Lord of the Flies, Animal Farm and Great Expectations. What do these books have in common? They were all written by white men and they’re all set texts on GCSE exam syllabuses. From politics to the media, white men dominate so much in society – school curriculums are no exception. Since September 2015, women penned just 31% of texts across all GCSE and A Level reading lists, while writers of colour are responsible for just 5% of texts in some modules. A new campaign set up by a school in East London is asking the government to right this wrong.
But it’s not just English that’s skewed towards concentrating on the male and pale; the history curriculum is guilty of this too. It “marginalises” Black History, either pushing it to the sidelines or skating over it altogether. Last year in a report by the Runnymede Trust, PhD student Nadena Doharty made this point forcefully. Black History in schools, she explained, falls into one of two camps: either in opposition to Whiteness, as a point of comparison for white progress; or as a celebration, applauding the achievements of society, like the end of slavery. The history of women is also “patchy”, according to students at York University who run an initiative to provide teachers with resources about aspects of women’s history largely ignored by the curriculum. The partial telling of history in this way tears minority ethnic people, white women and women of colour away from British history and the country’s national story.
It doesn’t help that the make up of the profession itself props up inequality in the curriculum. Only 6.7% of teachers are from minority ethnic backgrounds, compared to 12.8% of the population as a whole (that’s just over half). The picture isn’t great for women; of 62% female teachers only 36% are heads. The logical conclusion to draw from these stats: the number of minority ethnic women who are heads is dire.
The classic retort to stark gender and race imbalances is one I know all too well: ‘it’s not about gender or skin colour, we learn about and from the best people.’ And they just happen to be white men. People who are determined to maintain, and usually benefit from, the status quo repeat this ad infitium as if logically entrenched inequalities are just a happy accident.
This supposed ironclad explanation – that gender and race are irrelevant – actually goes to the heart of the problem. Our society celebrates the work and achievements of white men all the time. So much so that success is defined as predominantly white and male; women – and often men of colour – watch as their male colleagues get promotions over them or enjoy more money for doing the same work. This biologically prescriptive criterion for success creates a self-fulfilling prophecy: white men are successful, they have more access to power and in turn are more likely to employ, promote or even just listen to people who are like them. Just ask the 67% of MPs who are white men.
The unequal society begins in school. Through the unrepresentative curriculum, girls and minority ethnic children are implicitly told that they can’t be anything they want to be: people like them aren’t writers, politicians or scientists. Despite the work of teachers to show otherwise, thanks to a prescriptive curriculum schools become one strand in a system that accepts gender and skin colour are implicit barriers to success.
Schools can be a place to challenge or entrench race and gender stereotypes – unfortunately the curriculum does the latter. Sexism and racism are embraced, even if indirectly, by so many Britons; the 2014 British Social Attitudes survey showed the people who were willing to admit to being racially prejudiced was on the rise, accompanied by an increase in racist bullying in the workplace, while for many women sexism remains a constant in their everyday experience. The curriculum reinforces these baseless assumptions that white men are more qualified for any job that isn’t “women’s work”.
When the products of structural racism and sexism are exposed in all of their ugliness the magnitude of the response is often great. Although they face little to no repercussions, the likes of Jeremy Clarkson and David Cameron are roundly castigated when they accidentally let their xenophobia or sexism slip out. But the subtle ways these forms of discrimination persist and are propped up by the system go ignored. Making the curriculum representative won’t erase entrenched structural inequalities, but it will go some way to shifting the balance in the right direction.
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Maya Goodfellow is a journalist and political commentator. She primarily writes about British politics and has worked as a researcher for a think tank. She also writes about international affairs, with a particular focus on conflict studies. Find her on Twitter: @Mayagoodfellow
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