This is a guest post from Ryan Dinsdale.
In school, I was taught algebra, how plants reproduce, and to play the xylophone, but I wasn’t taught why black lives matter.
Granted I didn’t need to be told, but the murder of George Floyd shows that so many others do. Race inequality in education isn’t just a skipped-over subject; it’s a serious and constant issue.
“We live in a world that pushes you towards the racist end of the spectrum,” said Pran Patel, founder of Decolonise the Curriculum, and “it all starts with education.” Subtle racism is deeply engrained within the school system in ways we don’t even consider.
In English, we read Dickens and Hemingway and Golding. We read Fitzgerald and Chaucer and Steinbeck. We read Orwell and Salinger and Shakespeare. And we should. But shouldn’t we also diversify? Shouldn’t we read something not written by middle-class white men?
“You deny children the richness of a world curriculum,” said Patel. “You can’t talk literature without talking Tagore,” the Bengali writer who won the Nobel Prize in 1913, “and you can’t talk poetry without talking Rumi,” the celebrated 13th-century Persian poet.
But schools do. Children grow up seeing so few BAME (Black, Asian, and minority ethnic) people in authority positions and as inspirational figures that it affects their worldview.
“From an early age, children are conditioned to absorb and are exposed to messages of what superiority figures, leaders, and power look like,” said Dr Susan Bartholomew, a clinical psychologist and member of the Health and Care Professions Council.
“It reinforces messages of being inferior, feelings of worthlessness, and that whiteness is the epitome of success. Children learn that something has to be left behind in order for them to succeed,” she said. “They learn that it’s one or the other; either I am black, or I am successful.”
Patel agreed. “We’re taught through the curriculum that if you’re white, male, hetero, able-bodied, and middle-class then you’ll be successful.”
During his 16 years of teaching, he found that teachers, himself included, aren’t taught to be critical of their own assumptions and ideas, and these ideas come from an already insidiously racist system.
“When I make stateents like ‘Roald Dahl is problematic,’ I get a lot of people saying ‘What? You can’t say that’” he explained. But even when you explain – consider Oompa Loompas or “the fact remains that all witches are women” – people refuse to acknowledge the common criticisms.
Marika Sherwood, a historian and retired teacher, saw this when she began teaching in the 60s and she still sees it today. “You learn all about Europe and all about England and the glory of the kings and queens,” but if you’re a black child, “you don’t exist in the curriculum. You’re just not there.
“[People] training to be teachers are the product of these schools,” she said, “and if you don’t unearth that and begin to teach them, they’re not going to behave any differently.”
Having more BAME staff within schools, especially in executive positions, would help make this change, but Allana Gay, Headteacher at Vita ex Pat Preparatory School, said: “The rate of progression for ethnic minorities is far slower than it is for white colleagues.”
In a previous, underperforming school, Gay was part of a mostly BAME staff. As they improved its performance though, the school began hiring only white teachers from Oxford or Cambridge, “and my BAME colleagues started to leave because we realised our route for progression wasn’t there.”
BAME people make up 14% of the English and Welsh population but just 3.5% of headteachers in England. “When I go for interviews,” Gay said, “the feedback is ‘you’re far too assertive,’ or ‘we don’t feel like you’d be the right person to lead this school,’ or ‘we can see some leadership qualities but not enough.’
“There’s a lot of leaders who will believe this from those above them,” she said. BAME teachers get stuck in lower positions, “put to work with the hardest groups in some of the hardest schools and are expected to turn them around.”
But getting to these positions of power is crucial, said Hakim Adi, a professor specialising in African studies at the University of Chichester. “We can write or campaign or speak or protest,” he said, “but what’s going to make the difference is when we become decision makers.
“The main problems within education are political” he said. Activists like Adi fight for change, but “it’s other people who make the decisions,” and these are the 96.5% of white headteachers who might not even understand the problem.
“It’s a vicious cycle,” he said. BAME people must reach positions of power to change racist attitudes within education, but these attitudes stop them from getting there in the first place. “You can be as educated as you like,” Adi said, “and you can still be killed by the police.”
Ryan Dinsdale is a freelance journalist exploring issues of inequality. He’s appeared in print and online in the UK and US.