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Decolonise your curriculum

January 9, 2023, 12:17 GMT+1
Read in 8 minutes
  • Jeremy Hannay’s school threw out its antiquated resources to create teaching and learning that reflects the needs of pupils and staff
Decolonise your curriculum

Life hacks often equate to tiny paradigm shifts - seeing something you had considered to be one way in a new light, leading to growth and change. The late Steven Covey had a great quote about this: “We think we see the world as it is, when in fact we see the world as we are.”  The journey we have taken at Three Bridges with our curriculum started with a simple observation: there was a lack of diversity and inclusion in the literature we were using in lessons.  However, what started out as a simple idea ended up creating a wave of change in the way we see, think, act and design – things we might never otherwise have considered.

Rejuvenating an antiquated curriculum

When I started working at Three Bridges in 2012, we had a pretty standard curriculum.  We followed the old national literacy and numeracy strategies for the most part, as there was some ‘gray space’ between its abandonment at the turn of the decade and the national curriculum from 2014. We had a library filled with books that were older than the staff, and planning schemes and resources were ‘adapted’ each year.

Our teaching team was largely young, white and female. In books, children were exposed to white families, white male lead characters and white authors. It was an antiquated curriculum, with no leading women, no people of colour, and a heteronormative narrative throughout. We didn’t discuss neurodiversity or disability. If you were a white, middle-class, straight, neurotypical boy - our curriculum told you, explicitly and implicitly, that your future was limitless. If you were anyone else, you had to assume we were talking about you, too.

A global and inclusive curriculum

In 2018, we started to look at our curriculum more intentionally - both that which was explicit and which was hidden or implied. We wanted a curriculum that was global, multi-ethnic, and inclusive. But where do you start?

I am not an expert in curriculum design, nor in inclusivity, globality or multi-ethnicity. We needed a consultant, better resources and partners. It takes a village to raise a child, and it also takes one to build an incredible curriculum. We asked parents, the children, governors and staff two big questions, that were thematically analysed:

- What are our aspirations, hopes, dreams for our young people now and in the future?
- What knowledge, skills and habits of mind do they need to uncover this?

It ignited the discussion and helped school leaders narrow down the thoughts of stakeholders.

Questioning biases

We partnered with an incredible consultant, Karen Brooke from Oshun Education, who helped us begin telling stories of black British history and question our own biases in lesson, unit and curriculum design. She led whole staff training on black history and bias, while supporting our conversation as a staff team about what our curriculum should look like. Karen helped teachers to plan and resource diverse, multi-ethnic and inclusive units of work using existing schemes as a starting point. She provided the content shifts, leaving teachers to plan, sequence and deliver.

We discovered the amazing work of Lyfta, an online platform that provides teachers and children entry into the worlds and lives of people from around the globe. The story worlds are creative and counter-intuitive, often providing a narrative that challenges our assumptions about others. We changed our books, too, moving from exclusively white male characters to a lens that includes a range of inclusive factors in authors, narratives and diversities. When people see themselves within a curriculum, what they see needs to be great.

However, what we came to realise was the importance and necessity of alignment. Our hidden curriculum - that which is implicit and implied - also needed attention. This included a number of domains: who we are, how we interact with children and parents, how we engage with children in the presence of content, and what we prioritise.

These changes do not happen overnight, and must be carefully considered and woven into the fabric of your school. For Three Bridges, this journey is ongoing. Making quick shifts is possible but changing a curriculum is an organic process. We looked at subjects together, in teams, rather than creating subject leaders. This gave everyone ownership and in-depth knowledge of where we were going. We invited other schools to join us and learned together.

Needing to feel seen and heard

It was important to us that we made space for people, their ideas and their voices. We started to prioritise the recruitment and retention of a diverse range of staff. It’s wonderful to have adjusted your content, but if the people standing at the front of the room all look the same, and do not reflect the world in which we live, that says something. Our website now encourages applications from diverse backgrounds and this has been reflected in our recruitment over the past two years.

We have to live and believe in what we teach. Children can see through tokenism and it is as damaging as neglect. Anything we want for our pupils must also exist for our staff.  If we had any hope of teaching social justice – and if we wanted a dialogic pedagogy - then they had to feel free to speak up against injustice or mistakes, and that their voices were solicited, heard and acted upon. The magic we wanted in our classrooms had to exist in the staffroom.

Curriculum is both what is in the books and on the walls but, more importantly, what is in our hearts.  Ensuring everything is aligned cannot be overstated.

What we learned

  • Our curriculum was historically shaped for white males. If you were a white boy in the school, you saw yourself everywhere and in everything. Everyone else had to use their imagination
  • Change is possible and resources are out there, but it takes some dedicated time, work and effort to fit it all together
  • It’s helpful to bring in outside partners who bring new and different perspectives and ideas
  • Giving everyone ownership of the process meant all voices and opinions were heard and considered
  • The school’s implicit curriculum must also evolve, otherwise the explicit one will not be effective. This includes looking at the ethnic make-up of the teaching staff
  • Curriculum change is nuanced, challenging and a never-ending journey, and must be constantly reviewed - but it is worth the effort
  • The process of redrafting the curriculum unexpectedly became something much bigger and better, and has reaped positive effects across the whole school
  • We now see the school differently because it is different and has changed for the better
  • Key outcomes

    • Our curriculum is global, multi-ethnic and inclusive
    • Staff are engaging in deeper conversations about what they are doing and why
    • Curriculum leadership as a collective is more powerful than individual curriculum leaders
    • Dr Jeremy Hannay is the headteacher of Three Bridges Primary School in Southall.