'The impact of Black Lives Matter can clearly be seen' - Edinburgh schools racism report calls for 'decolonisation' of the curriculum

A council report into racism in capital schools has called for the ‘decolonisation’ of the curriculum - including having classroom discussions about works that contain racism, such as the Great Gatsby or To Kill A Mockingbird.

Wednesday, 3rd March 2021, 4:45 pm
Controversial: The Great Gatsby

Following complaints from pupils at five of its schools, Edinburgh City Council commissioned a report investigating reports of racism within its schools.

Some of the allegations of racist abuse include pupils being called ‘monkeys’ and ‘slaves’, and being told to ‘go home’ by racist students, and that racial stereotypes were perpetuated by staff using words like ‘gang’ or ‘tribe’ to refer to groups of BAME students.

In one school, pupils alleged that the use of the N-word was tolerated by staff.

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'Historical context' - Tory councillor Callum Laidlaw

Several teachers across the capital’s schools have been implicated by the report, and management reviews are said to be ongoing, although no disciplinary action has been taken.

The report stopped shy of finding that a ‘culture of racism’ exists within capital schools, however, it did highlight the need to ‘decolonise the curriculum’, particularly in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and the national debate around celebrating historical figures with ties to slavery and colonialism.

The report, presented at a meeting of the council’s education committee on Tuesday March 2, reads: “A small number of complaints highlighted the use of certain resources to teachaspects of the curriculum.

“While there are reasons to continue to use certain texts, e.g. To Kill a Mockingbird, all staff should approach these sensitively and be mindful of the offence that can be caused by adopting a viewpoint which is not inclusive.

Controversial classic by Harper Lee

“Schools should have a clear rationale for making use of outdated resources to teach contemporary issues, for example to teach about historical attitudes, bias and develop students’ critical literacy.

“As is the case with statues and other legacies of slavery and colonialism, strong and effective teaching points can be made, but only when done with considerable care.

“All schools provided several examples where racism and rights are covered across the curriculum. These include literacy, history and modern studies.

“The impact of Black Lives Matter can clearly be seen on the level of awareness and interest in anti-racism of almost all of the pupils interviewed.

“Their understanding of racism has raised expectations of how the curriculum is taught.

“Tension exists where the curriculum does not develop to reflect changes in society or where pupil voice is not sufficiently developed such that it informs the curriculum rationale.”

At the meeting, Portobello and Craigmillar councillor Callum Laidlaw, Conservatives, said the issue of teaching historical context should be separated out from the investigation into racist incidents.

Councillor Laidlaw said: “This report was commissioned to deal with some very serious and distressing allegations of racist incidents and I appreciate that the details of those specific circumstances can’t be gone into publicly, but reading it and hearing about it I have a concern that addressing those specific and absolute issues has been muddled somewhat with a bigger piece - which having read it I’m not sure if it should sit separately, particularly around the curriculum.

“The issue around the decolonisation of the curriculum, some of those matters are controversial - such as whether or not the Great Gatsby should take better account of other demographics.

“My fear with this is that it gets into a different debate - a debate that should be had but not in the same piece as addressing how we deal with racist actions and racist reporting in our schools.

“My concern is that if we bring these two things together we have a situation where those young people who have experienced racism and are reporting it have become embroiled in a debate a bit different - the decolonisation of the curriculum is something that will be discussed but it is a different area, and I feel slightly uncomfortable going forward.”

Council officer Lorna French, who led the investigation, said: “It’s important first of all to be clear that most of the issues that were brought forward related to pupil’s perception of racist conduct not being dealt with, not that there was a culture of teachers being racist.

“But there were incidents of a lack of sensitivity when teaching the curriculum, which led to racist incidents taking place and that is the part of the issue which does connect to decolonising the curriculum.

“So any teacher, not necessarily the Great Gatsby example, but another novel where the N-word is used, and when that is taught teachers can choose to put the context around it so that people understand racism at that time and racism now or they can skip pass that - depending on the approach taken racist incident can occur.”

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