Five months later...

Somehow, it’s now been five months since the Curriculum Campaign launched in March. Although that’s hardly any time at all, it really feels like we’ve come a very long way in such a short space of time.

Since then we’ve had thousands of people sign our petition calling on the Government to ensure greater diversity in school reading lists, been featured on ITV News as well as in newspapers including the Evening Standard, The Independent and The Guardian.

We’ve heard from students who have challenged inequality in education and from schools who want their students to gain as rounded a view of the world as possible before they graduate.

So at this milestone, it’s worth looking back to the day the campaign started, where students and teachers gathered in The Forest Academy’s library. Copied below is the speech Ed MacLeod, the Director of Sixth Form, gave that morning. We think you’ll agree that these words are just as valid now as they were then, and explain why we need to continue to keep campaigning for greater diversity in education:

Students, staff, and guests, it is my pleasure to welcome you all to today's event - the launching of the Curriculum Campaign, led by the Forest Academy. It is a particular privilege to have Wes Streeting MP here, as well as Geoff Wilson, our photographer this morning. It seems so right to be held today of all days: world book day, where we celebrate the gift of reading, of ideas and the imagination. So happy World Book Day all!

It feels a long time ago now that we English teachers sat together in a classroom one summer evening last June and began to examine the different courses on offer for our students in the new A Level and GCSE curriculum specifications. I remember that moment when it dawned on us that the set texts were predominantly if not all written by the male, pale , and me!

Now what started as a few teachers questioning our own text decisions led us to look at the wider picture and beginning to notice a pattern, a trend and perhaps even an ideological narrative that we needed to confront. More and more we looked but struggled to find female, black, Asian or other ethnic minority voices in the range of set texts- those writers who are able to speak so powerfully of oppression, identity, conflict, colonialism, relationships, politics and society and had previously connected with our students. Yet they were no longer anywhere to be seen. This got us thinking…

How can it be that female writers are represented in 1/3 of texts? How can it be that writers from black, Asian and ethnic minority backgrounds are represented in 1/20 of texts? How can we justify those choices in our 21st century global community, in the world's most multicultural city and in a co-educational school where over 40 languages are spoken and 30 ethnicities represented?

The recent curriculum reforms- as regressive as they seem- mean that literature as taught in schools under new curriculum reforms now is more white, more patriarchal and more middle class than we’ve seen in 30 years.

But what can we do? A bunch of moany mavericks from a school at the end of the central line? Alone – nothing.

Yet right from those early days we have never really been alone. Anna and Greg from Eaton and Watson, have been supporting, guiding and advising us – we are so grateful for all that you have done and continue to do. You saw an issue that required urgent redress and a powerful student and staff body ready to take on the challenge. Many schools, colleges and associations in Redbridge and beyond have also joined us and are with us on our launch today.

What has made us most proud so far? Our students.

Every step of the way students have been participating in meetings, using their skills (from photography to diplomacy!) as they have liaised with government figures, exam board representatives and local MPs to open a dialogue and get everybody talking. From Alina Khan interrogating the Managing Director of Edexcel to Lascell Taylor holding AQA to account for their lack of student representation all involved have stood up for they think is right and made a difference.

Now one person- more than anyone- has worked tirelessly to cajole, encourage, engage, coerce and has led the campaign brilliantly. Let’s thank Ms Eaton now! How she balances all of this with her workload I'll never know!

To get us from those initial conversations to where we are now in less than 9 months is remarkable – and a credit to the efforts of staff, students and others to make it happen.

Now more than ever we need an English literature syllabus that speaks to all of us, for all of us. Nothing is more important than ensuring we offer our students a stimulating, rich and diverse curriculum as we prepare them to flourish in the world outside. One that speaks to them about who they are and why they are significant.

A curriculum that cherishes the canon and the contemporary, the classic and the current, tradition hand in hand with modernity – from Shakespearean sonnets to postcolonial prose, such as Jean Rhys’ ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’, her reworking of Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’. A curriculum that recognises the many diverse voices across the landscape of English Literature throughout history. We want students to fall in love with literature as we have- and start a lifelong journey of reading, thinking and writing: of communicating in our complex world.

And that is what this campaign has given our community: that voice.

A lack of diversity – and a will to change!

Since launching the Curriculum Campaign in March, we’ve become aware of a growing consensus that there’s a lack of diverse voices across a range of subjects, not just English.

We’ve heard about inspiring, student-led campaigns, including calls to include more female voices on the A Level Politics syllabus and for representation of women on the A-Level Music syllabus.

We’ve also been fortunate to have the support of Zishi Zhang, a Philosophy and Ethics A Level student, who petitioned the exam board OCR about the fact that no female philosophers were included on the courses he was studying.

Zishi has been kind enough to share some of his thoughts with us on why the inclusion of female thinkers on the philosophy syllabus is such an important issue, which are included below:

“The representation of women in philosophy has been significantly undermined. We need to hear more about theories of female philosophers and we need to examine the world from a different perspective. 

Paul Jump from Times Higher Education appealed that male domination of philosophy ‘must end’. The University of Cambridge dedicated a page for “Cambridge Women Philosophers”. David Papineau, Professor of Philosophy at King’s College London, asked, “Why are there so few women philosophers?”

The under-representation of women in the syllabus is not only unfair, but it may also discourage girls and women who want to become a philosopher. Philosophy is a unique subject and it can encourage people to think, to wonder, and to explore the truth of life.

Positively encouraging girls and women to take part in this subject is vital if they are to experience full intellectual freedom, to have their voices heard and to have a greater influence in today's world. Their social status has been recognised by the law, but to truly liberate women, they should be able to think freely. However, how does the lack of representation of women in the philosophy course help to achieve this?”

Originally taken from What She Thinks by Zishi Zhang.

Zishi’s comments about the negative repercussions that not studying female philosophers can have echo concerns we’ve heard from students and teachers about the lack of diversity on the English syllabus.

There seems to be a diversity gap across many subjects which needs to be challenged due to the adverse effect it can have on students. But the good news is, with so many like-minded people starting campaigns highlighting this issue, there’s clearly an appetite to make a positive change happen!

What students have to say is valid

By Olivia Eaton, English Teacher at The Forest Academy
14 June 2016

What has amazed me whilst working on the Curriculum Campaign is the realisation of where students fit into their own education. They arrive at school, take in the knowledge required and then leave. It is something given to them and often, at least in their eyes, with little regard to their own lives.

With all of the curriculum changes in English, it hasn’t been a surprise that I’ve been asked “why?” by students on several occasions. Sometimes in despair, but also sometimes with genuine curiosity:

“Why are we reading this?”
“Why is it ‘closed book’?”
“Why are all writers dead?”

And often I don’t have the answer, because the curriculum is something given to me too.

At the moment, none of the main exam boards we have spoken to consult students about their curriculum. To me this seems like madness! Teachers are somewhat in the loop, but not pupils. Since we have spoken with them, we hope some of the exam boards are now considering consulting with students. Students are the only people to experience the full breadth of the curriculum every day.

People may think students are not mature enough to be part of these discussions or that they may not be able to articulate their feelings - but having worked with students on the campaign, I don’t think this is the case. Many of our students can tell you what they value and what works for them. Many of them have eloquently articulated this in front of politicians and exam board representatives as part of our campaign.

So yes, they are still young and may need support to make these sorts of decisions, but shouldn’t they be allowed a seat at the table? We have a problem of apathy in our schools. Could this not be improved by asking students to help create education rather than them just receiving it?

There have been high and low moments since our campaign launch, but the highest are all those that have involved the students, who continue to surprise me with their ideas, passion and diplomacy. They should not be underestimated or ignored.

If there is one thing I will take away from the experience, it will be to have more conversations with students about the workings of their courses, not only to explain how the structures work, but to encourage their own opinions on it as well.

Regardless of the eventual outcome of this campaign, it has already been worth it to see the effect it has had on the students. Their voices have been listened to and their points of view acknowledged.

What they have to say is valid, and should be listened to – after all, any change to the curriculum will affect them the most!