Image: Unsplash
Image: Unsplash

Are there enough BAME role models in school curriculums?

According to a recent BBC article, the Ethnic Youth Support Team (EYST) has called for more non-white role models to be learnt about as part of the school curriculum in Wales. The feeling is that Welsh cities are becoming increasingly multicultural and the level of diversity in the curriculum is no longer sufficient to reflect this. Curriculum reform is currently underway, with the new changes being introduced in 2020. The aim is to not only celebrate the diversity of the country but explore how this diversity has shaped modern Wales. It is increasingly being seen as fundamental for children to see themselves reflected at schools in order to build up their self-confidence, enthusiasm and ambition.

Learning about more non-white role models and widening the geographical focus of lessons is not just beneficial to BAME students, but in broadening all British children’s understandings of how the world they live in has come about

Calls for the diversification of the curriculum have been ubiquitous in universities over the past few years, but it has taken longer to be addressed in terms of schools. In many ways this is timely; the 2014 UCL ‘Why is my curriculum white?’ campaign emphasised how it is incredibly difficult for universities to challenge the dominant mindsets that have been instilled and entrenched in students at primary and secondary school. Learning about more non-white role models and widening the geographical focus of lessons is not just beneficial to BAME students, but in broadening all British children’s understandings of how the world they live in has come about. This is not to mention wider benefits that a global education has for career prospects, with languages like Arabic and Mandarin becoming pre-requisites for jobs ranging from business to politics, yet which are rarely taught in schools.

The drive towards ‘decolonising not diversifying’ better encapsulates the established norms that need to be challenged to really allow for a representative curriculum

The ‘Why is my curriculum white?’ campaign raised some major points: the ‘whiteness’ of school and university curriculums is generally invisible, unspoken and unquestioned by many due to a blindness to other perspectives. Such a lack of awareness reproduces and normalises this ‘whiteness’, and students lack the tools or vocabulary to dismantle it. Moreover, non-white figures and thinkers included in the syllabus are too often included in a tokenistic way, and their position at an institutional level is not addressed. Thus, the issue is not simply about ‘diversifying’ the curriculum. This is not enough; the drive towards ‘decolonising not diversifying’ better encapsulates the established norms that need to be challenged to really allow for a representative curriculum.

I felt such a sense of shame and disbelief, as for the first time the realities of the British Empire were brought to my attention

There are a multitude of ways in which it is clear the British education system refrains from providing the most accurate and valuable outlook for children. For instance, the abolition of the slave trade and slavery is usually taught from the perspective of the white abolitionist movement, rather than that of black abolitionists and black freedom fighters who obtained their own emancipation through rebellion and other acts of agency.

Whilst role models of all races are necessary, it is not just about great figures. It is also about geographical focus. There is a focus on British heroism, with the ‘lessons’ of History (racism, slavery, dictatorship and genocide) taught through the lens of other nations like Germany, Russia and America. The first time I studied any non-British or European History was not until GCSE level; it was Apartheid in South Africa. I recall learning that the first recorded concentration camps were used during the Boer War by the British to imprison Boers. I felt such a sense of shame and disbelief, as for the first time the realities of the British Empire were brought to my attention.

Many feel that it is entirely fair for British institutions to teach British history and values and of course this view is not without some merit. But if a British focus is to be taken, then it simply must be an all-encompassing one that keeps in mind that the history of the Commonwealth is too closely interlinked with that of Britain’s to be ignored.

Breakthroughs often occurred in the non-Western world and these great advances must be celebrated rather than overlooked

South Asian students ought to feel proud of their great-grandparents’ contribution in the First and Second World War to help uphold the ‘liberal’ values Britain is still based upon today. In a similar way to history classes, non-white texts and authors are often not brought into the equation in English lessons until GCSE level, although even here there are an exasperatingly small number of them. Creative BAME students have no authors to look up to or to make them feel as though they have a place within the Arts to aspire to (BAME representation in the Arts is a whole other ball-game and a major issue in need of addressing).

Philosophy and Religious Studies excludes a large proportion of non-white male thinkers, much to the detriment of the discipline. The same could be said about Classics, which might be more inclusive if it were to pay more heed to the contributions of ancient civilisations in China, India, the Middle East and beyond, to the building of the modern world. Humanities undoubtedly has the most to work on, but likewise mathematical thinkers, scientific and medical breakthroughs often occurred in the non-Western world and these great advances must be celebrated rather than overlooked.

Research suggests that in an overwhelmingly Protestant environment, students both of Muslim faith and of others would benefit from teaching about Islamic civilisations and their contributions to modern European art, science and so on

According to an LSE research report on work done to influence school curriculums, the government places History as central to the formation of British identity. Dr Matthew Wilkinson, director of Curriculum for Cohesion (that aims to improve the teaching of the humanities) explains in The Guardian that “The research of Curriculum for Cohesion has shown that without any points of entry or hand holds into the national history curriculum some Muslim kids find it hard to connect positively to society at large. A lack of connection to the national narrative will leave some British Muslim youngsters vulnerable to becoming alienated within Britain and even radicalised by extreme historical narratives on the internet that demonise Britain.”

Research suggests that in an overwhelmingly Protestant environment, students both of Muslim faith and of others would benefit from teaching about Islamic civilisations and their contributions to modern European art, science and so on, as well as the interactions between Christian and Muslim kingdoms and empires throughout time. The Curriculum for Cohesion’s research highlights specific figures that could easily be incorporated into teaching for each Key Stage, that would help forge a sense of shared history and culture rather than the ‘Us vs Them’ dynamic that can lead to othering and isolation.

Meaningful change can only come about through a significant reform in the government’s core values and ideology about what it means to be British in a country now made up of a 20% minority ethnic population

It is clear that significant and valuable work has been done to shape school learning and give BAME students greater access to role models and relevant points of reference. The movement has been rapidly picking up speed over the past five to ten years, but it is clear that meaningful change can only come about through a significant reform in the government’s core values and ideology about what it means to be British in a country now made up of a 20% minority ethnic population. Only when this is the case will it be possible for curriculums to not only be diversified but decolonised; for educational institutions to celebrate the humanity of all ethnic groups and allow for students to understand the structural and historic inequalities that have prevented this from happening thus far.

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