Black Londoners have a long and rich history. Every October, the Mayor works closely with communities across London to promote Black History Month, which is a fantastic celebration and recognition not only of history but also of culture today. However, recent events, particularly the backlash against the Black Lives Matter movement, have made it abundantly clear that much more needs to be done to embed black history in to learning. Decolonising and diversifying the national curriculum is necessary to celebrate the achievements of black Britons, tackle racism in schools and ensure all young people have a good understanding of colonialism and its legacies.
Last month, the Runnymede Trust highlighted a few barriers to addressing racism in schools. The first is a lack of black representation in school workforces, particularly at senior levels. Secondly, evidence shows that many teachers of all races in the UK do not feel confident in their level of “racial literacy” – that is, their understanding of the ways in which race and racisms work in society.
These are two issues that the London Assembly education panel has previously investigated in our report into secondary school exclusions. Although London has the most ethnically diverse school workforce in the country, it is still not representative of London’s population, especially at leadership level. Furthermore, we heard how unconscious bias is contributing to black and Gypsy/Roma children being consistently overrepresented in exclusion figures, alongside those eligible for free school meals, pupils with special educational needs and looked after children.
However, in ensuring that all young people leave school with a well-rounded understanding of the contribution of black communities to the UK and it history, we should not put the onus on individual schools or individual teachers to diversify their workforce and improve their racial literacy. Although many schools across London are already taking the initiative to decolonise their curriculum, what is really needed is leadership from government, the department for education, Ofsted and exam boards.
Many teachers feel the curriculum introduced by the government in 2014 is far too restrictive. According to the Runnymede Trust, this curriculum intentionally returned “to ‘traditional’ subjects and teaching methods which have sought to overturn decades of more diverse, socially inclusive and multicultural curricula”. While some subjects, such as English, do offer some flexibility, the responsibility is placed on schools and teachers to seek out opportunities to ensure they are offering a diverse and representative education. This becomes more challenging later in schooling as the pressures of conforming to exams truly kicks in.
We know that the National Curriculum has many pitfalls in other areas, too. For instance, the current system, which relies heavily on exams rather than coursework, disadvantages certain children, particularly boys who tend to underperform compared to girls in exams. Furthermore, a restrictive curriculum is not only a problem at secondary school level, with 74 per cent of headteachers stating that the pressure to get good SATs results means they “teach to the test”.
We need a reimagining of the curriculum. This is essential if we’re to ensure it works for all children and young people, and embodies the anti-racist principles we all want to see in our education system. In particular, I would like to see a wider range of teaching and assessment styles and content, which truly reflects the background and needs of London’s young people.
The curriculum also needs to create a space for young people to have honest conversations about Britain’s past and present, supported by teachers whose training has equipped them with the racial literacy to support young people to navigate these issues with confidence. Schooling alone can’t solve racism, but ensuring young people leave school with the skills, knowledge and confidence to understand Britain fully will go a long way.
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