The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, USA on 25th May 2020 sparked the Black Lives Matters movement that has shone a light on the culture of English schools and how well they serve Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) pupils. The results are disturbing and reveal that we have much work to do if we are serious about addressing deeply embedded inequalities.
During the first two decades of this century, English education policy was dominated by the themes of raising standards, school autonomy and structural reform. It became unfashionable to talk about an anti-racist curriculum because it was assumed – wrongly – that the new vanilla meritocracy would serve all pupils well.
The latest data from the Office of National Statistics reveals that Birmingham is a microcosm reflecting national performance . Black Caribbean and Black African pupils are flat lining and not making progress at any of the key stages. South Asian groups vary with pupils of Indian and Bangladeshi heritage doing well. Those from Pakistani heritage are making less progress.
The school workforce is not representative of the communities it serves. There are 31% Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) pupils in England but only 7% BAME teachers with much lower representation as heads. The Birmingham figures are worrying with currently only one Black primary male headteacher in over 300 state primary schools.
The curriculum taught in English schools reflects the move towards a ‘one size fits all’ model which is colour blind in theory and practise. The innovative curriculum design of the 1980s that produced learning materials reflecting the history, heritage and culture of BAME communities is long abandoned in the name of raising standards for all.
The University of Birmingham is a beacon for anti-racist research with its long-established Centre for Research on Race and Education. And its new Education Leadership Academy is a partner with the Birmingham BAME Education Leaders’ Forum. A seminar led by Black education leaders on anti-racist education attracted nearly 200 delegates in the last week of summer term as so many schools are now prioritising this topic for the new school year.
At the Education Leadership Academy seminar Harper Bell Primary School in Birmingham showcased four years of work to decolonise its curriculum. They have made the National Curriculum work for their pupils so that African history is given serious weighting with links to the slave economy, apartheid and, most recently, the statues debate following the toppling of George Colston into the dock at Bristol. The impact of a curriculum and culture that truly includes this school’s population is clear. Results have improved rapidly and parent satisfaction is extraordinarily high.
There are no quick fixes here. Window dressing a few history lessons with references to an ancient African civilisation or dropping in the occasional Black poet into English is tokenistic. Schools need to take a long, honest look at themselves and audit practice from the composition of their governing boards to individual outcomes for their BAME pupils. They need to ask why few BAME colleagues have been promoted and why BAME pupils are excluded in disproportionate numbers.
We know that Covid-19 has hit disadvantaged BAME communities hard in the city and across the country. Black Lives Matters has revealed a double jeopardy for school pupils. Their headteachers do not look like them in the main and what they are taught in class airbrushes out their culture, history and identity and offers few positive role models. There is now an opportunity to mark the murder of George Floyd by addressing anti-racist education in all its aspects seriously.
As Bishop Desmond Tutu said, ‘If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor’ Few in education would identify themselves as ‘the oppressor’ but many have unconsciously contributed to sustaining a school system that has perpetuated inequalities.