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Education: Beyond the 26

In 2018, Aisha Thomas’s BBC documentary drew attention to the disproportionate lack of Black teachers in Bristol – 26 out of 1,346 as counted at the time. To follow up on the project, she has been going ‘beyond the 26’, asking BAME educators in the city for favourite quotes that have inspired their learning journey, and why representation in education is important, in their own words

Lead image: Rosie Parsons


“What we learn with pleasure we never forget”

I have been in education most of my life and was only educated by one person from a BAME background during my educational journey. Since becoming an educator this has not improved. I feel the students attending school have their views of the world shaped while in school and the people doing this do not represent them.


“At the heart of every successful school, strong leadership of the Pupil Premium underpins that success” – Marc Rowland, The Pupil Premium, 2015

Representation is important because children are the future and the future has to have strong, fair and ethical foundations rooted in the past. Students need to see, hear and feel difference and ‘uniqueness’. Staff rooms need to chime with conversations of cultural diversity to spread understanding and sensitivity!


“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots” – Marcus Garvey

Representation in education is important because of the vast amount of knowledge and information that is to be learnt. Teaching needs to come from a variety of sources for real enrichment and understanding across the board, coming from a variety of sources.


“Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today” –Malcolm X

All children are entitled to access a good quality of education. Investing in the children and young people of today is how I contribute to building a better world for us all. It is my own personal activism; it is the way that I contribute to society and give children the power they need to make positive change.


“Every child needs a champion, an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection and insists they become the best they can possibly be” – Rita Pierson

You can’t become what you can’t see, and this is why it is important that children see people like them in different roles in their lives. Young people need to have positive role models in their lives that can help to shape their lives.


“I am trying to give you the key to unlock your educational future. The book is mightier than the sword”

Representation is vital because if you do not see it, you do not always believe it is possible, especially in society today where young people are so visual. Representation in education is such a strong and meaningful mantra to all those that you work for or with, not because it is tokenistic but is truly reflective of society, nationally and globally.


“Experts say that children should be taught through mirrors (reflections of themselves) and windows (a glimpse into the lives of people different to them). By doing so, they learn respect for themselves and others”

Having worked in spaces where there is no representation and places where it is in abundance, it is clear to see the difference it makes for children. I have seen examples of children, who never speak or engage with the environment, come alive because there are resources that are familiar to them in the room.


“Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world” – Harriet Tubman

The biggest question I think of is ‘why is representation not important?’. It’s so sad that many of our Black children have never experienced or may never experience being educated by someone who looks like them. Our children need to see themselves in positive roles in society, not just negative ones. Without representation, our boys and girls will think that jobs such as teachers, principals, engineers and scientists are so out of reach when in reality they are not.


“You are never too old to learn; learning is for everyone”

I believe that education is the stability in creating a foundation that can reach all students within all communities. It impacts the next generation’s attitude, diminishes negative and historical attitudes that have created, at times, racism, and offers many opportunities for Black educators to succeed.


Knowledge is power. Information is liberating. Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family” – Kofi Annan

Young people need to see themselves in the successful people around them and that includes pastoral leaders, teachers and senior leaders in education. They also need to feel that they have people in the sector who understand where they are coming from: the strengths and the challenges they face.


“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men” – Frederick Douglas

I have been involved in many community groups with the aim of equity. I have always believed in nurturing young people who are confident about all that they are and for Black people to know of their enduring history and contributions to the world in all areas of human activity. While qualifications are important, an empty sack cannot stand!  As Marcus Garvey said, “If you have no self-confidence you are twice defeated in the race of life”.


Representation in education is especially important – I had no Black teacher growing up and went to school in a predominantly White area. I did feel like I was often misunderstood – with a Black teacher I may have felt like they understood my culture or views, my hair, and may have inspired me to want to be a teacher. I never knew what I wanted to be, growing up.


“Education is the passport to the future…” – Malcolm X

Representation in education is important because “you can’t be what you can’t see…”

University of Bristol FACE2018


“There is no such thing as a neutral educational process. Education either functions as an instrument that is used to facilitate the integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes ‘the practice of freedom,’ the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world” – Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

It is a question of justice.


