When talking about racial injustice in school, listen to young people
Racism in education is a prevalent topic, but it is those directly affected who need a platform. Our CEO sat with Black students to hear their experiences.
Last year, I had the good fortune to co-chair a panel of young Black students talking about their experience of race and racism in education, and their hopes for justice and equality. There have been plenty of older people offering their opinions on this topic – I’ve offered some of my own – but it is vital to hear from those currently experiencing the system.
Their experience of racism is real; it is pervasive and it is profound. “Racism touches your soul and how you see yourself,” said one student. "It is encoded in the way we work, as well as the choices we make." These young people are well-informed and educated on the topic. They are not patient or tolerant of the situation and expect action. They are taking action themselves but it is, of course, not their responsibility to solve our problems alone.
I was struck by how these young Black people were prepared by their families and friends to face a struggle, to expect to work harder for the same rights and opportunities: “I realised I wasn’t going to be treated the same," said one student. "I was going to have to fight to have my identity.” We may be feeling tired at the necessity to learn, to question yourself and to change, “but you have no idea how tiring it is to be Black.”
They also had advice for those training as teachers:
- Celebrate Black culture and contribution – find positive representation as well as honestly tackling the history of oppression. “I had only ever seen a Black person portrayed as a slave at school,” said one student.
- Seek to understand the cultures and histories of your students; weave them into assemblies and events.
- Seemingly small things can make big differences, for good and bad. Names matter, for example.
- Ask, don’t assume. Be curious.
- Don’t rely on Black colleagues or students to educate you.
- Be prepared to challenge racist behaviour.
Teachers have real influence on whether young people feel safe, celebrated and valued. “Think about what impact can you personally make," said one student. "We’re all influencers, even if it’s just in small ways. Just do the work inside.” The need for celebration and positive representation was particularly clear. Teachers may be constrained by the curriculum and exam specifications, but schools have the power to make different choices.
Teach First as an organisation also has influence. Upon both our community and the education sector at large. The experiences of these young Black people need to be heard, so we’ll be using our voice to raise theirs. We’ll be repeating their words and messages to our community and looking at ways we can continue to open up the conversation. We also want to look at our work through their eyes – so we’re planning on running a youth audit of our work. Asking and listening to young Black people on not only what we can do in the future, but what we’re doing already and how that needs to change.
I’d like to thank my brilliant co-chair Lanai, and our courageous panellists Adam, Claire and Saadia. We owe them a society which makes the most of their talents. And isn’t that in all our interests?
Pupils in England can leave school without reading a single book by an ethnic minority author. That's the key message from our Missing pages report, released in Autumn 2020.
Teach First are campaigning to diversify the literature featured in English literature lessons. We believe that in order to achieve a fair education for all, the books taught in schools need to reflect the experiences of the pupils reading them. When a child is represented in the curriculum, this can be incredibly empowering - opening doors for them to more confidently engage with the syllabus and wider society.
We've compiled this collection of free, practical tools to help English teachers and school leaders diversify their approach: