Dr Cheryl Diane Parkinson considers how grassroots campaigners are applying anti-racist principles to the schooling system

Research shows that it is not unusual for a pupil to leave secondary school having never studied a book by a black author.

In 2018/19, only 19% of students who took an English Literature ‘A’ Level were from black, Asian or ethnic minority backgrounds. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis in 2020 and the global Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests that spawned as a result, many are considering what changes have taken place within society, and more specifically within schools. 

‘Diversity’ is the practice of involving people from a range of different social, ethnic and personal backgrounds in a particular activity. Schools are more aware than ever that diversity and representation matter. Without it we fuel inequality – leading to segregation, ignorance and radicalism.  

The Brexit campaign of 2016 legitimised racism. Nigel Farage’s famous (and false) ‘breaking point’ propaganda poster – showing large numbers of brown people entering the country – divided the public. This campaign tugged on ideas of British exceptionalism – and whiteness – ingrained through myths of Empire.

The BLM movement is a counter-weight to these ideas, and the change often begins in schools.

Currently, 33% of compulsory school age children are of black, Asian and ethnic minority origin, yet only 7% of children’s books feature a protagonist with a similar background. Representation matters. The primary aim of a school is to educate and empower students – and representation is an important aspect of this.

  • Around 11% of those in the publishing industry identify as black, Asian and ethnic minority
  • In 2018, nearly 92% of teachers were white, while 92.7% of headteachers were white British
  • In 2017/18, only 11% of undergraduate students were Asian and only 6% were black

Exclusion rates for students from a black background are far higher than other groups – five times more likely in some areas – but grassroots campaigns can help to combat this.

There is a resurgence in schools of the causes of diversity and anti-racist education – committing to the Race Charter. Meanwhile, Schools, Students and the Teachers network and Fig Tree International have worked in partnership to develop the Race and Conscious Equality (RACE) Charter Mark – for those institutions that wish to demonstrate their commitment to action and improvement in relation to race equality in all aspects of their work.

Organisations such as Black Curriculum, LGBTQEd network, and WomenEd are also joining together to shape the curriculum in schools.

Within the classroom, teachers are now looking at texts through a post-colonial lens. Empire is being taught alongside Gothic/19th Century novels such as Frankenstein’s Monster by Mary Shelley, and Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde. Contextual information is used to frame and interpret these novels. Teaching Empire is not only about looking back at outdated texts – it also speaks to many of today’s writers.

Teachers are at the forefront of these changes. A. Rauf, a teacher in a state school in Halesowen, has been instrumental in implementing change, namely through several continual professional development sessions in which she focuses on Empire. She has collaborated with the TES and publisher Penguin to develop these. Last September, she set up a Diversity Working Party to widen the reach of this work beyond the classroom.

However, work also needs to be done at GCSE level, encouraging exam boards to realise the need to change.

Martin Luther King described the white moderate as “one who is more concerned with maintaining the status quo than with justice for the oppressed”. The status quo needs to be changed in the British education system, and more rapidly than many still believe.

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