“Nirbhau, nirvair” meaning “Without fear, without hate” – Guru Granth Sahib

In Bristol, the Black and Asian community is underrepresented in the education sector meaning that there has been a lack of support with helping children who may be EAL [learning English as an additional language] or from various cultural backgrounds. Being a representative is important to ensure that these children have role models to base themselves on.


“You will either step forward into growth, or backwards into safety” – Abraham Maslow

For young people to be able to fulfil their full potential they must believe that they can. In order for this belief to self-manifest it is imperative that young people are given the opportunity to see adults that represent them, working and thriving in sectors and roles that they may have once never imagined themselves in or in some cases never even knew existed.


“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid” – Albert Einstein

Representation is important to help build a young person’s identity and help them build a proud sense of belonging. I feel there is comfort in seeing a familiar face or having a conversation where someone understands your culture. I have had students that are not on my caseload come to see be “because I understand” what they mean when they are trying to explain themselves.


Money is a means to wealth, not the wealth itself ” – Akala

It reflects the world we live in and changes the narrative that ‘White is right’.


“No-one is born fully-formed: it is through self-experience in the world that we become what we are” – Paulo Friere

Representation education in education is important because I believe that education is a fundamental human and equal right. The education system in any country is an intrinsic link to opportunity but can only be effective if those who are powerless in society gain access to an education that recognises their social needs.


“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”

“The power of education extends beyond the development of skills we need for economic success. It can contribute to nation-building and reconciliation” – Nelson Mandela

Representation in education empowers an entire school community to thrive as together we stand, divided we fall.  There is never a better time to work together to ensure that every school community has equity in the team, and this is fed to the community to make a difference.


“The roots of education are bitter, but the fruit is sweet”

The reason representation in education matters to me is because I was educated in London during the ’90s and I only recall one Black male teacher in my school. In my last three months of schooling I returned to Bristol, the city where I was born, and do not recall one Black member of staff at the school I attended (perhaps dinner staff). It really was a shock – no one I could identify with! No one who looked like me, my parents or any of my family members. Now I am happy to be someone in education that the younger generation can look up to. They can see we can achieve if we believe.


“Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today” – Malcolm X

You cannot be what you cannot see. In my school history I could count on one hand minus three fingers how many ‘Black educators’ I had. I saw poverty, deprivation, I saw struggle, never was I ever introduced to a different possible future until I had a Black headteacher in primary school. I felt the scales fall from my eyes and I began to see that my place, my narrative, the possibilities, they were waiting for me to write, by me – not predestined, not as part of the ‘way things were’. She drove me, powered me, fuelled me to realise and surpass the potential she could see in me, and others. She educated me on so much more than the curriculum – she related to me, understood me and, more importantly, built capacity in all her teaching staff, who were predominantly White, to do the same. Her impact on me went far beyond the classroom. Young people (early years all the way through to later education) need connection, communication, validation, at times. Meaningful representation can provide the platform for this, without question. I want education reform to look more melanated – but not out of duty or charity. Just stop seeing my race or ethnicity – see me, embrace all of me, like you do everyone else. 


“If you do not like something change it, and if you can’t change it, change your attitude” – Maya Angelou

Growing up, although I was at an inner-city school, there were few teachers who looked like me. I am reminded of a particular teacher who had no faith in me, publicly shaming me by stating if I got a U in my exam, I would be lucky. Although I had inspirational family members, they were not the faces I saw in school. Then, in walk Mrs Whitcliffe Smart and Mrs Howell – teachers who looked like me and took no nonsense, like my mum. They believed in me and would pull me up on so many things, from dress and appearance, but also provide educational advice. They showed me that what that other teacher said was only valid if I made it happen! So why does representation matter in schools? Because when I saw my dreams were not impossible I followed them. Having someone already in the role; someone who gets the culture, understands the slang, made school more achievable. 


“Education is a better safeguard of liberty than a standing army” – Edward Everett

We are often inspired by those we can relate to or have a similar story to, so if we want to inspire the minds of more of our young people from BAME backgrounds, they need to see more teachers and leaders representative of different races, and then their own goals will seem achievable too. 


“There is no better than adversity. Every defeat, every heartbreak, every loss, contains its own seed, its own lesson on how to improve your performance the next time” – Malcolm X

It’s a bit reductionist to say it’s because we have diverse cohorts – of course that is true and representation has a real positive impact on our students’ self-concept, but are BAME educators only to seek out settings where they are represented in the student cohort? There may be incredibly good reasons for doing this but this should not be a given. Whether it is regarding students who express angst that their skin tone is ‘too dark’ or those that unfortunately engrave swastikas and Nazi symbols on desks, representation is indispensable.


