How can schools respond to the Black Lives Matter movement?

This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in November 2020  You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.  

You can access the full archive of my columns for SecEd here

The best schools reflect their local communities; they bring the community into their school and take pupils out into that community.

The best schools also look beyond their local communities and regard themselves as part of the national and international conversation. These schools teach pupils how to be active members of their communities and how to be good citizens of the world.

A school’s success can, I think, be measured by the extent to which it prepares all the young people it serves for their next steps in life – do pupils leave the school as well-rounded, cultured, inquisitive, caring, kind, resilient, knowledgeable human beings ready to make their own way in the world? And do schools, as a consequence, make the world a better place?

And, surely, a part of this mission to prepare pupils for their place in the world is ensuring that they are taught about the Black Lives Matter movement? At the same time, schools should more actively tackle racism, and promote equality, diversity and inclusion.

Before we explore how schools might do this, let’s be clear what the Black Lives Matter movement is…

A brief history of the Black Lives Matter movement

Black Lives Matter (BLM) is a political and social movement that advocates non-violent civil disobedience in protest against incidents of police brutality and all other racially motivated violence against black people.

The BLM movement began in July 2013 after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the shooting to death of the African American teenager Trayvon Martin. The movement gathered momentum following the deaths in 2014 of two African Americans, Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

But it was, perhaps, in May 2020 when BLM rose to international prominence in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death. Mr Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, was killed in Minneapolis, Minnesota, while being arrested.

During the arrest, a white police officer, knelt on Mr Floyd’s neck for several minutes after he had already been handcuffed and was lying face down. Immediately before he died, Mr Floyd complained about being unable to breathe, and expressed his fear that he was about to die and called for his mother.

It is estimated that between 15 and 26 million people participated in the subsequent BLM protests in the United States, making BLM one of the largest movements in the country’s history. In the UK, BLM held protests in various locations in London including Trafalgar Square, while similar protests took place in Manchester, Bristol, and Cardiff.

The UK protests not only showed solidarity with US protesters, but also commemorated black people who had died in the UK. On June 7, during a BLM protest in Bristol, a statue of the slave trader Edward Colston was pulled down and thrown into the harbour.

The part schools can play

To support BLM, schools need, I think, to ensure their staff are trained in tackling discrimination and that their systems and structures, and policies and procedures, promote equality and diversity and tackle racism. Schools also need to ensure that their recruitment processes are not discriminatory and that their staff body is representative of the pupils and communities they serve.

Teacher training and recruitment

On the latter point about recruitment, recent research from the race equality think-tank, Runnymede, found a chronic under-representation of BAME teachers in the UK (Haque, 2017).

There was unanimous agreement among BAME participants in research that there should be more BAME staff in the school workforce generally (and within their schools specifically) and most agreed that role models for pupils were desirable. Some went further to argue that representation was a necessity to protect pupils from being stereotyped or misunderstood.

But schools can only recruit more BAME teachers if those teachers are entering the profession and this may necessitate changes to initial teacher training (ITT).

Talking of ITT, changes may also be needed to better prepare all teachers to teach BAME students. In a paper entitled Race, culture and all that: An exploration of the perspectives of white secondary student teachers about race equality issues in their initial teacher education (Vini Lander, 2011), the author, who is professor of race and education at Leeds Beckett University, argues that “teacher education in England is set largely within a White majority context”.

The report points to the dearth of research about NQTs’ preparedness to teach pupils from minority ethnic backgrounds. It cites a survey of NQTs (spanning 2003 to 2007) from the then Training and Development Agency which shows that approximately one-third of NQTs felt well or better prepared to teach pupils from minority ethnic backgrounds (30 per cent in 2003 and 37 per cent in 2007) and pupils who have English as an additional language (20 per cent in 2003 to 34 per cent in 2007).

This, Lander says, “is by no means an indication of how NQTs felt about issues of race equality but the survey is the only national benchmark on NQTs’ preparation regarding race-related issues”.

The Runnymede survey also found that, while there were many teachers who were positive and felt supported by the senior leadership teams in their school, there were also many BAME teachers who reported feeling isolated and lacking in management support with regards to incidences of racism and also career progression.

