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What’s it like being a black pupil in a primary school?

May 5, 2022, 8:42 GMT+1
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What’s it like being a black pupil in a primary school?

Over the last two years there are two key events that we’ve had to contend with as headteachers which, when we applied for the role, might not have crossed our minds.

The first was the pandemic. The other was the impact the murder of George Floyd had on people all over the world. 

As someone from an African Caribbean background, the latter event heralded the start of a long-awaited change. Finally, the issue of race, ethnicity and what it meant to be a black person was brought to the fore and it was ok to talk about my blackness without feeling as if I was looking for sympathy. 

Conversations were taking place which had never happened before, and educators were having to reflect on what these issues meant to the children who attended their schools. 

Using popular culture

One of the things I did to start the conversation at my school, was show the dance Diversity performed on Britain’s Got Talent. It was watched by children in Years 2 to 6 and discussed in ways that enabled the children to express their opinions in a safe space. 

As school leaders we need to ensure we are paving the way to championing cultural representation and appreciation in our schools. If we are not willing to have these conversations, it makes it much harder for our staff to feel free to do so.

Among colleagues, we began having conversations about race and my black members of staff shared their experiences of what it’s like to be black in a society where they are viewed as the minority. 

White colleagues found it hard to be believe that experiences, such as being followed around a shop by a security guard because they suspected you were about to steal something, or having to tell their sons not to walk in groups with their friends, were not just urban myths.

They didn’t think they were things that happened in real life. But they do; and within your schools there may be staff who also have many such experiences to share. 

They were conversations that none of us had had before, but we needed to discuss what it is like being black and what that meant.

As adults, we felt we had permission to do that, and it was also an opportunity for the children to do so, too. 

Seeing colour

We tend to believe that ‘children don’t see colour’, but this isn’t strictly true. Black children know they’re not white. They know because it’s all around them.

The books they have in class which have characters with long blonde hair and blue eyes.

The dolls in the early years’ classrooms are white. The images in the textbooks are mostly of white children. To cap it all off, most of the teaching staff and senior leaders in primary schools are white. 

Within the teaching profession, black teachers and senior leaders are still very much in the minority. According to the 2019 Workforce Census, in the UK 1.1% of all class teachers were black African and 1.1% were black Caribbean.

Only 0.2% of headteachers were black African and 0.7% were black Caribbean. To put it in to actual figures, there were 200 black Caribbean headteachers compared to 19,500 who were white. 

Even in inner city schools, where the make-up of a school could be 95% black Caribbean or black African, the majority of teachers are still white and middle class and very often have not grown up in the area in which they teach.

This may not seem like a big deal. However, when we delve deeper, the question that leaders should be considering is how can a teacher relate to someone with a different ethnicity and cultural identity than their own if they have no clear frame of reference to draw upon?

How prepared is the white teacher who has spent their childhood and teens in an all-white environment, for teaching in an inner-city school where the largest ethnic group may be black African, black Caribbean or Asian. 

What’s in a name?

As school leaders, we must ensure the teachers we employ are prepared. This includes encouraging them to take the time to learn unfamiliar names.

The names of children from some African countries may be more challenging to pronounce than Jenny or Alan, but they’re probably no more difficult to pronounce than Tchaikovsky or Vygotsky.

However, for some reason, it is deemed acceptable to shorten or, in some cases, change a child’s name simply because ‘it’s easier’. 

In a primary setting, this is often something children just have to accept, because that’s what the teacher has decided. After all, a seven-year-old is hardly going to complain. 

Cultural diversity

It’s also important to build staff awareness of cultural differences. For example, in some cultures children are not supposed to look their elders in the eye as it’s considered disrespectful. But this is insisted upon in school because otherwise you’re seen as being rude.

What a dilemma children find themselves in. Whose rules do they follow? It’s not easy to adapt their behaviour for home and school, but they are often forced to. 

Building your staff’s awareness of the impact activities children engage in whilst not in school is another important factor in understanding black culture.

When a child is tired or overactive on Monday morning, the assumption shouldn’t be that it’s because they’ve been up all night playing on their iPad.

For some black children the reality is that they’ve spent most of Sunday in church, and the second service was a prayer vigil which didn’t end until 11pm.

At which point their parents helped to pack away the chairs so that the hall that their church rents each week is left in a reasonable state. 

It’s important for staff to understand the cultural context of the children they teach in order to ensure they’re not putting them at an undue disadvantage. 

Parental experience of school

Another factor for school leaders to consider is parents’ own experience of school. Many second-generation parents from the West Indies or from Africa would have had a very different school experience, such as much stricter discipline.

As such, they sometimes find it difficult to understand why their child behaves a certain way in school and may question the ability of the school to yield what they consider to be an appropriate level of discipline.

When they were at school, they wouldn’t have dreamed of talking back to the class teacher or not completing their work to a high standard; the repercussions would be too great. 

Providing parents with a clear understanding of how the UK school system works, and building your knowledge of parents’ personal experiences, can help you and your staff to engage with them. 

As leaders we need to ensure all children are given opportunities to talk about their cultural identities and to see those cultures represented in a positive way.

We cannot allow our lack of understanding of particular cultures and ethnicities prevent us from ensuring all children feel valued, seen and heard.

Amanda Wilson is headteacher of St Alfege with St Peter’s CofE Primary school, London