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Wales is introducing a ‘black’ curriculum – but what does that really mean?

To tackle racial inequality, Wales is looking to the classroom.

03 Sep 2021

Professor Charlotte Williams, who grew up in Llandudno, North Wales, knows first-hand the consequences of ignoring diverse teaching. “My entire education, from the age of five to the completion of my PhD, has been within the Welsh education system,” she says, recalling experiences of racism in a predominantly white Welsh school, which influenced her sense of self worth. “I think I just accepted things as they were. I didn’t pine for what I didn’t know.” 

As an adult though, Charlotte came to realise what she had lost in terms of confidence, a sense of belonging, role models, and knowledge from the lack of Black history taught in the Welsh curriculum. An academic of Welsh and Guyanese heritage, her work focuses on Welsh multiculturalism – her book A Tolerant Nation? Exploring Ethnic Diversity in Wales has been hailed as groundbreaking, while her memoir, Sugar and Slate, won Wales Book of the Year in 2003. 

In July 2020, after weeks of protests against racial inequality across Wales, the former Welsh minister for education commissioned a new working group to research and recommend changes to school curriculums, appointing Charlotte as the group’s chair. The Welsh government announced that at the end of the working group’s research process, there would be new resources commissioned to support teaching targeted to the needs of BAME Welsh communities, developed for a new curriculum that would be delivered to Welsh schoolchildren from 2022. 

But is this enough to atone for decades of racial inequality baked into classroom learning? And what exactly does a ‘BAME’ curriculum look like in practice?  

A hidden history 

Onyx Uwandulu, a 20-year-old performer and activist from the South Wales Valleys, recalls that no black British history was taught in her secondary school. “The only thing taught on race was the Civil Rights Movement,” she says. And when black and minority ethnic history is taught, it is often told through the eye of the struggle – a clear example being the 1977 TV series Roots, about a free man from Africa who is sold into slavery in America and his descendents. “We also watched Roots in Year 8 History lessons, but never discussed it,” says Onyx. “Everyone felt uncomfortable and jokes were made. The teachers seemed uncomfortable too.”

In November 2020, the working group published an interim report that outlined a lack of bilingual resources to teach ‘BAME’ themes and contributions to Welsh schoolchildren. The report  also found that the current curriculum “focuses too much on slavery”, with teaching on BAME themes in subjects like maths, science and technology particularly lacking. It argues that focusing only on negative events in history could lead to BAME children having a negative sense of themselves.

Onyx believes that there is still a long way to go on reforming education to positively reflect black history. “While I am happy to see the first step…the next step comes from within accountability through individuals. It is imperative that these topics are taught by compassionate and educated individuals so they can be handled with sensitivity and an earnest want for the right steps to be taken”. 

“Multicultural contributions of education have to be woven into the curriculum entirely,” says Kyle Lima, who is of Cape Verdean and Welsh heritage, and artistic director of DID I BREAK?, a theatre company based in Cardiff, which tells stories about the black diaspora. 

“If we sit down and all we learn is white people’s contributions, then children growing up will only think of black people and their plight, rather than their intelligence and achievements in Wales. That thinking can lead to white superiority and doesn’t breed a healthy mind,” says the 34 year-old.

Lauren Connelly, a 20-year-old actor and activist from Cardiff, grew up in a household that allowed her to embrace her mixed Cape Verdean and Welsh heritage. However, she has still struggled with feelings of not belonging. “I was never taught any black British or black Welsh history,” she says. “I was left feeling like I wasn’t Welsh and couldn’t connect to being Welsh, as Welsh people of colour are erased from educational teachings.” This feeling affected Lauren’s ambitions to enter the creative industry in Wales. “It took me a while to gain confidence in what I’m doing now, as I never saw representation on our screens.” 

“When people came up to me and my dad, they’d never automatically speak Welsh when approaching us, unlike how they treated white Welsh dads and daughters”

Lauren can speak Welsh and, like other Welsh-speaking people of colour who have opened up about their experiences over recent years, is disappointed by the assumptions imposed on her. 

“There was this disbelief that I could speak Welsh – I felt it going to events like the Eisteddfod” [a competitive festival of music and poetry in Wales],” she says. “When people came up to me and my dad, they’d never automatically speak Welsh when approaching us, unlike how they treated white Welsh dads and daughters.” This treatment acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy, Lauren observes, pushing ethnic minority groups away from those spaces. She is hopeful that a new curriculum might address the ‘othering’ that she experienced. 

“I hope students will be taught about black contribution to arts, science, society etc,” she says. “However schools shouldn’t have to wait until 2022, they should be doing this right now.” 

It’s these experiences and the gap in education about BAME contributions to society that the working group hopes to tackle. 

Published in March this year, the working group’s final report found considerable evidence that racial inequality was prevalent in the Welsh education system. While 12% of all pupils aged five and over came from minority ethnic backgrounds, the report noted “considerable ethnic disparities in educational achievement and a number of reports attest to systemic racism in Welsh schools across the nation”. Both minority ethnic teachers and pupils expressed the need for more diverse content and current ways of working were failing and discriminating against those it should be safeguarding. The working group’s proposals included better teaching resources, anti-racism training for school staff, and closer links with the community. Following the report, the Welsh Government invited public consultation on an Anti-Racist Wales equality plan to address the report’s findings and take action. 

On publication of the report, Professor Charlotte Williams said: “I’m confident that the proposals in this report will provide the education community with the means to address more systematically and coherently engagement with this priority area.”   

The working group also centres their work around the Welsh concept of cynefin, which focuses on local news and community stories with as much relevance as world news. By including it as a central part of the new strategy, the Welsh government is attempting to use it as a springboard for learning about events closer to home, through diverse viewpoints. The report says that cynefin “is a concept that helps pupils ‘to explore, make connections and develop understanding of themselves within a modern, diverse and inclusive society”. This could finally be the chance for local heroes such as William ‘Billy’ Boston and Betty Campbell to be recognised as inspiration for young minority children.

Even though the Welsh government have said they will be implementing the recommendations made by the working group, the challenge is far from over as there are still significant gaps in knowledge of what is being taught about BAME history across Wales. 

However, Wales’ education system must take this opportunity to redress its failings and embrace the wealth of contributions minorities have made to Welsh society, otherwise the country cannot be called a ‘nation of sanctuary’ [a safe haven for refugees and asylum seekers] if its existing minority communities are being perpetually failed. For now, Wales waits to see the impact of the new curriculum. 

Black and ethnic minority history is Welsh history and that truth can no longer be denied.