How to be an Antiracist School
Updated: Dec 15, 2021
I wrote this with the intention of it being read by teachers but, actually, if you're a parent of someone who goes to school, you can demand and deliver change too. I hope the following gives you some inspiration. Antiracism should start from a very young age, so schools needs to get it right.
Update: this has now been shared on TES.com
Antiracism is not only the right thing to do in a world so frequently passive to the competing forces of complicity and oppression, but is essential in the development of the children we teach.
Over the last few years, schools have improved at diversity and inclusion. Assemblies celebrating diverse figures have become relatively common, racism-related bullying is much better dealt with , and every school will have a diversity and inclusion policy to adhere to. But many schools still lack the active, passionate, thoughtful antiracist initiatives that can make the most difference.
Analysing a survey conducted by our school trust, we found that those students who felt better represented and took pride in their identity actually had better attainment. Perhaps unsurprisingly, if students are happy, are heard, and their identity, history and culture is recognised and appreciated, they get better grades.
Convinced that there was more that could be done, last year I began weekly antiracism meetings with any students that wanted to get involved. These meetings have transformed not only my own understanding of race and racism, but it has started to transform my school and its students. Every week, we raise new questions, share new experiences, and often gather the energy to make concrete changes. Although each school needs to participate in its own antiracism journey, I hope the following questions will give us all some food for thought:
Do our students have a genuine voice?
If I could recommend anything, it would be to set up some sort of club. It is much easier to know what children want if we ask them. Our school now has an Antiracism and Diversity club, an LGBTQ+ Alliance, and an Eco Society. The important thing is to give students a platform to be heard and to have enthusiastic teachers get involved. There is no need to wait for someone else to bring these about - anyone passionate about equality, activism, environmentalism, diversity, gay rights or anything else, who is prepared to listen and learn, can set up a club and generate the initial momentum. It’s amazing what ideas and opinions come out of these meetings and I find that students really respond to the respect given to them. Don’t dominate these spaces - be open, be vulnerable and use them to slowly generate change.
How diverse is the school library?
According to a key survey from the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE), 10% of children’s books contain characters from Black, Asian and minority backgrounds, in comparison to the UK primary school population where 33.5% of children are from a minority ethnic background. Combine this with the National Literacy Trust findings that “46% of children from black ethnic backgrounds do not see themselves in books” and it is clear that a lot of schools need to do better at sharing diverse stories from diverse authors, for the benefit of everyone.
What is the school doing to widen the curriculum?
It’s important to embed a diverse curriculum properly, without making it tokenistic. Departments should get their heads together to see how to incorporate diverse influences within their subject areas. The Black Curriculum (TBC) is an amazing social enterprise founded in 2019 to address the lack of Black British history in the UK Curriculum and is well worth exploring. We were lucky enough to have TBC give some of our students a fascinating talk on the history of hair discrimination. Whatever resources are available to you, it’s important that schools do not save talking about diverse figures for assemblies or Pride Month, for instance. I know of students who dislike Black History Month because it serves as a stark reminder of how their stories are given attention just one month a year. Decolonising the curriculum properly involves giving more weight and attention to other equally important narratives. As Sathnam Sanghera argues in his book Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain,
“I’m thinking about how urgent and essential efforts to decolonize curriculums might have a better chance of succeeding if they changed their language, if campaigners talked about widening curriculums rather than decolonizing them for that is what decolonizing involves.”
Has the school taken measures to make the uniform policy non-discriminatory?
This goes beyond antiracism, of course. LGBTQ+ students may feel discriminated against, particularly if they are trans. But, focussing on black students for now, schools must adopt The Halo Code. Any school that asks a student with afro-textured hair to straighten it is racially discriminating against them, and (though this is a secondary motivation) there have now been precedents for schools losing court trials as a result.
Taken from their website: “The Halo Code explicitly protects students and staff who come to school with natural hair and protective hairstyles associated with their racial, ethnic, and cultural identities. By adopting the Halo Code, schools are proactively taking a stand to ensure that no member of their community faces barriers or judgments because of their Afro-textured hair.”
Have the teachers had unconscious bias training?
Focussing on the needs and actions of the students is not enough. The staff body needs to be aware of how the education sector demonstrates institutional racism and be well versed in issues involving race. For instance, Black students are more likely to be scored lower in teacher-assessments compared to their SATs, are more likely to be entered into Foundation Tier GCSE, and are more likely to be expelled. Unconscious bias training could challenge previously unchallenged misconceptions.
The work of Pragya Agarwal is particularly relevant on this point, as she goes into the science of how biases become prevalent. White Supremacy and Me by Layla F. Saad is also worthy of attention. Whatever resources we use, there are a litany of opportunities to create informal debates in form time, which also allow students to challenge any unconscious biases they may have. Importantly, the staff involved have to readily accept that they will possess biases. As psychologist Lee Ross says: “The most fundamental bias is the bias telling us that we’re not bias.”
How well does your calendar recognise other cultures, histories, religions?
This year, I have begun sharing a weekly inclusion bulletin. Each week, I take a few minutes to research, write up and share a calendar of any cultural, religious or historical events of significance that are coming up. I also use it as a way of sharing interesting books, articles, quotes and questions. It has encouraged conversations in form time, made students feel more recognised, and has educated staff about notable days not given prominence in UK media. It has de-centred what is commonly a white, Eurocentric educational practice. I went through my entire childhood education with my school only giving a nod towards Christian festivals and knew nothing about Eid, Hanukkah or Diwali, and yet now our school enjoys celebrating a variety of religious occasions, not just Christmas. Last year, for Diwali, those students who celebrated it were encouraged to wear traditional dress, and we played typical music and ate celebratory food in the lunch hall. We would have deprived the entire school not to do so.
Have we given the students questionnaires to ask how well represented they are?
A student questionnaire is such an easy, informative, cheap way of assessing how diverse and inclusive your school currently is. If the intention is to use the results in a constructive, productive manner, and the questioning is respectful and considerate, it can be a very enlightening experience. If students feel unsafe, unrecognised, treated unfairly or unsupported, teachers need to know!
This is not an exhaustive list but I hope it is of some benefit, particularly as a way of getting the ball rolling wherever a reader finds themselves. Writing this from the perspective of a teacher, is partially intended to signal to other teachers who have undergone a similar journey, that we can support one another in these efforts. It is also a way to communicate an ambition to the students, and their parents, who I have learnt so much from and will continue to. Ultimately, I hope it emboldens students. Schools are where the leaders of tomorrow can tackle the biggest challenges our human world has ever faced so it is adamant that we equip our students with the tools needed to confront inequality; to encourage a generation of action, not complicity. Give students a voice and we can grow together.