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Representation matters

From a whisper to a shout: Representation matters

The task of tackling racial inequality in schools should not fall on the shoulders of BAME teachers, however Bristol educator Aisha Thomas is committed to championing this change

In a variety of roles, I have had the experience of working within several education settings. I am Black British Caribbean and currently an assistant principal and the founder of an organisation called Representation Matters. In my current position, I speak to and work with various different school leaders, thus providing me with a good understanding of how schools are navigating the issue of race in education and the way in which the curriculum plays a crucial part in change.

It has been three years since the Runnymede Trust report named Bristol the most racially segregated city. While many will argue that Bristol is a very vibrant and rich, multi-cultural city, with great places to visit and experience, there are stark inequalities in the educational experiences of the children and young people that the city serves.

Published by the Runnymede Trust and the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE), the report saw Bristol rank seventh (number one being worst) out of the 348 districts of England and Wales on the Runnymede Trust’s index of multiple inequality.

The report specifically noted that the current curriculum is unrepresentative and that this could result in poor educational outcomes for those students from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds. The truth is, this is the experience of many BAME children and young people. They are in an education system that does not allow them to see themselves in their curriculum.

One parent said, “To see a version of the world that seems to exclude you, your history and your culture, is to be confronted with a ladder of opportunities minus the rungs.”

Many children and young people enter classrooms and they are told about the greatness of other people who do not look like them; they hear how people who look like them have been conquered. Yet they do not hear or experience any celebration of themselves – well, maybe in October! Black History Month (BHM) is often the vehicle which is used to celebrate. Yet the quality and extent of this varies greatly between schools and is often dependent on the overworking of individuals, often BAME individuals, who then go above and beyond their duties. As BHM is often not embedded into the culture of the school, when staff leave, for instance, or have a change in responsibility, the work is often not done. Then those staff who wish to support BHM can struggle, due to their lack of knowledge and training. While BHM does provide a vehicle for discussion on race, it is often the totality of what teachers could say about race, diversity and anti-racist practice in the curriculum.

“I agree that only studying Black history one month a year is not sufficient,” said one teacher. “Students at my P1 school picked up on this and felt it was an ‘add-on’ and not authentic or full enough within the broader curriculum. This is something I will actively consider and look to address.”

Imagine if this narrative was changed. Could we live in a world where we are taught the value of all races? Is it possible that racial superiority could be stripped of its crown, and instead, all races are sworn in with equal importance? Children will then grow with a sense of value, connection and understanding of difference.

Projects such as One Bristol Curriculum and the Black Curriculum seek to address the gap in knowledge. The current system does not enforce the teaching of Black history; however, we know the importance of this work.

The current Black Lives Matter movement has challenged us all to pause, stop and reflect; to take a moment to consider the current status quo. It is no longer acceptable that we continue with a superficial and condensed version of black history, with recognition of a few activists and sporting heroes.
Subjects such as PSHE (personal, social, health and economic education), citizenship, history, geography, have more scope for adaption and flexibility, whereas STEMS (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects seem to find this process much more difficult. This work needs racially literate staff who engage in the development of their subject knowledge to ensure that their teaching is diverse and inclusive.

Research shows that it is best to impart this knowledge to children and young people as early as possible. “Black children need their racial and cultural identity recognised and acknowledged positively in order for them to feel good and thus flourish in the nursery environment,” says educational consultant Liz Pemberton (@theblacknurserymanager on Instagram). Not only is it important for the development and mindset of children and young people, but once students are in secondary schools, the latter years are then subject to the pressure of GCSE constraints. Therefore, those schools and academies who are interested in seeing a change in the curriculum should think about when these opportunities are presented to them.

Is it possible that racial superiority could be stripped of its crown, and instead, all races are sworn in with equal importance?

So how did I address the curriculum?

Discussions about racial injustice and working towards change can be emotionally draining, however it is necessary to ensure that future generations have a better experience of representation in their education. Allyship is a crucial and is imperative if we want true change. Most middle, senior leader and CEOs are White British, therefore unity and commitment for change is needed by all.

I developed a pilot to trial in schools, to provide a framework for schools to begin to address the lack of Black history in the curriculum. Teachers reported that they were very keen to add ‘colour’ into the curriculum and support the ‘decolonisation of the curriculum’ agenda, however, many cited capacity and knowledge as a barrier to change. I partnered with two primary schools to pilot a simple framework that could be used to support schools in their ambitions to fully integrate Black history in the curriculum, thus moving away from the Black history tick box.

The idea was born out of a conversation that I had with my neighbour. One day I was talking to my neighbour, Whisper, whose name I had always thought was a nickname before he explained to me that, in his home country of Zimbabwe, children are often named after what their parents would like them to become. Whisper was named by his grandfather to mean ‘quiet person’. That then got me thinking; well, what is in a name?

The idea was that the concept of ‘what is in a…’ could be applied to so many aspects of life: paintings, pictures, music etc. The theme can bridge the gap between different communities, while making it relatable at the same time. The theme allowed students to recognise the contribution of Black history, while finding a link and connection with their community and understanding of the world.

What positive steps can we take as educators?

Audit your practice
It is important that schools take a moment to pause and reflect on where they are in their journey. This will ensure it is not a tick-box exercise. Time must be taken to consult and review. Your audit should consider staffing, environment, imagery, curriculum and policies.

Improve your workforce
Take the opportunity to review the data related to your workforce. How diverse are your teams? Is there a gap in progression or pay? Are your recruitment practices fair?

Are you investing in the knowledge of your staff? Have they received anti-racist training? Do they understand concepts such as intersectionality, micro-aggressions, and White privilege?

One Bristol Curriculum and similar projects
If internal knowledge is lacking, connect with organisations that have expertise. Practitioners can be linked with schools. There are several organisations providing free resources that will support an inclusive curriculum. It is also important to invest in the development of knowledge needed within your school.

Students, parents and local communities have a richness of knowledge. Provide opportunities for them within your school to share the experiences, expertise and good practice.

Take every opportunity
If curriculum time is limited, use everyday opportunities to drip-feed knowledge to students. Imagine if they knew… Maths – talk about Kathleen Johnson, mathematician for Nasa. PSHE – talk about Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner, inventor of the sanitary belt. Engineering – talk about Garrett Morgan, an inventor of the three-light traffic system.

“I will try to consider how all pupils feel represented in my lessons, whether it be through introducing pupils to Black and Ethnic Minority scientific discoveries or female scientists being represented,” one trainee teacher said. “I want pupils to be able to see themselves as scientists of the future and therefore hopefully be more engaged in my lessons. The lecture also made me more aware of my own biases and how everyone should be more aware of themselves as well as other people”.

My mantra is simple: #representation matters.

Throughout September, Aisha will be sharing 30 days of educational celebration via visual documentary.

Follow her on Twitter and Instagram – @itsaishathomas, @rmest2018 – for news and updates