Why our pupils need diverse representation throughout their school curriculum to prepare them for today’s modern world, from Sheetal Smith.

When I reflect on my own school years, I can’t remember a time when I was inspired by or immersed in a class novel. Whilst studying English literature, I didn’t feel connected to the texts I was reading. As a child (and as an adult) I’ve always been interested in real-life events – historical moments, world-wide achievements, scientific discoveries – but I completed Primary education reading fiction books with white characters, written by white authors.

In 1997, when Kalpana Chawla became the first woman of Indian origin to go into space, she became one of the most inspirational women to ethnic minorities, but there was no discussion about this in my school. How amazing would it have been if my teachers had shared this historical moment with the diverse group of pupils sitting right in front of them? We would have related. We would have seen ‘us.’ It would have created an environment where we believed we could achieve so greatly – just like her. Instead, around the same time, I finished secondary education still only knowing about fiction books with white characters, written by white authors.

There was a lack of representation in the curriculum then and, twenty years on, it is still the case in most educational settings. Many schools agree that more can be done to support the demand for greater diversity in the curriculum, but change is yet to come.

As educators, it is important to help pupils recognise, understand and celebrate the multicultural society we all live in. Diverse representation is crucial to future generations for two reasons: inclusion and perception. If pupils can see themselves exemplified, they feel like they belong in society. It reinforces positive views and achieves a sense of equality. Pupils have high aspirations and they understand, accept, and respect the values and beliefs of others. It is our responsibility to contribute to ensuring they become good British citizens. We need our future generations to accept and celebrate differences. With constant inaccurate portrayals of ethnic groups in the media, discrimination and harassment continues to rise and members of the community sense these inequalities.

Representation in novels

In my years as an English leader, I have seen first-hand that promoting a reading experience which reflects the world around us has contributed to pupils having a deeper understanding of society. Ensuring diverse representation in novels with in-depth dialogue in the classroom has been the driving factor for positive change and ensuring pupils are truly prepared for life in modern Britain. Accurate representation in texts has also contributed to high standards of behaviour, an improvement in pupil outcomes and closing the attainment gap between boys and girls in reading and writing.

Greater representation in the curriculum does not mean forgetting what we currently do. As a Year 6 teacher, you will always find ‘Good Night, Mr Tom’ by Michelle Magorian, ‘Street Child’ by Berlie Coherty, ‘Skellig’ by David Almond and other common key texts being studied in my classroom.

What we need to see is a space created in which women, Black, Asian and other ethnic minority writers can co-exist alongside white and male counterparts. Teaching through stories gives opportunities for pupils to develop empathy and understand the power of language. We constantly promote a reading culture in schools, but what if you never come across a book that represents you or reflects your life, culture and background? What if you are a Black child and the closest representation appears to be the transatlantic slave trade? Why is it in some schools, the achievements of some of the under-represented groups do not exist? Why only wait for Black History Month?

Mrs Smith’s book recommendations for KS2 (7-11-year-olds)

  1. Pig-Heart Boy by Marlorie Blackman
  2. One Thousand and One Arabian Nights by Geraldine McCaughrean
  3. Windrush Child by Benjamin Zephaniah
  4. The Proudest Blue by Ibtijaj Muhammad and S.K. Ali
  5. Mohinder’s War by Bali Rai
  6. Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World by Rachel Ignotofsky
  7. Wonder by R.J. Palacio
  8. Iqbal and His Ingenious Idea: How a Science Project Helps One Family and the Planet by Elizabeth Suneby
  9. I’m not a label: 34 disabled artists, thinkers, athletes, and activists from past and present by Cerrie Burnell
  10. Amazing Muslims Who Changed the World by Bushrana Islam

Diverse curriculum

Pupils from all backgrounds need to be exposed to accurate representation in books, as it helps them to understand the world around them through the eyes of someone else. If a school community is populated with white British pupils, having a diverse curriculum should not be ignored. They also need to develop an understanding of modern Britain. It has always been important for pupils to learn how to embrace diversity; have an awareness of religions, traditions and cultural heritage; learn how to respect values, ideas and beliefs of others, whilst not imposing their own. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always happen; it depends on whether individuals – especially leaders – see the bigger picture. When there is a sound understanding, pupils are ready for today’s world.

When there is a deep understanding, we drive positive change.

SMSC

Discussion through carefully selected texts contributes to the development of SMSC (spiritual, moral, social and cultural development). Books in English literature, PSHE lessons and many other subjects and resources can help students become well-rounded citizens. Pupils have further opportunities to explore feelings and values; recognise what is right and wrong; respect the law and consequences; resolve conflict and, of course, respect and celebrate diversity.

Religious Education

Good Religious Education (RE) subject knowledge also equips pupils for a diverse society. Developing an understanding of different faiths and beliefs promotes respect and empathy. Displaying books about religion for pupils to browse also helps them to develop their understanding. The use of stories can engage and connect pupils with differing world views. Too often, inadequate time is given to RE. Time and time again, I have entered Year 6 classrooms with pupils knowing very little about world religions and beliefs.

Author’s message

Studying literature anchors pupils’ perceptions of how they fit into society. It also promotes positive change by providing positive reinforcement. Studying one book with a Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic character or author once in a couple of years is not enough. Diverse representation needs to be interwoven throughout the curriculum for bigger and better change for future generations.

Step back, look at your books:

  • Do they represent and reflect today’s society?
  • Do they contribute to discussions around race, religion and beliefs?
  • Do they develop empathy?
  • Do they contribute to the development of SMSC?
  • Are there opportunities for in-depth discussions for pupils to view the world from different perspectives?

If you are fortunate to be around professionals who see the bigger picture, successful implementation occurs and the entire school community thrives. If not, we continue to live in a world where inequalities exist and individuals are abused and harassed due to
the colour of their skin.

Representation matters – it has always mattered, so why are we still living in a world with so many inequalities?

Author

  • Sheetal Smith

    Sheetal is an experienced senior leader in the primary education sector. Having had a range of leadership roles and completing a number of middle leadership programmes in inner-London schools, she is now at the beginning of her NPQH journey. She has been responsible for many curriculum areas, including English, RSE and assessment and is currently leading Key Stage Two.
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