In December 2019 I reached out to Lavinya Stennett at The Black Curriculum to discuss the potential for her organisation to come in to my school. After exchanging e-mails, seeing the fantastic subject specific lessons they had on offer, and a couple of chats on the phone, we planned for their first visit up north in the coming June.
Our school closed on March 20th because of Covid but I optimistically believed we’d be open again after the Easter holidays, and certainly by June. Remember the days when you had no idea what sort of impact Covid was going to have on life?!
Still, in the mean time, I was able to get some funding from school and organised a series of Zoom sessions for our students. I didn’t really know what Zoom was back then, had never used it before, but managed to get the message out to our Year 11s and they sounded keen.
The first session was called ‘Black people in Pre-Colonial Britain’ and was hosted on May 8th 2020.
It was so great to see the students’ faces again. I had taught them since they were 11-years-old, had seen how hard they had worked for their GCSEs, and was so gutted for them that their exams were cancelled, their prom was postponed (later cancelled), and had been denied the right of passage of a last day at school, signing shirts and saying goodbye.
The second session was called ‘Community and Mobilisation’, which discussed the Black Lives Matter movement, which had largely only been present in America at that point in time (although we had a march in Manchester, like other cities across the country, in July 2016) and looked at the difference people can make when fighting oppression and injustice. Students were taught about the British Black Panthers, the Mangrove 9 and the Windrush Scandal.
I remember feeling so impressed by the contributions our students made. It was amazing to me that they even bothered to show up, several of them with pads of paper taking notes, when they could’ve just spent their afternoon watching Netflix and chatting to their mates instead. They seemed in good spirits, despite the situation, and were looking forward to the next session.
Then, three days later, George Floyd was murdered by a police officer.
To have no face to face contact at this time was devastating. Never in my teaching career had there been a moment that had caused more damage than this, with students needing our support more than ever, and to rely on messages on a Teams board was heartbreaking.
In the next session with The Black Curriculum, where the students learnt about the Bristol Bus Boycott, we organised for time to be given at the end for them to discuss how they were feeling. It was such an overwhelming time and, while some chose just to listen, others spoke at length about the emotions George Floyd’s murder and subsequent reaction had brought up for them.
It struck me how important it was for them to have this space, and in the final session a fortnight later, entitled ‘Sound System Culture’, it became desperately apparent my school needed to offer more support for our students. They wanted to discuss the performative black squares people were posting on social media, the sudden realisation of racism (white) British society and many of their friends presented them with, and just more generally their experience of being a young, Black person living in the UK.
Our head girl and boy, who both attended The Black Curriculum sessions, penned a response for all students to read on the school website.
Roxy offered to continue the Zoom sessions throughout the summer, after school once we returned in September, and through the following lockdown from January 2021.
What became increasingly obvious was just how much our students needed this space, and how we’d done our students disservice by not offering it before Covid times.
In some meetings, the discussion centred on personal experiences of racism that students wanted to talk about, or racism in wider society, and they were offered support from the rest of the group. We talked about politics, plans for police officers to be introduced in to more Manchester schools, Grenfell, the need to decolonise the curriculum. Other times it was just chatting about Love Island or a funny video they’d seen on Tik Tok. The best meeting was probably the discussion we had following Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s interview with Oprah!
Roxy ended each session, regardless of the prior content, with something positive. What were they looking forward to? What had brought them joy that week? What did they plan to achieve in their futures? During what was otherwise a depressing and isolating time, the Zoom calls became the highlight of our week.
Motivated by these sessions, in November 2020, I invited Year 11 students to my classroom at lunchtime to discuss their ideas for anti-racist work in school. The first session ended up purely being a time for them to share their experiences of racism in school. They laughed, they cried, they were angry, they offered support to each other and they were given the opportunity vent. For many, it was like a weight lifted, finally voicing examples of their unacceptable experience and, at times, other students indicating they had been through something similar which offered the validation they needed. If it hadn’t been obvious before this point, there was no doubt we had lots of changes to make.
