoretical approach which examines the role of White privilege within organisations, specifically critiquing the normalising lens though which ‘problems’ are viewed. Discussing Critical Whiteness can be uncomfortable, but if it is ignored, many well-meaning interventions or initiatives could prove ineffective.  The Critical Whiteness Toolkit will hopefully support organisation to frame uncomfortable conversations and to consider White privilege when working with students and staff.