Structural barriers such as racism, including assumptions about capabilities based on racial/ethnic stereotypes, were everyday experiences for the BAME teachers involved in the Runnymede survey. In particular, BAME teachers spoke about an invisible glass-ceiling and widespread perception among senior leaders that BAME teachers have, to quote the report, “a certain level and don’t go beyond it”.

Educating pupils about racism

Schools need to ensure they educate their pupils about racism – and other forms of discrimination – and challenge their prejudices. They also need to ensure that pupils are treated fairly. Here, it is worth noting that the government’s Timpson Review into school exclusions in 2019 found that black Caribbean pupils were round 1.7 times more likely to be permanently excluded compared to white British children (DfE, 2018).

In a blog in June, former senior leader and author, Nicola Harvey, said: “It is everyone’s responsibility, particularly decision-makers in schools, to come together and stand for equality, diversity and inclusion.”

In other words, school leaders must not only promote diversity and inclusion, but must take affirmative action, too.

Raising awareness

In her blog, school leaders, Ms Harvey says, should be visible and show support. They could, for example, “have open discussions and ask for feedback from BAME colleagues, students and parents to understand their experiences – even if it feels uncomfortable – (because) just listening with a sense of compassion is the first step to change”.

They could also familarise staff with the free-to-access Anti-Racism Resource List (see further information) and “use the subject areas in the reports to educate senior leaders, school staff and students on appropriate subjects covered within the reports”.

Similarly, they could “help parents talk about racial equality (by sharing) the Yoopies Parents’ Guide to Black Lives Matter, which has a range of age-related resources, activities and tips” (see further information).

Further, school leaders could “start a committee to review policies, staff meeting subjects and school events ensuring BAME staff, parents and students feel included and are represented”. In consultation with BAME colleagues and parents and governors, they could “write to (the) school community sharing (their) commitment to promoting diversity”.

The curriculum

Ms Harvey suggests that school leaders should also seek to “decolonise the curriculum”. Indeed, there has been much talk of revisiting the national curriculum to ensure it is representative of black voices.

There is an increasing number of resources being created to support schools. Twinkl Education has created additional resources focused on diversity, inclusion and equality to help teachers combat racism and give children a sense of belonging.

The Black Curriculum, meanwhile, is a social enterprise group that campaigns for black history to be taught in schools all year round. Its aims are to:

  • To provide a sense of belonging and identity to young people across the UK.
  • To teach an accessible educational Black British history curriculum that raises attainment for young people.
  • To improve social cohesion between young people in the UK.

The Black Curriculum, responding to Covid-19, now offers up to 12 hours of teaching material on Black British history. Their material is divided into four three-hour workshops (Politics and the Legal system, Land and the Environment, Art History and Migration).

They also offer 30-minute virtual assemblies covering a range of themes from their syllabus, as well as interactive, immersive and challenging teacher training which covers racial literacy, decolonising pedagogy and curriculum, and teaching intersectionality.

Also in terms of the curriculum, Ms Harvey suggests making sure “the school library is stocked with books showing ethnically diverse content from BAME authors”. Creating a curriculum map with positive and successful BAME inventors and role models to inspire students in their learning all year round may also help, and she provides the following examples:

  • In science, students could learn about Charles Drew, the African American man who created the first large-scale blood bank in the 1900s, an invention still being used in hospitals today.
  • In English, write about Gandhi and his aim to lead India peacefully in a non-violent movement against British rule.
  • In business studies, students may be inspired by Madam C. J. Walker – one of the first female black self-made millionaires.
  • In PE, students could play STOP, PAUSE and GO movement games to learn about Garrett Morgan, the black man who invented the traffic light system.

The Booktrust has also published a Black Lives Matter reading list which you can access online (see further information).

Ms Harvey concludes: “The cultural, systemic and unconscious biases need to change. To get started, you may want to choose two or three activities … create a plan of action and then build upon this over time.”

She concludes: “Do something today to make a difference.”


Follow me on Twitter: @mj_bromley

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