Words by Abi Scaife
School is a tricky thing. Learning is fun, and so is seeing your friends, but the actual school part can be frustrating.
Part of the problem is that the content of the curriculum doesn’t always match up to what we want it to be. Whether that’s because your brain doesn’t work well with maths, or because you have trouble memorising all those dates in history - there are so many reasons the curriculum doesn’t work for everyone.
The bigger problem is that at the moment, the curriculum is missing out a huge chunk of people in the UK. In particular, the history and works of people of ethnic minorities and LGBTQIA+ people are still forgotten about and are missing from the school curriculums.
“Charles Dickens is, I'm sure, a very lovely writer; Shakespeare, too,” this is Mallika Khan, a Project Worker at Integrate UK. “But as well, if we read stories about different people's experiences, that would give us [more] understanding. It would be a fresh take on things.”
Mallika previously joined our panel for our Speak Up! By Smiley Movement when we discussed ‘Seeking Gender Equality Within Diversity’, and we recently caught up with them to talk about Integrate UK’s recent campaign.
“We have two big demands. One is that we want exam boards to set texts that represent Britain's student cohort, all the way up to the exam level,” says Mallika. “Two, we want schools and exam boards to update their syllabus to include not just the sacrifices made by people of colour, but also the positive contributions and impact that people of colour have made.”
This is an important distinction - right now, children across the UK might be learning about slavery, but there are so many other things they could be learning about too - both close to home, and around the world. Things like how the Windrush generation helped to rebuild a post-war Britain, and the many incredible monarchs, heroes, and histories of cultures all over the world.
“We don't want it to be tokenistic - we want it taken up to exam level making it mandatory for people to understand different aspects of British history, or artists of colour or feminist writers, queer writers. We want it to be as inclusive as possible.”
36% of students across the UK are part of an ethnic minority - and right now, they simply aren’t being represented in the curriculum. The work they are doing in, the people and events they are studying, don’t accurately represent them, their cultures, or their collective pasts.
“A lot of it is an enriched education, but also just giving people a positive sense of identity and viewing their history as a great thing,” explains Mallika. “It's not just traumatic - there's also stuff to celebrate.”
“You can see in the conflict going on all around us, that we need to have more understanding and empathy and support for each other. I think that starts with our curriculum - if we have a better understanding of the world, we can treat each other with a bit more dignity and respect.”
Over the course of our discussion, we realised the curriculum has changed very little since we were at school - some ten years ago, now. That feels like enough of a problem in itself that something has to change - the world is moving on, so why isn’t school?
“If we have so many people writing to this day, why can't we update it a little bit?” asks Mallika. “There are a lot more writers with different points of view that we could be addressing. The classics are great, don't get me wrong, but I think it's time for us to understand what other people have to offer too.”
Integrate UK is a charity that empowers young people and their creativity to live in an integrated, cohesive and representative society.
“We try and advocate for gender and racial equality where we can - that's our entire mission,” says Mallika. “This would help students to get along with each other, to have more compassion. It would help them just to learn about [more] of the world and the world history and world culture.”
Integrate UK is asking people to sign a petition asking the government to take another look at the national curriculum. The call is echoed by students, teachers, parents, and those who are desperate to see themselves reflected in their learning - and you can join them by signing their petition, here.
“I hope it gives them a sense of belonging and that times are changing. I hope that our campaign helps people to see themselves and their identities as something that's worth celebrating,” finishes Mallika. “Something that's not just this horrible thing with a horrible history. They have such a rich culture and it's worth understanding and it's worth it for other people of different backgrounds to learn about that for them.”
At Smiley Movement, we like to elevate the work of charities across the world. Here are three charities whose causes align with the themes in this article.
Beyond Equality. This charity is disrupting harmful norms and creating possibilities for positive change, working with men and boys towards gender equality. Find out more here.
Race Equality Foundation. A national charity tackling racial equality in public services. Find out more here.
Equally Ours. This is a UK charity that brings together people and organisations working across equality, human rights and social justice to make a reality of these in everyone’s lives. Find out more here.