Black lives matter: teaching race, equality & inclusion in our schools

This year is shaping up to be a significant one for efforts to raise diversity and inclusion in schools and on the British curriculum. The global coronavirus pandemic has hit black people disproportionately hard, both in terms of health and in economic terms. And the...

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This year is shaping up to be a significant one for efforts to raise diversity and inclusion in schools and on the British curriculum. The global coronavirus pandemic has hit black people disproportionately hard, both in terms of health and in economic terms. And the police killing of George Floyd that led to the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, has forced many people to confront institutional racism like never before.

Black History Month is one way for schools to underscore the achievements and contributions of black people throughout history, and contribute to tearing down the barriers that many still face today. The BLM protests have inspired schools, teachers and students to put on special projects and initiatives to celebrate Black History Month, which feels even more significant this year.

The teaching of black history in schools

One of the most vexed debates is around the teaching of black history. In 2014, the English curriculum’s explicit focus on racial and ethnic diversity was removed by the UK government. The move meant the teaching of black history became optional, both in the UK and at British international schools abroad.

“The murder of George Floyd has certainly acted as a catalyst in prompting some schools to focus on black history and inclusion,” says Joshua Garry, a deputy head of history at a London school. “The protests have brought a greater degree of urgency and publicity to the teaching of black history in schools, but a lot of work was being carried out by various teachers and groups before.”

Both the Historical Association (HA) and the Schools History Project (SHP) have offered various professional development opportunities to support teachers with the teaching of black history in schools, for example.

This year, like every year, Garry’s school has been proactive in creating initiates to celebrate Black History Month. The school has striven to diversity its curriculum all year round, through teaching the topics of migration, African Tudors, Mansa Musa, The British Empire, the transatlantic slave trade, the Industrial Revolution, World War I, World War II and the Haitian Revolution.

Further afield in China, the BLM protests have resonance. At Shekou International School this year, images of the movement were a catalyst for discussions and lessons about inequity. “International schools put such store in building relationships and creating safe environments because of the dislocation that many children feel as ‘third culture kids’,” says Greg Smith, head of the Chinese school.

“A recognition of the connections that we have to other humans, regardless of the misleading categories of race, religion or culture, helps us to foster globally aware students who can go on to make a positive difference in the world.”

Teacher confidence needn’t hold schools back

However, research shows that while schools are permitted to teach black history, few of them do, or did prior to the major events of this year. “Some teachers may not feel confident delivering content that they do not have secure subject knowledge on,” says Garry. “But from what I have seen, there is certainly a willingness for teachers to try and include more of this in schools.”

Liz Duffy, president at International Schools Services, says some schools have been doing this work very thoughtfully and intentionally for a long time; other schools were less attuned to these issues. “It’s tempting to believe that because you’re an international school or because you have students from many countries, you’re also an inclusive and equitable school, but that is not automatically true,” she says. “Diversity is necessary, but not sufficient for equity and inclusion.”

Teaching race, equity and inclusion prepares learners for adulthood

You can’t be fully equitable and inclusive if your curriculum ignores or sidesteps topics of race, equity and inclusion, she adds. “One of the primary responsibilities of a school is to prepare students for adulthood, including for citizenship, leadership and community engagement,” says Duffy.

“It’s impossible to address many of the other significant challenges we face, such as climate change, displacement and immigration, not to mention most global conflicts, without understanding the causes and dynamics of inequality.”

Equity is about providing young people with the ability to see beyond an imposed, White-British sense of history, according to Marlon Moncrieffe, a senior lecturer in the School of Education at University of Brighton, who focuses on black British history. “Equity would be providing all young people with more fluid and alternative approaches to seeing history; to question and challenge narratives, but also to see both the power and the limitations of their own views,” he says.

He believes that schools can help with tackling inequality in wider society. “Schools are fundamental to modelling how an ideal society of fairness could look like. Headteachers and senior management need to demonstrate equality through their leadership.”

Teaching a diversity-conscious curriculum

Lucie Cerna, from the Directorate for Education and Skills at the OECD, agrees. In the long-run, she says, diversity-conscious curricula tend to reduce the level of ethnic bias among all students, which is crucial to social cohesion. Moreover, “the equaliser potential of school begins early on”, she says. “Evidence suggests that ensuring better access and quality of early childhood education and care is essential in reducing educational gaps and social inequalities.”

When it comes to including ethnicity, equity and inclusion inside the curriculum, teachers must first recognise their own cultural frames of reference and understand how their assumptions and beliefs influence their teaching, Cerna says. “When they incorporate the perspectives of students from diverse backgrounds in the content taught, teachers should avoid tokenising them,” she adds.

Teachers should also take an intersectional approach to diversity and inclusion in the classroom, she says, acknowledging that all students have individual needs and learning styles emerging from their unique identities and experiences. “By valuing diversity as an asset rather than a barrier, inclusive education greatly contributes to promoting societal values and objectives of diversity and inclusion while tacking inequalities and discrimination.”

Creating diverse, inclusive and anti-racist educational content

At Pearson, we have made a company-wide commitment to fight systemic racism. This includes developing products and services that incorporate anti-racist principles and reviewing our top courseware titles in the US and UK to ensure they are bias-free by mid-2021.

“Whether learners are at the start of their journey, taking an admissions test, or learning in their school or university, it’s our responsibility to ensure that they are not consuming content that lacks diversity, is overtly or covertly racist or culturally biased in such a way that disadvantages them.” explains Ebrahim Matthews, Senior Vice President of English and Global Schools at Pearson.

For the past year, Pearson has been working on a set of guidelines for our content to ensure that what we produce is antiracist, accurate and authentic in representing the many diverse groups that are our learners. The UK-based team, alongside Pearson colleagues in the US and Dr. Jason Arday, author of the Black Curriculum Report – a seminal report on curriculum inequality in the UK, have produced new guidelines, to act as a force for change in our editorial policy.

“These guidelines will become an integral part of our global editorial policy and will serve as the benchmark for producing diverse, inclusive, and anti-racist content in global markets.” says Matthews.

Updating our qualifications

We are also pleased to announce that we will be adding a brand-new thematic study topic on Migration to the Pearson Edexcel GCSE (9–1) History specification. This will be available for first teaching September 2021 and first assessment June 2022. We are also reviewing our International GCSE specification to include this topic area on British history.

The content of our qualifications constantly evolves and we always encourage feedback and take action on it where possible. We are aware of the importance of offering History curricula that appeal to and represent all the students they serve, and of the value to all students of curricula that reflect more fully the ways that Britain has been shaped by its interactions with the wider world. Recent feedback we’ve received from students and teachers is that a topic specifically on migration in Britain would appeal to students in this country and help make the specification more diverse and inclusive.

Read more about the new GCSE (9-1) History migration topic.

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