Diversity

How diversifying our curriculum made English engaging again

There’s no reason for any school to miss out on the joyful results – for pupils and staff – of bringing in extraordinary new texts, says Joy Mbakwe

There’s no reason for any school to miss out on the joyful results – for pupils and staff – of bringing in extraordinary new texts, says Joy Mbakwe

7 May 2023, 5:00

I remember it clearly. I was 16 and found myself in a grammar school where I was deemed a minority. It didn’t seem to matter how high my grades were; I was consistently predicted lower outcomes than my white counterparts. It was a violent introduction to how the world perceived me, which inevitably led to me questioning the legitimacy of my presence in the classroom.

In my NQT year, I continuously felt like I needed to prove myself worthy of the label ‘teacher’. I worked harder than my peers, arriving at school as early as 6.30am. I didn’t want to be seen as inferior, though it happened many times. I often questioned the legitimacy of my voice; whether I should speak and then, if so, how loudly?

Years have passed since. I have been deputy head of English, head of English and I’m now an assistant headteacher on a mission not only to ensure all pupils believe they deserve to be heard but to create a curriculum that represents them.

Decolonisation was and always will be at the heart of my vision and the rich, diverse English curriculum at my school speaks to the necessity of representation and diversity. When I was head of English, I decided to rewrite the key stage 4 curriculum to ensure, where possible, that it reflected our students. I facilitated training and ensured each member of my team was on their own personal journey towards anti-racism. By taking intentional and incremental steps, my vision started to come to life.

As a department, we became passionate about the need for inclusion. Key stage 3 leads were appointed on the basis that they would create a curriculum that was diverse and fresh, one that inspired students to become avid readers and writers. Over time, and with effort from everyone in the team, we were rewarded.

It won’t just change your classroom, it will change you

So I feel genuinely disheartened when I read statistics like those in Pearson’s 2022 School Report, which showed that only one in 10 teachers (11 per cent) see lack of diversity and representation as a barrier to pupil learning. I can honestly say that after all our work, when our students started saying ‘English isn’t that bad’, it felt like it was my greatest achievement. Requiring students to read is hard work, and to write, even harder. When our students started speaking favourably about English, the work we have done and our clear anti-racist intent, it filled my heart with pride.

Things must continue to change. Government needs to do more and Ofsted should see that diversity is paramount to a successful curriculum. Until that is the case, I fear steps will only be taken by a few schools like mine who realise that this work is imperative. English departments across the country are missing out on that joyful feeling of success while students are missing out on studying some extraordinary texts and exploring and understanding different viewpoints and opinions.

Of course, changing texts is not easy. It takes time to learn them and create teaching resources. But exam boards are introducing more diverse texts and whole new GCSE specifications, and there are free initiatives out there to help you. Besides, nobody expects overnight transformation.

Start the slow, incremental work of diversifying your curriculum now and I assure you: The work you do won’t just change the classroom, it will change you. There will be difficult moments and challenging conversations, but these are necessary for the classroom and society. How else will we ever find ourselves in a world where people no longer need to fight for the right to be seen and heard?

We have an opportunity and a privilege to be part of change, so that the teachers of tomorrow no longer have to justify the necessity of a representative curriculum and their pupils never have to suffer the pain of questioning their legitimate place in the classroom. To deliver that, our discomfort will be worth it.

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