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An Uncomfortable Truth

A few years ago, the rapper, poet and activist, Akala, visited Highgate Primary to lead a Shakespeare workshop with children from Year 6. His talk was memorable for two things, first how he managed to get all the titles of the complete works of Shakespeare into a brilliant three minute rap, but even more memorable was an account of early African history focusing on the universities of 13th-century Timbuktu. I remember thinking, ‘Why don’t I know this?’ I guess the answer to that question is fairly self-evident.

These are challenging times to be a school leader. Adapting to remote learning and reorganising the school to allow the phased return of pupils has been one challenge. But this is small compared to the bigger picture of tackling something significantly more damaging than Covid 19. The last couple of months have been particularly challenging for many families in our school community with the realisation of how significant a force racism still is within our society. There is now a clear consensus that the disproportionately high death rates amongst BAME groups arising from Coronavirus are rooted in the inequalities within society, which has been brought home by the shocking events in the US surrounding the murder of George Floyd.

Events in Bristol last weekend, culminating in the toppling of the statue of the 17th Century slave trader, Edward Colston, created a rich stimulus for discussion with our Year 6 pupils. There was, naturally, a clear understanding amongst a group of ten and eleven year-olds that it was completely inappropriate for a slave trader to be publicly on a pedestal. How this was not clear to those in authority is hard to fathom. The consensus within the year 6 classes was very much that Colston’s statue should be used for educational purposes, to ensure nobody is ignorant of the atrocities of the past.

Then there was the pressure on school leaders with regard to how best to respond to current events and the debate surrounding Black Lives Matter. I’m sure opinions amongst our children, parents and staff will vary, however a discussion I had with John Sukhdeo, a teaching assistant and sports coach at Highgate Primary and a member of the school’s leadership group created to address racial inequality, opened my eyes.

John is usually very active championing equality and promoting an anti-racist message, however he said he is currently taking time out to think, expressing concern with institutions and individuals who are routinely putting out messages of solidarity to the Black community, as if to prove their non-racist credentials. In his words, ‘Where have you been over the last 10 years?’

John referenced L’Oreal, who recently put out the statement, ‘L’Oreal stands in solidarity with the Black community, and against injustice of any kind”. On the surface this is of course good, but having recently dropped the face of L’Oreal for speaking out against racism, how do we know its attitudes have fundamentally changed? Putting out a statement is the easy bit; it’s the underlying values and beliefs of individuals and organisations that really matter. John’s view was very much that as a school we need to talk, listen, work together and do something meaningful that leads to real change.

Over the years the school has actively addressed issues surrounding racial inequality, particularly the relative underachievement of our Black pupils. I feel the school has made good progress here, including developing the school curriculum to ensure it is relevant to a modern, multicultural society.

Beyond the National Curriculum, the topic ‘Our Island History’ considers more recent waves of immigration to Britain, with a focus on the experience of the Windrush generation and the racism that was experienced. ‘The Swinging 60s’ topic evaluates the significant social and cultural changes that took place within the decade, with a focus on the politics of race, through a study of Civil Rights. Besides the significant cultural and economic achievements of the Benin Kingdom, the topic ‘Benin’ also considers the colonisation of Africa, the British invasion of Benin City and Benin’s role in the transatlantic slave trade. However, what we endeavour to do within all of our topics is to ensure that Black history and culture are incorporated wherever possible, ensuring positive messages of Black achievement are communicated to all children.

This is of course only a start and there is always more we can do. Most importantly, I feel we are always open to ideas and constructive criticism.

I thought I would finish by quoting Diana Evans from her recent piece in The Guardian, ‘Home schooling has revealed the absence of truth for black children in our schools’:

‘Although lockdown has occasionally seen me weeping at my desk, asking myself how long I will be able to go on being a primary-school teaching assistant, novelist and parent all at the same time, all in the same building, whereas before Covid-19 these roles had been compartmentalised in time and space, home schooling has given me a clearer window on to the terrible limitations of our national curriculum’s coverage of history. It has been two months on the second world war: the blitz, the evacuations, the gas masks, the allies, the axis powers, the rationing. Before that it was the Vikings. The wars of Britain, while overlooking the greatest war of all which never actually ended, which we are seeing now lighting up America and spreading across the world.

My secondary school child fled from history as soon as the opportunity arose after spending the entirety of year 9 on the first and second world wars. I’m not standing for this, she decided, and thereby severed the scholastic link with the past; and it’s a shame. History has so much potential for making us sturdy within ourselves, for unveiling both magnificence and guiding truths. It’s supposed to tell us who we are and therefore who we could be and also who we should not be. But the absence of truth in particular for black children in our schools, the presence of manipulated and selective truth instead, is a detriment to their arrival at wholeness and to meaningful sociopolitical progression, and lockdown has offered an opportunity to contravene that.

I said to my child, Listen, today we’re going to blitz the blitz and look at something else. He was saddened yet inspired by the story of Rosa Parks. We have been exploring the slave trade, Christopher Columbus and the meaning of colonisation, the bloodthirsty greed of the British empire, Jamaican independence, Nelson Mandela, the indigenous tribes of the Caribbean islands and the kingdom of Benin. Such study is, of course, an ever-present, ongoing project for parents of black and brown children, but this Covid-19 sidestep into the classroom has allowed it more structure and expanse.

I did not really understand a significant part of who I was and therefore who I could be until I learned the history of western exploitation and the subjugation of black, the careful arrangement of inequality in which we live. It’s a painful teaching that racism is everywhere, like sky. It seems to pose a threat to the innocence of children, but at the same time it is a building of strength, empathy and knowing, their courage to protect and protest, to stand up for others from whose suffering they have benefited, and to understand how that injustice happened in the first place. Real change is in widespread white self-knowledge, compassion and the sacrificing of privilege. The young, whatever their hue, must know this.

So that’s what I’ll miss most. More control over the deliverance of truth. The clearer skies were nice too, but the sky is never really clear.’

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/jun/13/overcoming-fears-discovering-nature-what-i-have-learned-from-lockdown

William