Last spring, as the UK began emerging from the first Covid lockdown but schools remained closed, teachers Charlene Shaw-Morgan and Khaleekh Khalique found a moment to pause and reflect.
The two British-born teachers, one of Caribbean heritage and the other of Pakistani descent, struggled to come to terms with the brutal death of George Floyd in the US.
Shaw-Morgan and Khalique have never met. They teach at different schools in Greater Manchester, but the episode opened a Pandora’s box of emotions for them.
They felt things needed to change quickly to prevent incidents such as these in the future. They wanted children to be taught that black lives matter and for the curriculums in their respective schools to fully diversify and celebrate people from different backgrounds.
Shaw-Morgan, 38, is the only black teacher in her school, Birchfields primary in Fallowfield. She felt upset that Floyd’s death was not raised during staff meetings and began to realise that colleagues and peers, including herself, were struggling to discuss race issues for fear of causing offence. The school is one of the most ethnically diverse in the city.
“It wasn’t being discussed. At no point during our Zoom calls was it raised. It really upset me. If anything else was big in the media we would talk about it – this was massive but there was silence, which cut me quite deep,” she said.
Three weeks after Floyd’s death, when it still had not been mentioned, the mother of three, whose six-year-old son, Khalil, also attends the school, decided to email the senior leadership team.
This would become the impetus for a wholesale change in the school’s teaching practices. The headteacher, Sam Offord, would go on to collaborate with staff to deliver race-related training and shake-up the curriculum with an increased focus on black race issues.
“The emotions felt so raw for me. I was not just upset about George Floyd. Floyd could have been anyone. It was the fact that this was still happening. It has taken for technology to catch up so we can film these incidents for others, who are not part of my community, to understand what we have been experiencing for centuries, not just for decades, not just for years,” Shaw-Morgan said.
“Why is it a big deal? Because nothing is changing, it is ongoing, it keeps happening. It is ingrained in every aspect of our society – from housing to education to the criminal justice system.”
The school has signed up to the Diverse Curriculum Charter, changed its house names to include inspirational black, Asian and minority ethnic figures, and created a hall of fame that celebrates the achievements of minority communities.
“We hadn’t even thought about it,” Offord said. “And then some black members of staff started talking about assumptions that had been made about them and I was very shocked. It was completely transforming.”
Three miles away at William Hulme’s grammar school in Whalley Range, Khalique, the vice-principal, had similar conversations with its leaders. Shortly after Floyd’s death, during a walk with his 22-year-old daughter, Khalique was racially abused.
“I was called a Paki but I just carried on walking and ignored it,” he said. “But my daughter was shocked and questioned my response. I have lived here for 50 years, I was born here, and I realised that I needed to start challenging this, that it was not acceptable. It really made me think about what I was doing as a leader.”
Khalique is now central to the school’s attempts to diversify its curriculum and also in its effort to increase the number of BAME staff in leadership positions. His views on an urgent need for change are shared by pupils at the secondary school.
Fifteen-year-old Leonardo Scott, who was called the N-word by children in his hometown , believes racism comes from a lack of understanding and gaps in education. “Me and my mum are trying to move out of the area but racism comes from a place of not knowing about people’s backgrounds and their religion, their differences,” he said.
Samia Ali, 14, who is of African heritage, agrees, but adds that parents also need to engage with the process, with children being taught from a young age to focus on the positives of difference and not just the negatives.
“Sometimes the school can keep telling you this stuff but the parents need to put in effort to educate their children too and help them understand that being racist is not right,” she said. “We learn about the slavery trade but we need to learn more positive things – not only about sufferings but how they overcame those sufferings and how there are inspirational people from different backgrounds.”
Peter Mulholland, the headteacher at William Hulme’s, said: “Within the school we’ve always had a very harmonious community and it is very tolerant but it probably wasn’t promoting that we are allowed to be unique and that sometimes, outside of school, people are having very different and difficult experiences.”
Back at Birchfields primary, a group of seven-year-olds, shy at first, become animated when talking about Queen Charlotte. Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz was said to be Britain’s first and only black queen.
“We have felt sad because people have not been very nice to each other, like with George [Floyd] and we learned not to be racism [racist] so black people don’t get killed any more,” Tabitha said.
“That made me sad, too,” Awaan said. “But we have been talking about Queen Charlotte and she was black and was a queen – that is nice. We never knew that before.”