Hundreds of schools across England are reforming their curriculum to reflect the achievements of black and minority ethnic people and address the harmful legacy of colonialism after a groundswell of demand from young people.

In the absence of government-led change to the national curriculum, grassroots groups have offered schemes to help schools improve.

More than 660 schools in England have signed up to a diverse and anti-racist curriculum developed by teachers and council staff in the London borough of Hackney, for example.

Titled the Diverse Curriculum – the Black Contribution, it provides pupils aged five to 14 with nine weeks of lessons on subjects including the Windrush generation, activism, British identity, and diversity in the arts and science.

Orlene Badu, of Hackney Education.
Orlene Badu, of Hackney Education. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

Orlene Badu of Hackney Education, who led the development of the project, said calls for change intensified during lockdown when children were studying from home and parents suddenly realised how un-diverse the curriculum was.

The former primary school headteacher said a subsequent survey found that many pupils felt uncomfortable that representations of the black community in history lessons were dominated by narratives of oppression and powerlessness.

“A curriculum that references you does engender a stronger sense of belonging and commitment, which would hopefully lead to improved educational outcomes and lived experiences,” Badu said.

Meanwhile, the educational group the Black Curriculum has partnered with Camden council in north London, the mayor of London and a Manchester MP in three schemes that aim to diversify the curriculum of more than 1,000 schools.

Natalie Russell, the organisation’s head of delivery and development, said many teachers lacked the confidence to provide a diverse curriculum because they had not been taught about black history.

“Young people say they are taught about the slave trade in a very insensitive way. A lot of the time, teachers do not understand why it is negative to identify somebody as a slave,” she said.

“Teachers need to be trained to understand the impact that has on young people and why it is important to make sure that slavery is not the only narrative being told.”

The Labour MP Catherine McKinnell, the chair of parliament’s petitions committee, which has conducted hearings on black history and cultural diversity in the national curriculum, said: “One of the messages that came across clearly was that because teaching black history is not mandatory and merely a choice, it creates the impression that it is less important than other aspects of our history.”

Among those who gave evidence to MPs were the university students Esmie Jikiemi-Pearson and Nell Bevan, whose survey of 56,000 current and former pupils and teachers found significant gaps in the British history syllabus.

More than 86% of respondents said they learned about the Tudors, while 72% were taught about the Battle of Hastings and the Great Fire of London. But just under 37% learned about the transatlantic slave trade, less than 10% about the role of slavery in the British Industrial Revolution and less than 8% about the British colonisation of Africa.

Jikiemi-Pearson, who studied history A-level, said: “No link was made between the long-lasting effects of colonialism and why some countries are still really struggling to find their feet again. It emphasised the divide between me and my white peers,” she said.

In contrast to England, the devolved Welsh government announced last week that learning about the contributions of black, Asian and minority ethnic communities would be mandatory under a new curriculum to be introduced next year.

The Scottish government has committed to a review of its curriculum after the Black Lives Matter protests last summer. John Swinney, the deputy first minister and cabinet secretary for education and skills, said: “The challenge was put to us: ‘Do you think you’re doing enough in the Scottish curriculum to address the nation’s relationship with slavery? I felt it was important that we confronted that and addressed it.”

Claire Alexander, a professor of sociology at the University of Manchester, said while efforts to diversify the curriculum dated back more than 50 years in the UK, there was now unprecedented recognition that change was required.

Alexander, who set up the Our Migration Story website in response to demand from pupils for more diverse histories, added: “What we have found in all the schools we work with – in Cardiff, Leicester, Sheffield, London and Manchester – is that taking a different approach to history can engage all young people, no matter what their background is. It does provide a sense of shared belonging and understanding.”

In collaboration with the Black Curriculum, the Manchester Gorton MP, Afzal Khan, announced a diverse curriculum charter for schools in his constituency.

Illustration incudes: protesters outside Cardiff Bay police station in January; official portrait of Afzal Khan MP.
Illustration incudes: protesters outside Cardiff Bay police station in January; official portrait of Afzal Khan MP. Illustration: Guardian Design/✎Richard Townshend/Getty

Khan said he was compelled to act after the murder of George Floyd in the US, the eruption of global BLM protests, and the disproportionate Covid-19 mortality rate in BAME communities, which had shown that racism was still affecting many people in the UK.

Khan, who is of Pakistani heritage, said he hoped all schools across Greater Manchester would sign up to the charter. “The current curriculum is no longer fit for purpose,” he added. “It no longer truly reflects the makeup of British society today.”

The contributions of the Indian continent and its people to world conflicts as well as Muslim innovations in science and art are just two examples of history that often get overlooked, he added.

Sam Offord, a headteacher who signed up to Khan’s charter, said her school, Birchfields primary in the Fallowfield area of Manchester, where the vast majority of pupils are from minority ethnic backgrounds, had already been working on diversifying its curriculum in light of the new Ofsted framework.

Offord, the north-west regional secretary of the National Association of Headteachers, urged others to sign up to the charter. “I began to realise, that even though I thought we had been addressing diversity in our curriculum, we really weren’t,” she said.

Another initiative is being led by Thinking Black, a volunteer-run student organisation founded in 2017 at the University of Oxford, which works with school pupils to help “facilitate critical black thoughts among young people”.

Hope Oloye, a 24-year-old PhD student, founded the organisation to incorporate the thoughts and contributions of black people in the curriculum.

“A massive goal of ours is to recentre the contributions of black people within the curriculum,” she said. “Because if you don’t see yourself in any part of your curriculum, how can you feel passionate towards it or personally tied to it?”

Thinking Black celebration day at Pembroke College, Oxford.
Thinking Black celebration day at Pembroke College, Oxford. Photograph: Hope Oloye/The Guardian

Since then, Thinking Black has worked with 215 black students from across the country aged 16 and 17, and has trained 156 to facilitate the programme. For the upcoming year, the organisation is planning a programme for year 8 students on black art history, as well as a creative writing and public speaking workshop.

Michael Lawson-Falomo, a 16-year-old student from east London, has been taking part in the programme since September. “It gives you a great insight into what your blackness really means, especially being in the UK and being surrounded by such an ethnocentric curriculum,” he said.

“The things we have covered, such as healthcare inequality and how climate change affects black people, isn’t something you learn in mainstream education.”

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “The knowledge-rich curriculum in our schools already offers pupils the opportunity to study significant figures from black and ethnic minority backgrounds and the contributions they have made to the nation, as well as helping them understand our shared history with countries from across the world.”


David Batty, Nazia Parveen and Tobi Thomas

The GuardianTramp

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