“Sometimes people try to destroy you, precisely because they recognise your power – not because they do not see it, but because they see it and they do not want it to exist” – Bell Hooks

I wish I had someone who looked like me at school. They were no Black teachers around and growing up in Belgium, the only other Black female I saw was my mother on the weekends when coming home from boarding school. Up until my sister joined my school, I was also the only black student in a 40-mile radius. As soon as I could travel to Germany and France on my own, I latched onto other Black females and families around for a sense of identity. All I knew was our British military upbringing, but not much about our roots in Mandeville, Jamaica. It is essential to be able to see yourself represented in the school, in your community, to find your own identity. My undergrad really allowed me to research and read about my family history. In my final year at university, I was encouraged to apply for a MA in media practice and culture, which I did. There I furthered my research into ludology and semiotics.


“How much better to get wisdom than gold, to get insight rather than silver!” – Proverbs 16:16

The phrase ‘seeing is believing’ is incredibly important. It is such a huge factor in our societal norms and ideology. We shape our world around what we know and believe to be possible, and where it seems impossible, we try to fill the gap, breach the void… Seeing yourself in all walks of life, in all aspects of living, shouldn’t be an impossibility that needs addressing. Knowing that there are people that look like you, or have similar backgrounds to you, or cultural foundations like you, means that you know there is some place and some way that you can feel understood, not alone; like you have every right to a slice of this life, as your neighbour does. No man is an island, no person should ever feel alone, and certainly not because they do not feel represented in the world around them.


“My mission in life is not merely to strive, but to thrive and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humour, and some style” – Maya Angelou

Representation is vital in all levels of education. It is just as important to have diversity within teaching during early-years education as it is during higher education. For many people, seeing is believing and by being able to see visual representation of diversity within all fields, it becomes easier to foresee yourself potentially fulfilling a variety of roles in the future.


“If you are always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be” – Maya Angelou

I have always wanted to be able to support children who may find everyday schooling a little tricky or who may just need to have that person who they can turn to. I find a lot of ethnic children are misunderstood and need a voice. I feel they sometimes need positive reinforcement to know that they are fully capable of achieving and succeeding like their Caucasian peers and not fall into the system and be recognised as a criminal or failure due to their skin colour.


“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world” – Nelson Mandela

Representation in education is important because it helps the students (especially the BME students) to have role models in their everyday life. Good representation helps to guide, motivate, inspire, and challenge the students to achieve, and to empower them.  Good representation in education will shape how minorities view themselves and how they are viewed by the society at large.


“Do not decrease the goal, increase the effort!”

When I was growing up, I did not see many Black men in professional positions. I really thought I was going to be a professional football player or a music artist. Those seemed to be the only two viable options to me. Representation in education gives children hope that they could be more that what the media says they could be. For parents as well, it’s nice for them to see that they’re represented in the school. My best teacher and probably the teacher my mum knew the most and had the best relationship with was a Black teacher. That may not always be the case but for me it had a huge impact. Years later I was able to send that same teacher an email that I was doing my training and her reply really elicited some strong emotions.


“There is no better than adversity. Every defeat, every heartbreak, every loss, contains its own seed, its own lesson on how to improve your performance next time” – Malcolm X

As an educator I aspire to uplift, empower and support young people to reach their goals and dreams despite challenges that arise. It’s something I felt I never had growing up as a child and it is very important having educators that represent. I feel that every child or young person can achieve anything with the right support/guidance/stability in place. What I always say to my students is “It is not where you start, it is where you finish” and “if I can make it you can make it”.


“There is no better than adversity. Every defeat, every heartbreak, every loss, contains its own seed, its own lesson on how to improve your performance next time” – Malcolm X

Every person of colour knows that there is inbuilt disadvantage at school. I have a hundred stories, my parents have a hundred stories, my friends have a hundred more each. The research is clear about representation being essential, the curriculum shows it needs to be essential, the outcomes for underrepresented students, the same. How could representation in schools NOT be important?

Portraits by Harry Lloyd Evans, with the exceptions of Jevaughn (image: @eljaybriss), Ruth and Foluke