Black pupils

Black History Month: Breaking barriers in education for better outcomes

26 October 2023

October is Black History Month in the UK – a time to celebrate the historic achievements and contributions of the Black community. For us, it’s also a prime opportunity to take a closer look at the state of education for young Black people and explore ways to make it more fair and inclusive for the future.

Before the pandemic’s disruption to learning, pupils from Black ethnic backgrounds, on average, scored the lowest GCSE pass rates among all major ethnic groups. However, the most recent GCSE results show remarkable progress, as Black students achieved English and math pass rates similar to their peers from other ethnic backgrounds.

How can we ensure this positive trajectory continues to enable even better outcomes for young Black people in education and as they progress into employment or training?

As part of our Black History Month activities at Action Tutoring, our PR, Media and Policy manager, Henry Derben had a thought-provoking chat with Hannah Wilson, co-founder of Diverse Educators, development consultant, coach, and trainer of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion practice. With Hannah’s extensive background in education, including roles such as head of secondary teacher training, executive headteacher, and vice-chair of a trust board, the conversation delved into the critical issue of enhancing educational outcomes for young Black students.

Here are highlights of the dialogue:

Do you think the UK curriculum adequately covers and teaches Black History extensively today?

Many schools are trying to improve, but they are also longstanding gaps. The issue of focusing too much on celebrating Black Americanness during Black History Month often comes up. We tend to emphasize the American civil rights movement and well-known Black figures. But many schools miss the mark by neglecting the rich history of UK Black identities. While it’s encouraging that schools are making more efforts, we should aim for a future where Black culture and identity are integrated throughout the curriculum.

We need to focus on the complexity and intersectionality of Black identities, including Black women, Black queer individuals, and Black disabled people. Our celebration of Black History should be more specific and inclusive.

Referencing a 2020 House of Commons briefing paper, which stated that Black ethnic students had the lowest rate of attaining standard passes in English and math GCSEs among major ethnic groups. What contributed to this performance trajectory?

When we look at the data, it’s clear that there is a performance gap, and it’s not just about grades. It’s also about the career satisfaction and the salary gap that many Black individuals experience. The challenge lies in the lack of representation, diversity, and inclusivity in various sectors, including education and employment. Schools need to be more intentional about who they present as role models to show what is possible. If we want to change these patterns, we need to disrupt the status quo and create a conscious investment in mentoring, coaching, and advocating for individuals to access opportunities that might not have been available to them otherwise.

Representation within the workforce is another key aspect. We need to address the lack of Black representation in leadership positions, not only in schools but also in higher education.

Research has shown that disadvantage starts very early in a child’s life. Children from low-income backgrounds often begin school four and a half months behind their more affluent peers. What can be done in the early years to help break this cycle of disadvantage and ensure that young Black people make progress and catch up?

It’s important to start with the curriculum. The curriculum in the early years should be diverse and inclusive. We need to focus on representation and ensure that Black children see themselves reflected in the materials, stories, and experiences they encounter. However, we need to move beyond simply adding diversity as a “bolt-on.” The representation should be integral to the curriculum, not an afterthought. We also need to consider the intersectionality of identities and recognize the unique experiences of Black children. Ultimately, we must work to dismantle systemic and structural barriers by creating intentional strategies that promote inclusivity.

Black History Month - young pupils

Moving to the primary and secondary levels, are there specific policies that can help address performance inequalities at these stages, beyond tutoring?

It has to start with the curriculum, surely tutoring and mentoring all of those interventions like mediation support mechanisms are so powerful, we know that make up the difference. But what are we actually doing to challenge the root causes? We have to stop softball. We’re often throwing money at the problem, but not actually fixing the problems or doing things differently. We need to revisit and rethink how we structure the school day, who is doing the teaching, what is being taught, and how it’s being taught.

There’s a need for a fundamental disruption in the way we approach education. Schools should think about the intersectionality of identities and be intentional about representation and cultural relevance in their pedagogy. It’s not enough to provide pockets of representation; we must ensure that representation is consistent across the curriculum. We need to address the concrete ceiling that often prevents Black individuals from accessing leadership opportunities. Career guidance, sponsorship, and mentoring should be part of the solution to break these patterns. Collective action is essential to create lasting change.

Shifting our focus to parents and guardians, they play a crucial role in a child’s early years and education. What can parents and guardians do to contribute to positive change within the education system?

Schools need to work more closely with parents and create a partnership based on equity and democracy. Often, schools tell parents what they need to do, and there’s an imbalance in the power dynamic. We need to involve parents in the decision-making process and truly listen to their voices and perspectives. Thinking about how we work with parents and create a true partnership and collaboration. That to me, is what some schools perhaps need to revisit – their kind of plans, commitment, or the ways they work with different stakeholders. Engaging parents more closely is definitely a way of helping them get involved in schools so they’re part of that change cycle.

Finally, in the context of Black History Month and improving outcomes for young Black people, what is your call to action for everyone?

My call to action is for more individuals, particularly those in White-majority spaces, to become allies. Reflect on your own experiences with schooling, curriculum, and identity affirmation. Recognize that representation and diversity matter. Challenge the gaps and biases in the system, and work intentionally to create change. Be aware of the positive impact that representation can have on young people. It’s essential to disrupt stereotypes and ensure representation is consistent across all subjects. We need to take collective action to create a more inclusive and equitable education system.

Targeted support for young Black people

Hannah’s insights underscore the urgency of addressing the disparities in our education system. By offering targeted support, improving the curriculum, breaking systematic barriers and taking collective action, we not only acknowledge the unique challenges young Black people might encounter but also send a powerful message that their experiences, voices, and perspectives matter. Ultimately, nurturing Black pupils’ growth and well-being not only enriches their educational journey but also contributes to a more diverse, empathetic, and socially conscious society as a whole.

As Black History Month is being marked across the UK, let’s heed the call to action and take collective steps toward a more and empowering education system that taps and nurtures the potential of all young Black students.