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The Scottish Curriculum and Minority Representation

In recent years, I have observed Scottish education and its relationship to minority representation from many angles: as the sister of a secondary teacher, I have heard how institutionalised racism can be within schools; as a mother, I have been offered insights into how children of colour navigate these same institutions; as a community activist, I have listened to neighbours and friends recount racialised experiences of schooling; and now, as a student of the Education, Public Policy and Equity programme, I been able to more fully investigate my suspicions of a colour-biased curriculum in Scotland.

It is well known that a child’s social awareness develops by school-age. Influences and environments, in and out of school, shape their social ideologies as they learn to become responsible citizens. Therefore, if we want to foster social justice in our schools and society, this must be reflected within the resources of the school curriculum. This responsibility lies not only with the devolved government, but also governing bodies who set curricula, local authorities under which schools operate, and finally, teachers who shape curriculum delivery. Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) was launched in 2004, with a commitment to offer more flexibility for schools and teachers to adapt the curriculum to the specific requirements of their learners. However, as Riddell highlights, Scottish policies focus on an “equal opportunities, rather than an equal outcomes, discourse” (p.6) which has meant that there is preference for pupils being seen as the same, rather than having a curriculum that reflects their differences.

In this post I explore a question which has concerned me for years - is there is enough positive representation of Black and Minority Ethic (BME) people in the Scottish curriculum and resources? The short answer is no.

While the last fifty years have seen significant steps forward in the pursuit of racial equality, in the twenty-first century, the fight for a truly equitable society continues. As a person of colour, I feel it is important to continue to highlight inequities - including in our schools - and work still needs to be done to improve BME representation in the Scottish curriculum.

Teaching History and Race

Research has demonstrated that the Scottish history curriculum remains influenced by the legacy of British Imperialism. While Winston Churchill is evidently a significant figure when studying World War Two, a more nuanced perspective on his influence is rarely developed, leaving out his responsibility for mass famine in India, his overt declaration of racist ideas and more. Commonly used online education resources such as BBC Bitesize and Twinkle typically depict white soldiers and nurses when discussing World Wars One and Two, with little to no mention of Commonwealth contributors or BME British soldiers (such as Glaswegian Arthur Roberts who kept detailed diaries documenting WW1). This is echoed in the main archives of the National Army Museum, erasing BME people’s contribution to the war effort and reinforcing the image of ‘heroes’ as universally white. In some cases, Black History Month is used to redress this imbalance, however, marking the event remains at each school’s discretion and in many ways only perpetuates the issue by confining such conversations to one month of the year. The CfE Experiences and Outcomes levels three and four aim to teach young people how to effectively research and draw their own conclusions. Arguably difficult conversations about race and history would be a vital component of producing such critical thinking, yet they are lacking in the current curriculum.

Glaswegian WW1 soldier Arthur Roberts

In addition, the recent withdrawal of teaching resources that explore the Israel-Palestine conflict has proved to be a controversial issue. The removal of these resources occurred despite their rigorous examination and approval by Education Scotland as part of CfE levels 2-4, and inadequate government responses have raised concerns that the removal was prompted by pressure groups.

Improving representation across the curriculum

The issue of diverse representations extends beyond the confines of History teaching. A focus group (as yet unpublished) held in 2019 by Education Scotland invited representatives from primary and secondary schools, further and higher education institutions as well as key stakeholders, to review resources for educators that promote race equality. Findings highlighted the limited availability and use of resources that take account of race equality and recognised professional development as a necessity to ensure that where resources exist, practitioners are able and confident enough to make effective use of them.

As an example, pioneers in a variety of subject fields are often used to show young people the power of education, the hurdles that can be faced and overcome and to encourage aspiration for improvement. The entirety of the Scottish curriculum is intended to reinforce “Scottish contexts, Scottish cultures and Scotland’s history and place in the world” and the majority of ‘pioneers’ that are referenced in schools are white. John Napier, John Logie Baird and Robert Carver are notable, and important, role models, but why not also discuss Scottish BME pioneers John Edmonstone, Geoff Palmer and Emeli Sande or even acknowledge the damaging limitations of a Scotland-centric curriculum and look outwith our borders to see how the work of Bramagupta, Gladys West, Joseph Bologne and many more have paved the way for the successes of white Scots. By missing these opportunities to highlight the work of multicultural individuals, teachers and schools subtly reinforce the notion of white hegemony and deprive students of diverse role models.

This also extends to the English curriculum, where Jackie Kay is the notable exception to an all-white list of set texts for National 5 and Higher English. Including a variety of creative voices not only provides different perspectives for learners, but also connects with marginalised students and enhances the learning experience. In primary schools, the broad subjects of Literacy and English offer many opportunities to use ethnically diverse authors and varied textual sources, but there are no specific outcomes within the CfE to reinforce this.

An example of how white skin is often normalised in Science resources. Source: BBC Bitesize Scotland 3rd Level 2020

Currently, curriculum topics and outcomes are set by the CfE, but the content of topics covered is decided by the teacher, school and/or cluster group. Urban schools in cities such as Glasgow typically benefit from dense, multicultural migrant communities where there is (hopefully) greater incentive for teaching to reflect the needs of these students. Rural schools, however, tend to have smaller minority ethnic populations, resulting in less emphasis on the need for a multiculturally inclusive curriculum. Therefore, there is no guarantee that equal efforts to increase diversity of representation in resources is being made in all schools. In my opinion, governing bodies such as Education Scotland should provide diverse resources in all curriculum fields that reflect race equality, resulting in less pressure for unconfident educators whilst ensuring that the same quality of inclusive education is being delivered to all learners.

In the short term, greater representation is more easily implemented within primary schools as they have significant curricular control. By contrast, secondary schools teach according to the set syllabus, therefore, a collective discussion at local and national government levels is required to promote ethnically diverse representations and develop appropriate resources. Nonetheless, there are many articles and resources readily available online that can provide teachers with information about how to showcase diverse role models in the curriculum within the confines of an existing curriculum. For example, The Anti-Racist Educator and The Teacherist. I suggest that the racialised discourse of victimisation will prevail over empowerment as long as these issues are not embedded within the early stages of education.

Integrating Race Equality

Finally, the specific topic of Race Equality is reserved for fourth level social studies and the third and fourth stages of Religious and Moral Education. While research shows that children develop social awareness from ages six or seven (i.e. the early stages of level one in the CfE), there are no mandatory outcomes to incorporate the teaching of race equality at this stage. By not introducing the topic of race equality throughout the curriculum from a young age, race remains treated as a distinct, ‘add-on’ topic. As recorded by Arshad et al’s study on minority ethnic pupils’ experiences of school in Scotland, parents appealed for “race equality to permeate education at all levels” (p. 165). Beyond this, there is very limited research on the implementation of an education curriculum with resources that reflect race equality. Perhaps this is a field in which Scotland could pioneer? Nonetheless, the research that does exist about approaches to multicultural education have documented positive outcomes. For example, Keddie explores how a secondary school in Australia adapted its mainstream discourse to remedy cultural, political and economic injustices faced by the refugee student population and their families. Educators changed their approach to become more reflective to the sensitivities of their learners, which signified a “greater parity of participation” (p.209).

Moving forward

While Scotland has made progress in becoming more aware of the diverse communities and families within its population, the issues of racism and race relations are still current and need to be tackled to create a fairer, safer and more prosperous society. I believe that by embedding the principles of race equality into all aspects of curriculum resources we can achieved the desired outcome of facilitating a “critical multicultural education” (p. 804). This can only be implemented systematically and universally if principles are integrated into all Experiences and Outcomes frameworks at all levels of the CfE. This requires action and leadership from Education Scotland. Responsibility also lies with local authorities to ensure correct implementation and provide schools with the resources necessary to achieve this. Teachers will also require professional development to build their knowledge and confidence in making these changes, an issue that must be addressed via both Initial and Continuous Teacher Training.

If Scotland is to continue to be a nation proud of its efforts towards social justice, the curriculum must reflect our current demographics and take account of one of our most pressing societal issues. If schools are to offer a safe environment for all, they must be places in which young people can develop their social understanding based on balanced information, enabling them to become critical thinkers.


Many thanks to our contributor Farah Farzana. You can contact Farah via her member profile page or on Twitter.

For teachers in Scotland or elsewhere looking to improve the representativeness of their teaching, we recommend the following resources:

If you have more resources to share, please get in touch with the EPPE Network team via email or on Twitter.

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