The Black Lives Matter movement has brought to the forefront Britain’s own colonial history, and how it has been presented to students in schools. Subjects from the humanities through to representation in STEM subjects are coming under fire as Eurocentric – marginalising and ignoring crucial figures, details and opportunities for a wider conversation with students from all Black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds.
The school teacher workforce census (Department for Education - a ministerial department responsible for children’s services and education in England, 2020) presented 85.9 per cent of all teachers in state-funded schools in England as White British, with only 2.2 per cent of teachers being Black. Could this mean that they will be more inclined to maintain the cultural reproduction of White-British history for teaching and learning in schools and classrooms? This certainly raises questions around the idea of unconscious bias. As Elizabeth Charles argues, ‘being aware of our unconscious bias and acting on this also impacts not just teaching and the resources used, but more importantly research output, innovation, new theories or insights’ – knowledge is not a finite commodity (Charles, 2019). There is a growing focus on educators reflecting upon themselves in order to critically assess their own biases as well as bias within the curriculum.
Lisa Akhtar, head of sociology at a secondary school, explained the inherent bias prevalent in the AQA sociology syllabus in a letter posted on Twitter. As racism is one of the key aspects covered in sociology, she felt that it was important to address this matter. Instigated by a statement presented by the English department at her school, who noted that AQA had made a commitment to ‘ensure that future specifications reforms will be reflective of BAME writers’ and that they will ‘offer opportunities for The recognition of individual differences in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, physical ability, religious beliefs and other differences and race to be explored’, it came as no surprise that Lisa and her colleagues felt it was crucial to bring this topic to the fore in other subjects. The letter also notes that students had taken to social media platforms to discuss their thoughts about the lack of representation of BAME figures in school subjects, the teachers who taught them, and the content being provided.
Many education unions have also taken to their platforms to push and recommend for a redesign of a curriculum, that for many, merely claims to be broad and balanced. The NEU (2020) have called on the government to make amendments. Of these changes, they have asked to:
Review the curriculum to ensure it embraces the fact that Britain is rooted in Black and global history, achievement and culture and includes the achievements of Black Britons, as recommended by the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry. (NEU, 2020)
A broad and balanced curriculum should not tokenise the experiences of people from Black and ethnic minority cultures in Britain. One-off lessons and months that are used as gestures, such as Black History Month, just won’t cut it. I speak as a primary practitioner; however, I have no doubt that much of what I relay will also be relevant to secondary practitioners. The conversations should be happening in both settings, language permitting and at an age-appropriate level. Students’ experiences in secondary school may be more pronounced, and at the forefront of their daily lives; whereas in primary school, we are discussing what can seem rather abstract ideas, such as protests and the police. However, this does not negate the importance at a primary level and that many students are undergoing their own personal identity explorations as they reach the Key Stage 2: religion, race, friendship and cultural groups all play a role in this.
All levels of educational staff are vital in this transition: and that includes teaching assistants (TAs). Mr Oh, a Teaching Assistant - an adult that assists the teacher in the classroom in a North London school, shared his experience since the killing of George Floyd, and the repercussions and emotions among the staff at the school. Immediate staff meetings were held, with honest and open discussions about implementing Black history into the curriculum, as well as next steps. More so, the school is based in what would be deemed an affluent area of North London; with a head teacher who is Nigerian – the fine line between teaching and preaching is a fear many leaders and teachers from Black and varying ethnic backgrounds may find themselves in.
A complete overhaul of one’s curriculum may not be the best approach in such demanding times: students will be returning in unpredictable circumstances, as will the teaching staff. As a start, consider introducing a text by a Black or Asian author, reconfigure which icons you use in PSHE or RE and ensure that your curriculum doesn’t engage in tokenistic sentiments such as week-long ‘celebrations’ of a culture or icons. The idea is to have it interlaced into your school’s curriculum. Pupils reflecting on themselves and the society in which they live in should come as a natural part of their schooling life.
AQA (2019). Sociology. Available at: https://www.aqa.org.uk/subjects/sociology (accessed 6 July 2020).
BBC (2018) Black History Month: Why it shouldn’t be ‘Diversity Month’. BBC News, 3 October 2018. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/newsbeat-45731821 (accessed 11 July 2020).
Charles E (2019) Decolonizing the curriculum. Insights, 2019, 32:24, 1-7. Available at: https://insights.uksg.org/articles/10.1629/uksg.475/ (accessed 6 July 2020).
The ministerial department responsible for children’s services and education in England (DfE) (2020) Gov.uk. Available at: https://www.ethnicity-facts-figures.service.gov.uk/workforce-and-business/workforce-diversity/school-teacher-workforce/latest (accessed 6 July 2020).
NEU (2020) Black Lives Matter. Available at: https://neu.org.uk/press-releases/black-lives-matter (accessed 11 July 2020).