by Jane Kelly, Vice-Principal at Harrow Gate Academy
Some time ago, we decided as a school that we needed to overhaul our curriculum. It would be easy to frame this as a choice – but we had to; we’re in one of the most deprived areas of the North East – and we quite simply were not helping our children to become tolerant and empathetic individuals who were able to recognise and shape their own identities.
The children at Harrow Gate Academy are warm, giving and appreciative learners – but their view of the world is often very narrow. Children from ethnic minorities make up only 12% of our school family – and it’s fair to say that our surrounding community is culturally isolated, harbouring pockets of people who sympathise with far-right ideology; often quite vocally.
We started our work with Lemony Snicket’s The Dark. When we studied this text we saw many Y2 boys unpick that visceral feeling of isolation when you find yourself alone in the dark. They were able to discuss anxiety and apprehension articulately - and this shone through in their writing.
For these boys (many of whom were reluctant readers and writers) it was the first time they had felt a real connection with any character from a book.
Clearly though, this is only step one! As children grow, we aim to continue to develop the tolerance and mutual respect necessary to function in modern society. We want the children of HGPA to respect diversity and equality, to be productive members of a diverse community and to understand and accommodate change.
While this is easily said, committing to nurturing these values is not an easy task, especially given our demographic and some of the attitudes that we come across daily. Holding up a ‘mirror’ to learner’s personal realities is not enough; we need to also show the children ‘windows’ into other cultures - and honour the core themes at the heart of our new curriculum. It’s crucial that teachers and children work with texts that broaden horizons and offer wider views of the world.
Children in KS1 enjoyed traditional tales from around the globe in Hugh Lupton’s The Story Tree - allowing them to play with story language and patterns from other cultures, as well as making connections with tales from their own heritage.
This text also made us stop and think about the small percentage of children from ethnic minorities in our classrooms. What message are we giving these children if they never see a character that looks like themselves in a book - but the other children do? Are we adding to children’s feelings of ‘being different’ – compounding the sense of exclusion? What message are we sending to children about how we value them; both in our classroom and the wider world?
These questions have had an enormous impact on teachers and how they choose texts for their class. Our conversations around diversity have led to positive changes in school, with teachers now aware of the importance of ensuring that children see a fair representation of BAME characters, authors and illustrators.
In Y4 something quite amazing happened as the children discovered Caroline Binch’s Gregory Cool. They empathised with Gregory as he embarked on his new life in Tobago, sharing in his worries, frustrations and fears. They became completely engrossed in learning about The Caribbean and all it has to offer – food, music, landscape and artwork - all in a bid to be absolutely sure that Gregory would be okay.
Sharing positive representations of BAME characters through both has allowed our children to respond positively to unfamiliar situations and settings, think about alternative perspectives and viewpoints - as well as grapple with thought-provoking dilemmas. Our focus on mutual respect, tolerance and empathy has evolved into a whole school journey that celebrates diversity and a broad effort to help our children to find their own place in the world - the wide world!
The positive impact of these broader worldviews has not been confined to school. Following a suspicious fire at a refugee collection point in the local area, our Y6 staff decided to share Francesca Sanna’s The Journey. Using the well designed and powerful teaching sequence as a welcome support, they delved into this evocative text. The children responded to the difficult dilemmas and situations presented by Sanna with maturity, sympathy and humility. They also were able to discuss with eloquence (and a newly acquired higher-level vocabulary) their feelings around the incident at the collection point; they were outraged, hurt - and some embarrassed. These conversations spilled out into their homes, and they were able to safely challenge views that may very well have existed in their families for a long time.
From EYFS to Y6, in our taught sessions, story sharing sessions, and in the books we offer in our book areas; we are mindful of the nuanced messages that we give to our children. Our teachers have become passionate gatekeepers to books that our children can access and enjoy time and time again – we are now in a better position to ensure that our children are literate, inclusive and empathetic.