As the Black Lives Matter movement has gained traction and support in the UK following the killing of George Floyd by police, so has the realisation that the education system is often sorely lacking when it comes to teaching children about anti-racism.
Many people are also now asking whether the curriculum accurately depicts Britain’s colonial and imperial past, or reflects the achievements and contributions of Black people.
A petition to expand the GCSE English reading list to include books about race and racism has been signed more than 400,000 times, while almost 220,000 people have backed a petition to teach children “about the realities of British imperialism and colonialism”.
On Wednesday, the National Education Union added its voice to calls for the curriculum to be changed, saying educators “must lead the way in breaking down the barriers caused by racism”.
But what should a new curriculum look like? We asked activists from three different education campaigns about the changes they want to see.
Black British history is “barely covered at all” in schools at the moment, said Eleshea Williams, a campaigner from the initiative The Black Curriculum. “And if it is, it’s only in the capacity of slavery.”
“We believe there is so much more to Black history than just slavery,” Williams said. “It predates slavery, it predates colonial times, it predates the Windrush generation, but it’s just not something that is represented at all.”
The current white-washing of history gives pupils a “damaging” and distorted view of the past, she said.
In a bid to correct this, campaigners from The Black Curriculum – which was founded by young people in 2019 – go into schools to teach students about Black history.
In a recent series on the group’s Instagram account, campaigners highlighted Black British women such as political activist Olive Morris, nurse Mary Seacole and Lilian Bader, one of the first Black women to join the armed forces.
Now, the group is calling on education secretary Gavin Williamson to make Black history a compulsory part of the curriculum.
“The students that we have taught have really benefited from seeing themselves in positive roles – seeing that Black people were in Britain and had a huge presence in Britain,” Williams said. “That it wasn’t just slaves.
“We know that a lack of positive role models definitely has a negative impact on self-esteem, sense of belonging, sense of identity.
“So we believe that implementing Black history as a mandatory aspect in the curriculum will help with these things.
“And it gives a fair view of history that’s not distorted to say: ‘It was just the white people who did good things.’”
“"It isn’t about simply including Black people. It’s about including and exposing our pupils to the beauty and richness of world knowledge. Because if we don’t, we deny them."”
For former assistant principal Pran Patel, founder of the Decolonise The Curriculum campaign, it’s not just history lessons that need to change. Students should be taught a “more authentic truth” across subjects, he said.
He first realised the failings of the UK education system when he started university – and discovered he “couldn’t name a single person of colour who had added to the sum of human knowledge”.
“So I went to the library,” he said. “There I found out that the maths that we did in quantum mechanics lectures was based on an Indo-Arabaic system. It’s Indian – the basis of our mathematical system is Indian.
“Can you imagine how easy it would have been easy to teach me or tell me that? It just didn’t happen.”
People of colour and anti-racist scholars should be involved in the conversation about what a new decolonised curriculum should look like, he said.
“You can’t talk about poetry and not talk about Shakespeare’s sonnets, I agree. But equally, you can’t talk about poetry and not talk about Rumi. Everyone loses out there.
“So decolonisation isn’t about simply including Black people. It’s about including and exposing our pupils to the beauty and richness of world knowledge. Because if we don’t, we deny them.”
Patel asked: “Why was I 35 before I met Rumi and was moved by his words? It’s an abomination when you think about it like that.”
He added: “The curriculum that we all go through impacts on every aspect of school life. From assessment and outcomes to the pastoral care for our pupils – it impacts on everything.”
But for Sue Schofield, who works for anti-racism education charity Show Racism The Red Card, changes to the curriculum must be about more than just expanding pupils’ frame of reference. They must actively be taught about anti-racism as well.
The charity wants anti-racism lessons to become a compulsory part of the PHSE curriculum. Campaigners also offer teachers training on the subject.
“Some people can be taught the facts, which is absolutely vital, but it still doesn’t have an impact on their behaviour,” Schofield said.
“In the PHSE curriculum, it’s compulsory to teach relationship education, sex education and health education, but there’s no statutory requirement to teach anti-racism education work.
“What we do is about encouraging pupils to be good citizens and not be scared to challenge something they see and think is wrong – whether that is racism, or just treating another person unkindly.”
“We get fantastic feedback from our training,” Schofield said. “We’re shifting values and we’re shifting attitudes.
“Teachers will respond and say they have noticed a huge difference in the culture of the school and classroom and that people are much more thoughtful.”
She added: “The key thing is that our workshops are anti-racist. There’s a well-known saying: ‘It’s not enough to be not racist, you have to be anti-racist.’
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Racism in all its forms is abhorrent and has no place in our society. Schools already play a significant role in teaching children about the importance of having respect and tolerance for all cultures.
“Black history is an important topic which schools can teach to children of all ages as part of the history curriculum.
“Schools can utilise resources from a range of organisations and sources to support teaching Black history.”