Anti-racism in education: 2020 summer round-up

Schools and universities in the UK have, by now, all reached the end of the academic year, and have a little bit of breathing space (and a lot of preparation to do) before term starts up again in September. It has been an incredibly difficult year for all involved – including weeks of strikes in higher education against issues such as casualisation, unachievable workloads and pay-gaps, which look set to be exacerbated by the challenges of the next academic year – and there is extreme uncertainty over what the next year will hold. Yet, as we plan for the 2020/21 academic year, it’s important that we don’t let conversations about anti-racism fall by the wayside. I’ve seen lots of informative articles and reports about inclusive pedagogy over the last few months, and this post will collate links to some of those pieces. Before we go any further – if you want more evidence that racism exists in UK education in the first place, have a read of the accounts in this Guardian article about racism in universities, some of the more general posts and articles collected here, or the horrific accounts tweeted by the account Racism in UK schools; listen to this powerful podcast episode interviewing students about racism in secondary schools; or watch this chat with parents about racism in schools, hosted by Dr Muna Abdi, or this short interview about how BAME school workers have been failed by the government on coronavirus.

The most obvious changes that schools and university departments can make involve visible representation, in terms of the staff they hire, the topics they teach, and the books they use. This excellent article by Professor ‘Funmi Olonisakin at King’s College London describes the need for universities to support Black academics with a systematic intersectional approach, pointing to the shocking statistic that out of 19,285 professors in UK universities, there are only 90 Black men and 40 Black women. When it comes to hiring practices in particular, universities tend to focus on gender equality and ignore racial equality (although note that, despite the headline of that article, academia is still dominated by white men). Isaac Acquah has written about the similar need for more Black educators in schools, while Ian Wah writes about the need for more POC teachers and role-models in general. This issue was also acknowledged last year by the then-Education Secretary, although more recently the government has rejected calls to diversify the curriculum on the basis that it is diverse enough (claims not supported by a recent Guardian article exposing how few students actually learn anything about the history of Black people in Britain or of the British Empire). Statistics on diversity in schools and universities show that there is still some way to go. Of course, greater diversity in teaching staff relies not just on hiring practices, but also in combatting the racial discrimination which many teachers face throughout their careers.

In June, the Runnymede Trust – Britain’s leading think-tank on issues of racial equality – published a report from Dr Remi Joseph-Salisbury investigating race and racism in English secondary schools. As it says in the executive summary – “Showing that racism is deeply embedded in schooling, the report argues that schooling must be radically reimagined to place a commitment to anti-racism at its core.” It notes that even BAME teachers are often unsure about how to enact anti-racist pedagogy, that there is a need to overhaul curricula, and that seemingly neutral policies surrounding uniform, hair styles and police presences disproportionately have a negative impact on BAME students. The report makes a strong case for all teachers, including white teachers, to be trained as anti-racism advocates and role-models, and emphasises that the first two years of secondary education – before the pressure of GCSEs sets in – offer the greatest scope for making sure curricula are inclusive.

As the report states, such a deep-set problem requires major structural changes to the entire sector if we are going to embed racial justice in the British education system. This is also the goal of this open letter to universities, funding bodies, learned societies and the Education Secretary (published earlier this month), which calls for a range of concrete actions to make higher education more equal: proper anti-racism training (rather than just unconscious bias training); fairer shortlisting, hiring and promotional practices, with consistency and transparency across the sector; clear, disaggregated data from organisations across the sector to make racial and ethnic disparities clear (I would extend this to a call for disaggregated data about student make-up in different departments); and an independent assessment by the EHRC. In secondary schools, people like Patrick Roach, the new head of NASWUT who has spoken about his own experiences of racism, are trying to use the power of unions to push for sector-wide change. A powerful recent article by Brigitte Fielder exposes the way that large academic conferences and professional organisations perpetuate systems of racism, because they often see no incentive to change until a wider public audience (outside of their academic circle) vocalises its outrage, and change in these organisations is also necessary to improve the education sector as a whole. A new report from the Higher Education Policy Institute, tackling misconceptions about decolonisation in education, has called for dedicated decolonisation officers at every university, and this seems like a move which could effect consistent change. The report describes the need to fund researchers from underrepresented ethnic backgrounds, and to tackle racial discrimination in higher education, but also argues that decolonisation should not be conflated with equality, diversity and inclusion – I pointed out some of the distinctions between these in a recent post – or seen as a minority issue, when it adds to the academic rigour of a department as a whole.

However, that doesn’t mean smaller-scale changes aren’t also essential. Suzette McLean offers 12 actions that schools and individual educators can take to tackle racism, while former headteacher Viv Grant uses her own experiences of racism as a student and teacher to suggest ways for school leaders (and everyone else) to think about how they approach inequality. Elizabeth Kleinrock (who teaches in the USA) invites schools to make sure that their anti-racism work is long-lasting and not dependent on the uncompensated labour of individual staff members; I particularly appreciated her point that schools should be prioritising their most marginalised and under-resourced students. Most institutions would also benefit from looking through this anti-racism charter from the National Education Union. (NB: It uses the language of “political Blackness”, which many people – myself included – might find a little unhelpful and outdated, but this doesn’t make the charter itself any less useful.)

I’ve focused so far on changes that can and should be made across the education sector as a whole, but there have also been some excellent articles or lists of resources which approach the issue of anti-racism from the specific perspective of teaching classics and ancient history. Pria Jackson has written on the need for actions and tangible change rather than empty statements, emphasising the importance of tackling the subjects’ links to white supremacy at all stages of education (not just in high-level university courses which have a smaller audience), and the article ends with a particularly powerful sentence: “a teacher who is unwilling to vocally condemn and dismantle white supremacy in the classroom should not be teaching students of color and… it follows that teachers who are unwilling to vocally condemn white supremacy shouldn’t be teaching at all.” You should listen to this excellent interview with a Black teacher of Latin in Massachusetts, John Bracey, about his use of Comprehensible Input (CI) to create an equitable and inclusive way to teach classics. For further reading and more detailed guidance, check out the anti-racist bibliography and anti-racist teaching guide available from the Multiculturalism, Race & Ethnicity in Classics Consortium (MRECC). Sportula Europe, a microgrants initiative focused on classics and ancient world studies which launched this May, also has a bibliography of curated links to resources on inclusive pedagogy more broadly. This is also a good opportunity to point out that the Cambridge School Classics Project (which is behind the famous Cambridge Latin Course) has recently recognised the need for changes to its textbooks; I look forward to seeing what actions follow their statement.

Within university humanities departments in the UK, there’s often talk of the problematic “leaky pipeline” – the notion that, at every stage when people can choose to carry on with a subject or drop it (GCSEs -> A-levels -> undergraduate degrees -> MAs -> PhDs -> postdocs and teaching jobs -> permanent academic faculty), we see fewer women and fewer people of colour carrying on with humanities subjects. There are lots of factors in this, not least issues of wealth and employability, but I’m sure that part of it is the sense of not feeling welcomed and included. If universities teach a version of classics that suggests the subject is only for straight white men from wealthy families, then we aren’t going to see students from other backgrounds and experiences staying on to postgraduate study and entering academia. The same idea applies, mutatis mutandis, to the way we teach (the humanities, and more broadly) in secondary schools. If academics want to broaden the perspectives brought to bear on undergraduate degrees (as they should!), then universities need to work with schools – and indeed, learn from the pedagogic experience and training of teachers – to seal the pipeline at the point when cracks first begin to show.

Any other recent articles or posts on the subject that I’ve missed? Post them in the comments below – I’d love to have a read!

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