The Black Lives Matter campaign has thrown a long-overdue, and much needed, spotlight on the racial inequalities in our school system.
As a former teacher, I firmly believe in the transformative power of education. At its best, it enhances the lives of individuals and improves our wider society. So, the changes I want to see to our curriculum are not just important because they will broaden students’ understanding of history or help them appreciate more varied literature, although these benefits are, in themselves, incredibly important. I also believe that starting in our schools is crucial if we are going to unpick the systemic racism and other inequalities which are still all too pervasive in our country.
Research published by the Guardian earlier this summer showed that only 11 per cent of GCSE students were studying a module which referred to black people’s contribution to Britain, and fewer than one in ten were learning about the empire. The English curriculum offered by exam board AQA includes only five texts by Black, Asian and other Ethnic Minority authors, out of a total of 54, despite calls to increase diversity in recent years.
The Impact of Omission campaign, which has done research into the impact of leaving out elements of our nation’s history from what young people are taught at school, has published powerful testimonies. It quotes one survey respondent who said: “I hated history in school…[which] entirely skirt[ed] around everything which would have been important for me to know in my adult life…I deeply resent the quality of my history education.”
This is a young person who has been unforgivably let down by our education system and there will be millions of others who have felt the same. I cannot imagine how the government can fail to recognise how urgent and how vital this change is. It is incredibly disappointing that the schools minister has turned down calls for a review. I for one will not stop fighting for this change, and I know that determined activists who are driving the campaign will not give up this fight either.
Making these reforms to the curriculum and exams could be relatively straight forward, if only the government would agree. What would come next, in terms of embedding changes into the ethos and day-to-day running of schools, is perhaps the bigger challenge.
The Diversity Reform Initiative, an organisation that campaigns on racial inequality, miseducation and disadvantages within the education system, makes a number of practical recommendations for what should be done, alongside changes to the curriculum.
Among the important steps it has called for are “more racially inclusive teacher training which will allow for teachers to be better educated and sensitive to racial differences between students and trained on how to manage these differences.”
Teacher training is currently insufficiently diverse and does not prepare teachers for subjects that are at present unfamiliar. Making initial teacher training more racially inclusive by helping teachers to be sensitive to cultural differences, to avoid instigating microaggressions and to be confident to call out racism, is an important first step.
The Diversity Reform Initiative also recommends making “sociology, politics and psychology accessible from a younger age to educate children on the society, communities, and institutional oppression.” Giving children the skills and resilience to identify, confront and overcome prejudice, discrimination and institutional racism is such an important role that schools can play. We need to weave positive messages of equality, inclusivity, and empowerment into everything we teach young people.
We must also do much more to increase the diversity of the teaching workforce, particularly in senior leadership roles. Currently more than nine in ten school headteachers are white and this needs to change.
By discussing a wider range of historical perspectives, we can give the next generation more chance of understanding the issues around racial inequality which still impact us today. As another participant in the Impact of Omission research noted: “It’s vital to further educate children in primary and secondary school about the impacts of what black people face due to our barbaric ancestors. How it’s now deeply embedded in our society to view black people differently and how to this day is having fatal repercussions.”
With greater knowledge we can begin to understand areas of our recent history too. Both our failings as a society, such as the disgraceful treatment of the Windrush generation, but also the overwhelmingly positive contribution black people and people of all ethnicities have made to our society in all aspects of life.
None of what I have described here is a new problem, and I am far from the first person to call for these changes. But I sincerely hope that the powerful protests and the phenomenal surge of activism in recent months will be the real wake-up call our society so desperately needs. Sadly, our education system – from Whitehall down to individual schools – is no exception. Tough questions need to be asked and real action needs to be taken.
But, if done right, our schools can be a driving force for genuine, positive change for generations to come.
Layla Moran is the Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon