Dear madam: letters to the editor 18/6/20

In this week's letters to the editor, Tes readers discuss racism in the education system and infant class sizes

Tes Reporter

Tes letters to the editor 18/6/20: Racism in schools, diversity in MFL literature and class sizes

Racism still exists in schools

What is the ratio of white to non-white senior and middle managers in private schools? What steps are private schools taking to amend this difference?

As a British-Asian teacher, it was not until I left the UK to work internationally that I was able to get a job as head of English in a private school. Prior to this, I had been working in state and private schools in London for 10 years. I attended an all-girls private school as a teenager, as my mother did not want to send us to a mixed school and the only all-girls option in our area was private. The school was just outside of London and the student body was diverse. However, the teachers were not: we did not have a single black or minority ethnic (BAME) teacher at school.

By the time I became a teacher, things had changed and there were more BAME teachers in both state and private schools in general. My father, who in the 1990s had been a maths teacher in various state schools, suffered racial abuse throughout his entire career. He would tell us about how students called him "Paki" in the classroom and mocked his accent, and how his managers did nothing to help him. Eventually, my father left London and his family while we were still at school to return to Sri Lanka, where he now continues to teach. So somewhere between having no BAME role model teachers and my father's negative experience as a teacher, the decision to become a teacher myself was not an easy one. However, I always knew it was something I wanted to do.

Thankfully, I did not face the kind of prejudice that my father did. I completed my graduate teaching programme at a state school, then moved to a private school as I wanted to teach A level and my school did not offer A level at the time. As a classroom teacher, I had no problems fitting in: being Asian, I was part of a minority but I did not suffer for it. 

Problems arose when I started to look for promotion. I attended many interviews for the position of head of English in private schools all over the UK and, although I was always invited to interview, I was never offered a job. Suddenly being on the other side -- walking the corridors as a teacher, not a student – I felt more alienated and out of place than I had felt as a child who had attended one of these institutions herself.

At interview, I noted the growing number of Asians in private schools, especially in single-sex schools – more so than when I had been at school. I taught my interview lessons to classes of black, white and Asian students. But then I would go on to be interviewed by an all-white panel of senior managers. I would have coffee in a staffroom of all-white teachers. After the first few rejections, I thought only of what was being fed back to me: that I lacked experience. So I waited a few more years, built up my experience and my CV, only to face rejection again and again.

Now working internationally as a head of English, I feel that there is nothing holding me back from pursuing the career path I want to follow, and my next step is senior leadership. However, what if I want to return home? I have a family now. I would love to move back to London so that my mother can be closer to her grandson. But does that mean making a choice between my family and my career because I know that if I have to face an all-white interview panel again, I am sure to face rejection? 

Has very much really changed since my father was a teacher and faced daily racial abuse? I'm not facing taunts of "Paki" in the classroom, but I am being denied the opportunity to advance my career in the UK. Racism in schools still exists: it might not be as explicit or as easy to prove, but that's why we need to speak out against it now more than ever. 

Name and address supplied


MFL students should study more diverse voices

In an effort to embed open-minded and anti-racist principles in our teaching of modern foreign languages, the MFL department in Cheltenham Ladies’ College has been working on producing reading lists that introduce our students to under-represented voices in our foreign languages. It is our desire that the books they read, the films they watch and the music they listen to should reflect the diversity of culture in the countries where these languages are spoken.

Compiling these guides prompted me to revisit the lists of prescribed literature and films for French, German and Spanish published by the three A-level boards: AQA, Edexcel and Eduqas. I was disappointed to see that from these nine lists just one black artist was present on one of them: Mariama Bâ – Une si longue lettre (French, Edexcel).

For French, there was a small number of writers with North African origins or heritage, such as Azouz Begag (Edexcel), Fouad Laroui (Eduqas) and Faïza Guène (AQA), and filmmakers Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano (Edexcel and Eduqas) as well as Ismaël Ferroukhi (Eduqas).

In Spanish, there are some Latin American writers and filmmakers available to study for all three exam boards. Diversity and inequality in Latin American culture are explored in the Spanish director Icíar Bollaín’s También la lluvia, Luis Mandoki’s Voces inocentes and Walter Salles’ Diarios de motocicleta (all Edexcel), but sadly the prescribed works do not give a voice to the minority groups that live in Spain and Latin America.

The German offerings are even more limited: Yasemin Şamdereli’s Almanya: Wilkommen in Deutschland (AQA) is the only work that offers an exploration of a minority group living in Germany.

Whilst the Cambridge Pre-U is, unfortunately, being phased out, this was the exam board with the most efforts at diversity (and Cambridge operates a system that allows teachers to suggest works for study, as their prescribed lists are changed every three years). It was heartening to see Identity and Diversity as a topic in French – with Nathacha Appanah and Fatou Diome listed for study, along with other artists with North African and Iranian backgrounds. However, once again, there was more diversity available in French than in Spanish or German.

I urge the A-level examination boards to widen their current lists of prescribed works to reflect both the diversity of our classrooms and the diversity of the countries where French, German and Spanish are used. One of the core principles of MFL is a desire to communicate with people whose background is different from our own, to develop a global perspective and to be curious about other cultures. In order to meet these objectives, we need to give our students the opportunity to study more diverse voices.

Joséphine Berganza 
Head of MFL, Cheltenham Ladies’ College


The damage caused by infant class sizes

Since Victorian times, unrealistic class sizes in mainstream infant schools have inhibited the psychological development of many thousands of children. This is because infants who fail to achieve formative emotional growth in the early years are prevented from experiencing the essential individual attachment relationships they need to achieve potential when they arrive in school.

By now, this traditional problem should have been resolved. Senior national leaders are fully aware that during the second half of the 20th century an evolutionary breakthrough in understanding of psychological development called “attachment theory” occurred. This revealed that the origin of the inability of many children to develop psychologically is their failure to experience effective attachment relationships with adults. As long ago as 1974, Mia Kellmer Pringle reflected the optimism associated with this advance in understanding of human behaviour when she wrote in her book The Needs of Children, “when labour was cheap, and fulfilment of potential the prerogative of a minority, waste of human abilities was not seen as a problem. Now this is fortunately no longer so.”

Sadly, the idealism of this vision for the future was not realised. In 1988, the introduction of the national curriculum saw the state taking greater control of child education but choosing not to refocus for psychological development. Increased government legislative constraints took no account of infant sector classrooms that were too crowded for critical individual attachment relationships between children and teachers to occur, and the “waste of human abilities” remained set to continue.

The motive for this government intervention is a matter for conjecture but the effect was plain. This was a historic mistake with devastating implications for society. The profound ongoing systemic failure of the school system that resulted underlies the steadily increasing physical and mental ill-health and social dysfunction now evident in the adult population. In recent years, these symptoms have progressively challenged key institutions including health, social welfare and criminal justice, and they now cost the nation billions.

In the current pandemic, class sizes in mainstream infant schools have coincidentally reduced to realistic levels for the first time. Although pupil to teacher ratios alone do not account for the underlying crisis in child education, if a long-term solution for this problem is to be found, reducing infant sector class sizes to around 15 is a good place to start.

For a quarter of a century, the National Association for Therapeutic Education has sought to engage successive governments with this profound human rights issue. To date, no minister has found time to discuss the general failure of the school system to resource formative emotional development or its devastating consequences for the wellbeing and economic success of the nation. It is hoped the unique conditions in infant schools generated by the current crisis will secure a new and lasting national focus on the psychological development of our children in the context of the school system.

The pandemic may signal another false dawn in child education or it could mark the beginning of government taking rightful responsibility for the psychological development of many thousands of state-educated children who currently have no one to turn to.

John Tierney
Director, 
National Association for Therapeutic Education

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