Tackling racial injustice must start with curriculum and teacher development

Victoria Nyoni explains why the student commission on racial justice is recommending better training for teachers and new thinking on curriculum

Victoria Nyoni explains why the student commission on racial justice is recommending better training for teachers and new thinking on curriculum

13 Jun 2023, 5:00

The Student Commission on Racial Justice will soon publish its 2023 Manifesto for Action. Over the next five weeks, its commissioners will set out its five key priorities and recommendations exclusively for FE Week.

I’m 17 and study A level French, English language and drama and theatre studies at Barnsley College. I am also part of the Student Commission on Racial Justice, which has recently published its manifesto for action, with key recommendations for tackling issues around racial justice.

The manifesto focuses on five key priorities, one of which is teaching and learning. In this area, after hearing and sharing many stories from teachers and young people, our recommendation is to diversify the curriculum and improve teacher training. The young people we spoke to are clear: a lack of proper training is having adverse effects on us as students. On the other hand, some have experienced that effective teacher training can help to better our experiences.

Nobody seeks to deny that the writers centred within the English curriculum are anything other than talented writers. But Shakespeare and Dickens are far from the only writers who have written work worth reading in English. We need teachers to broaden our exposure to and understanding of literature. In fact, it should be required that our curriculum reflects Britain’s diverse culture and represents people of all backgrounds. Students in classrooms today report noticing and appreciating when this is applied.

I still recall having to read Of Mice and Men in year 8 as our focus for English literature. Published in 1937 and set in the 1930s, Steinbeck’s book heavily features the use of the ‘n-word’. As a 13-year-old black person, I wasn’t too bothered about the use of the word by my teacher, since she had warned us before that slurs were involved and how we might feel if she used it (albeit only in this context).

Books with racial slurs embolden those with inclinations towards racism to express it

But in spite of her warning that none of us were supposed to say it, certain students did – directly to me and my mixed-race friend. Reflecting on this, it’s clear there were many problems before we even started reading. Why is a book with slurs part of the curriculum? Was it necessary to say the slur at all? I didn’t realise how much it upset me until a year later, trying to work out why I did not want to go back to school after lockdown. 

No matter how you present it, books with racial slurs embolden those with inclinations towards racism to express it. They normalise language that is taboo for good reason. There are better ways to explore the great depression, if that’s what we want to do with our precious curriculum time.

Diversifying the curriculum means drawing from a wider variety, not just of writers, but of perspectives too. There is a wealth of outstanding writing in English. It sets the bar of expectation low to say nothing more appropriate can be found than a book with racial slurs, and it makes the inclusion of black students a lesser priority than the comfort of repeating the curriculum.

At least I can say that I don’t have many experiences that I can attribute to inefficient teacher training, but I can say that the Student Commission have discussed this a lot. Too many have had worse experiences than me, and improving teacher training has been a really important topic for us. Improving training would mean informing and preparing teachers on what to do if/when there is discrimination taking place in the classroom, as well as encouraging and appropriately supporting students to have conversations about race and inequalities, whether in the classroom or in tutorials.

Good teacher training in racial equity would mean students felt safer and more confident about  approaching their teachers for advice. It would help to promote more trusting student-teacher relationships, and might just put a stop to the kind of verbal abuse I and so many others have been the victims of.

The evidence from our commission is clear. When it comes to teaching and learning, diversifying the curriculum and better preparing teachers to tackle racism and racial inequalities are crucial to improving education for students from minoritised ethnicities. That’s as true for French as for English, and for theatre studies as well as any other qualification – academic or technical.

More from this theme

Equality and diversity

Keegan wants ‘extreme caution’ from colleges after trans advice delayed

Education secretary claimed trans guidance delay was to 'allow more time' to speak with teachers, parents and lawyers

FE Week Reporter

Your thoughts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *