7 tips to help secondary schools diversify the curriculum

7 tips to help secondary schools diversify the curriculum

By Ndah Mbawa, Happier Every Chapter

For years and years, the secondary curriculum in the UK has suffered criticism for being lacking in representation of the UK’s population today. According to Demie and Harris (2019, 2020), “the British school curriculum focuses on British culture and history and ignores ethnic minorities in the curriculum”. This status quo is hardly helped by the fact that the curriculum is also condemned for being too narrow; not having enough breadth and balance. This narrowing of the curriculum takes the form of education providers cutting non-core subjects from the curriculum putting areas of study like humanities in crisis.  There is no denying that a lack of representation, diversity and inclusivity in the curriculum can have a profound impact on students whether they be from minority backgrounds or not.For the former cohort, a lack of representation can slowly suffocate their right to a dignified acknowledgement of their existence and undermines the basic human need to be understood, celebrated and to thrive in a way that it authentic to who they are. For the latter, their understanding of different cultures and perspectives risks being limited and this can perpetuate inequalities and the systemic barriers which could lead to the manifestation of some harmful stereotypes.

Even though the 2010 Equality Act offers students some protection from discrimination, secondary schools currently have no obligation to ensure that curricula are representative of the student body. One despairs because, by not adopting a moral obligation to be intentionally inclusive, educators miss a huge opportunity to boost outcomes and engagement by leveraging the moral authority they would have earned. Today, many secondary school English literature lessons remain intrinsically eurocentric, androcentric, heteronormative, cis, able-bodied, European, and white. Change is happening but isn’t helped by frequently changing goal posts in terms of government interventions and the narrowing of the curriculum.

In recent years, there have been calls for wider reform to the secondary curriculum to challenge stereotypes and biases that students or educators may hold, expose them to diverse perspectives and experiences, broaden their global outlook and help them to develop empathy and respect for others. Not only that, representation of histories, cultures, and contributions of marginalised groups in the curriculum can help to address issues of social justice and equity. It should not be a one-time thing like Black History Month, Chinese New Year or Pride Month. With any effort to improve diversity and inclusion in the curriculum, consistency is key. Time too is of the essence here. It’s a little-known fact that children start to form biases like racial bias much earlier than we think. For instance, from as early as 3 - 6 months, a baby's brain can notice racial differences in the people around them. By the time they are two, most children have soaked up stereotypes about race and may express these  in one way or another. By four, children can directly express race-based prejudice or bias by teasing. And, by age 12, many children become set in biased thoughts, actions, and decisions. By this point, for those children who go into university, they are almost a third of the way into the school-to-workplace pipeline. When you consider that these are the next generation of policewomen/men, judges, lawyers, politicians, teachers and doctors, it really brings home the urgency of the need to diversify the curriculum. Here are some ways that this can be achieved:


  1. There is beauty in diverse literature, explore it.

Incorporating literature from diverse authors and cultures into the curriculum or celebrations like World Book Day has got to be one of the most impactful ways of achieving this reform. By teaching literary works by writers of varying ethnic backgrounds, students get to understand different cultures, perspectives, and experiences, and develop empathy and understanding for others. Consider the work of Chinua Achebe in “Things Fall Apart” as a fantastic resource for exploring the impact of colonialism on Africa. More recently, the plethora of brilliant and contemporary work by writers like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and poets like Rumi and Hafiz will give an appreciation of the diversity of archetypes, forms of dialogue and literary traditions. Not only would these expose students to different cultures and perspectives, but it would also allow them to explore different genres and time periods. Students from these backgrounds in turn can use this exposure to develop a sense of self-awareness and explore their own identities and experiences, including those related to culture, race, and ethnicity.


  1. It’s worth remembering that history wasn’t only created by folk from a monolithic background.

Largely, the history curriculum in the UK is eurocentric and often neglects the contributions of other communities, cultures and civilizations; a process which serves to devalue and/or dehumanize these communities. Teach diverse history to offer students a more nuanced understanding of the past and its impact on the present. In my daughter’s school, I was encouraged to hear her year 8 class was asked to do a project on the contribution of the Askaris (African soldiers mainly from Tanzania, Burundi & Rwanda) during World War 1 when Commander Lettow-Vorbeck led a small army (11000 Askaris and 3000 Germans) in German East Africa against the Allied Troops in the battle of Tanga. A thought for when the next Remembrance Day celebration comes along.

Centre the contributions like that of the Windrush generation and generations of Indian descent as part of the History curriculum for a more authentic representation of how other communities contributed to the Great Britain of today.

History lessons would not be whole without the inclusion of contributions by people with other protected characteristics. The work of disabled trailblazers such as Ralph Brauna and Sir Richard Hawkins in mobility devices and physics respectively cannot be ignored. Additionally, lessons highlighting the work of inventors and innovators within the LGBTQ community like Alan Turing who was vital to WWII code cracking success, Tim Cook Apple CEO and Sally Ride, the first American woman to go to space are just a few to name. Worthy of note are also neurodivergent (dyslexic) innovators like Henry Ford, Richard Branson.


  1. Promote cultural exchange and engage with local community groups

Cultural exchange programmes can be impactful by bringing students from different backgrounds together to learn about each other's cultures, traditions, and beliefs. PHSE lessons present an ideal opportunity for this. Invite speakers from diverse backgrounds or local minority ethnic community groups to talk about their experiences living in the UK and/or abroad. Having discussions on diverse issues such as racial justice, gender equality, and LGBTQ+ rights, will provide students with the tools to engage in dialogue and be inspired to promote social justice. Exposing students to perspectives on mental health and wellbeing are good opportunities to show that while different in some ways, in a lot of ways  our experiences are shared by others. Schools that for example teach mindfulness practices from different cultures or explore how different communities approach mental health can help students to understand the diversity of human experience. Food tech can also be a practical way of engaging other community groups. If instead of going to Waitrose or Asda to buy ingredients for a pasta bake recipe for a food lesson, students had to go to a local Afro-Caribbean shop to buy ingredients for an ackee and saltfish dish, not only would that be of economic good to a local business, it would also signpost the school as being intentionally inclusive and educate some students who might have otherwise never visited an Afro-Caribbean shop.


  1. Invest in high impact diversity, inclusion and anti-racist training for teachers

Despite the vital role that teachers have in championing the diversity of the curriculum, they often lack the necessary training and resources to effectively teach a diverse range of subjects or infuse diversity and racial literacy into what and how they teach. This often leaves their toolkit devoid of ways to tackle (un)conscious bias, microaggressions or even direct racism. From the senior leadership team to every school staff member, there needs to be a commitment to being intentionally inclusive. The ethos and mindset that “The power of we starts with me” can motivate teachers to take small steps of their own to bring diversity into their daily lessons. Teaching maths for instance in a way that emphasizes its practical applications in diverse fields, such as medicine, engineering, and economics or getting students to learn about the work of mathematicians from diverse backgrounds such as NASA’s Katherine Johnson are good examples. Simple tactics like having wall displays infused with diversity, the use of diverse images and scenarios in maths problems (e.g. money from different countries) to make it more relatable to students from different backgrounds could prove useful in developing better engagement and a more global perspective on maths.


  1. Recruiting and retaining teachers from diverse backgrounds

In a nation where 34.5% of primary age children are from minority ethnic backgrounds, it is shocking to see that 96% of headteachers in the UK are white and mostly male. According to research by UCL, IoE, in 2020, 46% of all schools in England had no Black, Asian or ethnic minority teachers and 25% have no Black, Asian or Ethnic minority staff at all. I really felt the impact of this last year during a conversation with our then seven-year-old daughter. Back home from school one day, she piped up “Mum, we have a new teacher!” Me, “Really! what are they called?” K, “She’s brown”. Now she had my attention. K goes to a small, predominantly white village school. A fantastic school that the girls absolutely love but this was news! I didn’t bother pursuing the lack of a name for a minute, I was completely taken with excitement. “Oh wow! That’s incredible, oh my goodness!”. My delight didn’t last long…she burst out laughing. “You really believed me mum!” she cackled. I haven’t been that sad for a long time. I thought to myself, she’s right, the joke is on me but even worse was the fact that a seven year old thought this idea was a joke. We can’t be what we can’t see thus it would be hugely beneficial to design recruitment retention strategies that bring reform to the diversity of the teaching workforce. Schools who form relationships with communities and teacher training programmes tend to have a more diverse teaching staff especially where these programmes offer alternative routes to enter the teaching profession. Championing career progression of these teachers alongside authentic allyship can also prove to be a solid retention strategic.


6.                Encouraging student participation and leveraging the student voice

Encouraging participation and (within reason) allowing students to choose the topics they want to study or encouraging them to share their own experiences and perspectives can be very enlightening for educators. It keeps them in touch with what’s going on in the students’ world and informs them on potential ways to tailor their teaching approach and creates a more inclusive learning environment.


  1. Continuously addressing biases and stereotypes whilst applying inclusivity across the board

Not all representation is good representation. When it comes to building an inclusive curriculum, the strategy must set out to create a culture which supports the continuous learning and unlearning that needs to happen to effectively challenge and eradicate negative stereotypes and biases. Without that, the strategy could end up being performative and culture will eat it for breakfast. Care must be taken to identify harmful stereotypes in textbooks and teaching materials and steps taken to eliminate these resources from book collections and libraries. A library diversity audit is a good way to go about this. It is imperative to promote positive representations of different cultures and communities by curating and procuring good quality, relevant and engaging literature. Consider ways in which procurement of sports accessories like swimming hats can communicate inclusion. If your school sells swimming hats, consider checking if extra large swimming hats are on sale to accommodate students with braids or locs. 

It has been said that the illiterate of the 21st century are not only those who are unable to read and write, but also those who are unable to unlearn and relearn. We must commit to do better and bring education to the 21st century. Being inclusive is our collective responsibility. Consider for a moment the outcome in terms of a sense of belonging amongst staff and students if every member of the teaching staff and leadership team thought and acted like you? You soon realise that the power of “we” in our collective effort truly starts with “me” in the individual effort. As clichéd as it might be, it is true that we should be the change we want to see in the world.


If your school would like support in the curation and procurement of diverse and inclusive books, then reach out to us on hello@happiereverychapter.com or +44 7949 820 944. At Happier Every Chapter, we help schools and families across the UK improve reading attainment and diversity awareness through library diversity audits as well as monthly boxes and bundles of expertly curated diverse, inclusive and representative bestsellers. 

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