We met on several more occasions over the year and came up with the idea of making a video where they could share with staff the things that had been said or done to them during their time in school that were not acceptable. While many staff had taken it upon themselves to better educate themselves on racism, and the staff anti-racism working group had been formed, I got the impression that, by and large, staff believed racism was not an issue at our school, and certainly not an issue amongst the staff. The testimonies of the students painted a different picture though. This wasn’t to say that our school was necessarily any worse than anywhere else, rather that racism is a problem in the UK, and that this will obviously be replicated in schools, as it is in other institutions.
We anonymised the accounts so students could feel more comfortable with sharing freely, with students reading out the experience of someone else, but common themes arose. Being referred to as a “gang”, being “too loud” or “too aggressive” when their behaviour merely mirrored that of white students, comments about their hair, or about not fasting or wearing a hijab, and so on.
Time was given during a CPD slot to share the video and, even with all the work we’ve done since, I don’t think anything was as impactful as this. So many teachers came to see me afterwards, saying they had no idea this went on, or that they had been guilty of making some of the comments students referred to in the video but their ignorance meant they hadn’t realised before now that they were doing anything wrong. While at times it had felt as though the staff who had an anti-racist focus were swimming against the tide, it began to feel like we had a larger collective of people who wanted to bring about change or, at the very least, were supportive of the idea that there needed to be a change. It was the honesty and bravery of the Class of 2021 Year 11 students that allowed us to achieve that.
In May 2021, after a year of meeting online, Roxy came in to school to meet the students face to face. They would be leaving school a month later but it was clear the student-led work needed to continue.
The following academic year, in September 2021, we formed more organised student Anti-discrimination groups in school. They were held at three separate times, for the three groups – Year 7, Year 8 and 9, and Year 10 and 11.
Year 11 students applied to be Anti-discrimination ambassadors, where they had to write a letter of interest and be interviewed. For the successful candidates, I modelled the set up of a professional meeting, where I shared an agenda, chaired the meeting and had another student taking notes, so they could see the usual format of meetings.
Throughout the academic year of 2021-22, these meetings were hosted fortnightly for each group in the Conference Room, a space usually only reserved for middle or senior leader meetings, during the 30 minute form time slot. To show the value this work had to the school, it was important that students weren’t being asked to give up their lunch time or after school time to meet.
While I was present, the discussion was led by the ambassadors. These meetings gave students the opportunity to voice any of their frustrations, their experience of discrimination inside and outside of the academy, and discuss plans for change. The students were aware that I would take any causes for concern back to the anti-racist staff working group to try to problem solve.
Students have reported incidents of discrimination to the ambassadors which is then fed back to the appropriate members of staff to resolve, the anti-discrimination group has planned and delivered whole school assemblies on issues that were deemed problematic following the annual anti-racist student survey, and students have made connections with students from other year groups who can offer them support.
Roxy, Chloe, Mea and Fowsia from Kids of Colour have come in to school every half-term to run a meeting, have provided free books for our students and run a youth space for young people in the area once a month after school.
The interviews have taken place for next year’s ambassadors and we have widened the areas of responsibility.
While there are students who will still take charge of leading the meetings, there are other students who will have a particular focus for the year. Their role is to research their area of responsibility, think of ways we can improve in their area, and on a rota they will present at the anti-discrimination meetings, to gather ideas for what more they can do and feed back on what they have already done.
One student, who joined our school from Spain in Year 8, talked of the difficulties she endured due to a language barrier, accent and difference in culture when she joined the school. She suggested an area of focus should be EAL students and/or those who join the school from a different country.
Following the success of the video shown during CPD time in 2021, time has been allocated in November 2022 for the next anti-discrimination group to deliver training to the staff in person. While the presentation hasn’t yet been finalised, it will reinforce the messages students want to put across to staff about their experience in the school, the language that shouldn’t be used and their response to the decolonisation of the curriculum that has taken place over the past couple of years.
Putting students at the centre of your anti-discrimination work in school is invaluable. And it is important they are given the recognition, praise and rewards for undertaking this work. This is a hardship for them and, even though it is something they are keen to do, it shouldn’t be ignored that this places a strain on them emotionally, as much as it also a time commitment. But they know the issues better than any member of staff and therefore their input is more important than anyone else’s in the school. We’re so lucky to have them and it is important they are made aware of how valuable and necessary their contribution is.