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Education, the full-colour version

10 June 2022

The school curriculum is now facing up to racial diversity. Report by Clive Price 


The toppling of a statue of Sir Edward Colston into the River Avon early in June 2020

The toppling of a statue of Sir Edward Colston into the River Avon early in June 2020

WHEN a statue of the slave trader Edward Colston was toppled and thrown into the waters of Bristol docks (News, 8 June 2020), it was a sign of something deeper happening in the UK.

Within the education sector, many schools and universities have been questioning historical narratives, and looking to draw on different traditions to reflect a broader vision of culture and race.

The Revd Dr Carlton Turner is the Anglican Tutor in Contextual Theology and Mission Studies at The Queen’s Foundation, one of England’s oldest theological colleges, set in the ethnically diverse city of Birmingham.

He says that the Church of England has been on this journey for a while. “The Committee for Minority Ethnic Anglican Concerns have been highlighting issues of racism, xenophobia, and marginalisation for four decades now,” he says, “and there are multiple reports.”

Turning points, in recent years, include Black Lives Matter — founded in 2013 but emerging as a global movement after the 2020 murder of the African-American George Floyd — as well as the Archbishop of Canterbury’s statement in February 2021, in response to the Windrush scandal, that the Church of England was “still deeply institutionally racist” (Synod, 21 February 2021).

This rising swell of concern has helped to raise this issue of “decolonising,” Dr Turner says: “There’s an awareness that the curriculum itself needs to be diverse. A lot of historians are challenging the way history is taught and understood.

“There are certain assumptions made about how British history is understood. And so getting other voices in the curriculum is a starting point. How that is shaped is an important thing — and, also, how you train the teachers, and [what] teachers teach.”

Queen’s makes sure that its reading lists include “a whole host of other voices across the globe that challenge European notions of theological understanding”, Dr Turner says.

Within schools, there is certain amount of room — until the start of GCSEs, anyway — to look for creative ways of reflecting pupils’ backgrounds and cultural perspectives in what is taught. Some GCSE exam boards are diversifying their syllabuses.

In February, the Minister for School Standards, Robin Walker, promised a new model history curriculum by 2024, which would “equip teachers and leaders to teach migration, cultural change, and the contributions made by different communities to science, art, culture, and society”.

Syra Shakir is a Senior Teaching Fellow, and has worked as a senior academic at Leeds Trinity University (LTU) since 2008. She is the university lead on race equality in the curriculum, learning, teaching, and assessment.

“We actively work at decolonisation in our curriculum, because it’s part of our strategic plan,” Ms Shakir says. “It stretches across the whole of the university institution. It’s our practice and ethos.”

LTU, an independent Roman Catholic foundation and a member of the Cathedrals Group of universities, is the first university in Yorkshire to achieve the Race Equality Charter (REC) Bronze award, for its commitment to improving the representation of black, Asian, and minorit- ethnic students and staff. Last year, it became the official delivery partner of the C of E’s National Professional Qualification (NPQ) in Senior Leadership and Leading Teaching.

Syra Shakir, Senior Teaching Fellow at Leeds Trinity University

The first step for schools, colleges, and universities is to accept the impact that colonialism has had on the curriculum, Ms Shakir says. Then it’s about changing mind-sets. “What’s really important in the decolonisation approach is that we’re including the perspectives, experiences, of . . . people from diverse backgrounds, from all parts of the world.”

Storytelling is a really effective medium of learning and teaching for both children and adult learners, Ms Shakir says. What is more, “storytelling, culturally, has strong historic roots across a number of diverse communities.”

When Dr Turner was a vicar in Lichfield, he says, the simple act of telling, in schools, his story of growing up in the Caribbean was a powerful tool in adding a more diverse understanding of the world. “If there’s anything that would have stood out to the students, I brought a particular life story.”

LTU has developed and shared story-based resources with universities and other organisations to help to bring about change, including Re:Tension, a short film created by a senior lecturer in film production, Ricardo Barker, to create space for conversation (alongside an educational toolkit). Re:Tension is about a 19-year-old boy who is wrestling with the idea of reporting racism at his university after an incident with his football teammates.


AT ST ALFEGE with St Peter’s C of E Primary School, Greenwich, which has educated children for more than 150 years, staff follow the National Curriculum, but also consider the cultural diversity of the children in their class, and ensure that the learning reflects that, the head teacher, Amanda Wilson, says.

Joanne Newton, the nursery teacher at St Alfege with St Peter’s C of E Primary School, with the recently introduced dolls

“In nursery and early years, they suddenly realised a lot of the dolls they had were white dolls; so it was . . . ‘Let’s change that. Let’s get dolls with a bit more diversity.’”

And when looking at historic figures linked to Greenwich, they are introducing a more diverse racial representation. “Equiano was one of them, and so [we include] a brief history of him,” Mrs Wilson says. Olaudah Equiano was the leading black campaigner for the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in the 18th century — and lived for a short time in Greenwich.

The school also runs a weekly activity, “Topical Tuesday”, during which the first half-hour is devoted to a current issue. The children have discussed the Black Lives Matter video by the dance group Diversity.

Mrs Wilson warns that decolonising the curriculum cannot be left to one “champion” to keep the process going. “It has to be a whole-school thing rather than just one person,” she says.

At Bristol Cathedral Choir School, ”many staff members are making a collective effort” to diversify their teaching material, says Tanisha Hicks-Beresford, who teaches English and is the subject leader for citizenship.

Miss Hicks-Beresford had just gone into teaching when Britain’s schools went into lockdown. She carried on her training, besides teaching her two children at home. Then the George Floyd story broke.

“One of the comments from one of my children was that they feel sad to be black,” Miss Hicks-Beresford says. That set her on a quest to counter traumatic tales of discrimination with what she terms “black joy”.

Tanisha Hicks-Beresford, who teaches English and citizenship at Bristol Cathedral Choir School

Practically, she says, that has meant “incorporating pupils’ cultural and heritage stories without only focusing on traumatic events or stereotypical narratives”.

She wants to ensure that the curriculum represents “nuances to uniqueness” in British society, “and to make sure everybody sees themselves”. So, for instance, when the children study English literature, they explore Shakespeare’s character of Othello. Work by writers from more diverse racial backgrounds has also been added to lessons.

In other subjects, the school has been careful to remove imagery that “reinforces the stereotypes of Africa being a country reliant on the ‘West’ and riddled with widescale poverty” in geography lessons, she says, while in art, teachers have been promoting the work of black artists.

Clive Price is a journalist who has worked in schools as a storyteller. He is communications manager for the Methodist Ministers’ Housing Society.

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