Shavanah Taj talks to Charlotte Williams who is leading a working group to improve the teaching of themes relating to BAME communities and experiences across the school curriculum.
‘It was fabulous because Wales is fabulous,’ says Charlotte Williams of her childhood.
‘I had an interesting mum and an interesting dad. We used to travel to West Africa because dad worked in a university there, so I had experiences that ordinary children wouldn’t have.’
But there was also a downside. Born of a white Welsh-speaking mother and black Guyanese father, she remembers that in north Wales in the 1960s, ‘the only other people I ever saw who looked like me were occasional kids who would crop up at the Barnardo’s home.’
One of five girls, what Williams describes as her ‘private world’ was ‘a very dynamic and animated community’, but outside the home ‘we had to do all this work to do, negotiating identity.’
Fast forward to 2020 and it’s Professor Charlotte Williams OBE who has accepted an invitation from the Education Minister, Kirsty Williams to chair the new ‘Communities, contributions and cynefin: BAME experiences and the new curriculum’ working group.
‘Nowadays we have the language to describe those childhood experiences,’ she tells me. ‘They were microaggressions, but they didn’t have a name back then. You know: can I touch your hair? do you wash your hair? And of course, sentences starting with People like you…’
Back then, representations of black people in Wales were limited to the negative stereotypes of Enid Blyton, The Story of Little Black Sambo or golliwogs on Robinson’s jam jars. ‘Any time other children saw other people who looked like you, it was negative.’
“‘The sin of omission is very prevalent,’ she says of the curriculum – then and now.”
Stereotypes affected both the school curriculum and Charlotte Williams’ own opportunities through childhood.
‘I was the fastest runner in the school, and I was pretty strong, but I was never going to get the part of Mary in the nativity play or star in the school show. It was just: wait until sports day – that’s your time to shine.’
Her mother was always ‘out there fighting and doing the ambassador type work – she used to say, I’m white but I’ve got a black heart – but you feel shame that you’re different.’
This internalisation of prevalent societal racism is something Williams feels young people would still recognise today, which brings us to the work she has been tasked with carrying out by the Education Minister.
‘The sin of omission is very prevalent,’ she says of the curriculum – then and now.
While a lot was done in the 1970s to purge negative stereotypes from educational materials, Williams notes that ‘there has been nothing to replace it that is taken for granted and known and accepted.’
Her own grandchildren have passed through the primary system in Wales and are now embarking on secondary education. Williams says some things have changed since her own childhood.
‘There are more positive influences, for example on television or more generally in children’s lives, but we have not got it where we would like it in Wales.’
The problem facing Williams and the working group she leads is the complexity and scale of the issues at hand.
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‘Just 3% of the teaching workforce in Wales is BAME, although there is a higher rate among teaching assistants and more casual staff. But the higher up the hierarchy you go, the slimmer the representation.’
However, she is careful to point out that: ‘Good inclusive teaching is great, irrespective of the background of the teacher.’
Williams remembers her own French teacher inviting her to the front of the class to explain the word ‘beautiful’. Recognising it as the teacher’s attempt to educate the rest of the class, she says ‘it meant a lot at the time, and I’ve remembered it all my life.’
Such positive role models are needed across society, says Williams, who is very clear that ‘it’s not simply down to schools’, although ‘once you’ve got a diverse workforce, you’re enriched by a richness of ways of being.’
Part of the work of the group will be to suggest ways of encouraging BAME graduates into teaching in Wales, and how to retain them here.
Currently focus groups are being run to add qualitative information about the experiences of BAME education professionals to the statistics, ‘so that we will have something very clearly to say about how we might do Continuing Professional Development.’
“Slavery and colonialism are vital in understanding the histories and contributions of black people to the development of Wales.”
In the context of Black Lives Matter, I ask if Wales is ready to confront its own role in colonisation and slavery in its curriculum.
Like so many of her responses, Williams’ reply is nuanced. She is keen to stress that her remit is not about curriculum content, but about processes that will underpin it.
‘It’s not about multiculturalising the curriculum; some nice local black faces here and there; it’s something much more transformative.’
She cites the ‘100 Great Contributions to Wales’ approach that some have relied on in the past, and uses Colin Jackson as an example: ‘Yes, Colin is a great sportsman, but why is he here in the first place? And why does someone on a London bus spit at Colin, the Chancellor of Glyndwr University? We’re not doing Colin a service if we’re only talking about him as a sportsman.’
Charlotte Williams is optimistic about our desire as a nation ‘to really understand ourselves as an underdog – with socialist and trade union history, with a story of language oppression – so people are interested to look at the development of Wales.’
‘We all know the history of diversity in Cardiff, but what about elsewhere, too? And of course, slavery and colonialism are vital in understanding the histories and contributions of black people to the development of Wales.’
Anticipating sites of resistance in some quarters – ‘attitudes of we can’t be bothered with this when our area is 97% white, we’ve got too much local history to cover’ – Williams says: ‘[black history] doesn’t take away, it adds.’
“There’s got to be change right across the board. Education can’t solve social injustice and racial injustice.”
When I ask about other minority communities who have been forgotten by mainstream histories, like the Roma gypsy and Irish traveller communities, Williams celebrates the ‘potential for creativity’ in the new curriculum – ‘it’s bottom up, not top down; it gives autonomy to schools in design and delivery’ – but admits ‘it’s short on mandates and content; it’s not driven by these imperatives.’
She would like to see schools using this freedom to draw up curricula that cover ‘the Roma, the Irish, the Polish, all the Eastern Europeans who have come since May 2004… all of these demonstrate the diversity of identity in Wales.’
But then she stops and gets to the nub of what her work is about. ‘When we talk about black history,’ she says, ‘we’re talking about social justice; racial justice.’ It is well-documented that some ethnic minorities do better than the majority, and others fall behind and do far worse, and it’s this achievement gap that Williams’ work really seeks to address. ‘What’s behind that struggle?’
So although the remit of the working group is schools, its chair is more than happy to agree that its task sits within a much wider international movement to ‘decolonise the curriculum’.
Students are demanding a more globally focused, internationalist, diverse curriculum and this applies as much to further and higher education as it does to primary and secondary.
However, Williams does ‘worry about the focus on education as [supposedly] having the ability to solve all of society’s ills. There’s got to be change right across the board. Education can’t solve social injustice and racial injustice.’
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Despite the multifaceted challenges, Williams is positive about what she sees as the maturation of governance in Wales in the twenty years since the advent of the Senedd, and also the relative accessibility of Welsh ministers (‘We can just ring up Vaughan Gething!’).
She sees opportunity in the range of policy levers that already sit in Cardiff Bay: ‘key social policy fields… health, education – that’s people’s wellbeing!’
She’s so positive about devolution that I ask her where she stands on Welsh independence. Again her answer is thoughtful and nuanced, and she answers in the light of international solidarity rather than narrow isolationism.
Around her dinner table, she says, she can see that ‘Yes! Welsh independence!’ but when she thinks of the idea in terms of how she relates to ‘those black fellas in Liverpool and those black fellas in London, who are important to me, I can’t see that it would do us any good to say we’re the black Welsh ones.’
As she says this she hunches her shoulders apologetically to imply becoming physically smaller.
“Black people still have to seek justice from a position of being invited into rooms where they are in a minority.”
We use the shorthand BAME so frequently now that the focus falls on ethnic rather than minority, but Williams’ body language is a reminder that black people still have to seek justice from a position of being invited into rooms where they are in a minority.
This working group is a hugely welcome initiative, but the task ahead is mountainous.
I added to the ‘to do list’ by asking how the group would ensure Black history is taught and recognised through an intersectional lens, as after all our lived experiences and identities are multi-faceted and often complex.
Charlotte seemed intrigued and said I’d given her some food for thought – a challenge she intends to set for the group.
Williams reminds us that a key purpose of the new curriculum – one of the four – is to produce ‘ethical, informed citizens of Wales and the world’.
If that dream is to be realised, this work is vital.
‘We will do our best,’ she smiles. ‘It will take time, but hopefully we can kickstart things, prompt that momentum. I’m optimistic.’
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Picture Credit: Naomi Jellicoe