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How to talk to pupils about race, racism and Black Lives Matter
Talking to pupils about race and racism has always been important, but it’s taken on a new sense of urgency since the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests around the world. It’s important you address these issues with pupils of all ages, and this is how to do it.
- You should be having these conversations all the time
- Where to start: talk to staff first, then parents and pupils
- Start these conversations early
- Don’t take a colour blind approach
- Challenge stereotypes and prejudice in a non-judgemental way
- Start from where pupils are and encourage questions
- Be honest about racism in Britain (past and present)
- Download and share our staff handout
- More resources to help you with these conversations
You should be having these conversations all the time
This isn’t just about "not being racist", it’s about being actively anti-racist
Conversations about race and racism shouldn’t be limited to a big one-off assembly or annual Black History Month event – they should be taking place all the time.
This isn’t just about "not being racist", it’s about being actively anti-racist.
Encourage staff and pupils to have these conversations in classrooms, in the playground, during pastoral times (e.g. form tutor time or circle time) and within lessons – these issues should be incorporated into your curriculum (find out how to do this using our anti-racism curriculum review tool).
There shouldn’t be anywhere or any time when these discussions are off-limits.
Where to start: talk to staff first, then parents and pupils
If having these kinds of conversations is new to your school, you’ll want to start with:
1. Some form of training to educate your staff
- This can simply be talking your staff through the points in this article during a staff meeting or INSET, and sharing the staff handout at the end of this article
- You could also set reading homework for staff using our anti-racist reading lists
- If you don't feel comfortable doing this yourself and you'd like an external organisation to run your training, find out about training from Show Racism the Red Card here
2. A letter home to parents and some kind of statement on your school website
- This letter or statement should set out your school’s anti-racism position clearly to parents and any other stakeholders
- It should explicitly mention Black Lives Matter demonstrations or the death of George Floyd, if you haven't addressed these topics already
- For fantastic examples of this, see Hanover Primary School's statement about their anti-racist strategy, which includes a letter to parents (click on the link below the video statement to access the letter) or Wallington High School’s Statement Against Racism
3. A whole-school assembly to open up the conversation
- This assembly should be about setting out your school’s anti-racism position clearly to pupils, and just like your letter/statement it should explicitly mention Black Lives Matter demonstrations or the death of George Floyd, if you haven't addressed these topics as a school already
- Consider holding this assembly during the first weeks back at school, if possible
- This assembly may need to take place in class groups or remotely due to social distancing – the most important thing is that all pupils receive the same message at roughly the same time
- See this example of a video assembly that addresses racism and current events (the toppling of statues in Bristol) for children in Year 3 and up
Make sure you run some form of staff training first so your staff are prepared to answer pupils' questions and talk about these issues in class.
The whole-school assembly, letter to parents and statement on your website should all happen at roughly at the same time, so parents and pupils receive a consistent message and can discuss these issues at home.
Start these conversations early
- Children recognise race from a young age and they're never too young to start talking about it (see the PDF infographic)
- Talk with pupils from the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) onwards about the similarities and differences between people in a positive, open way. For example, discuss how characters in picture books are different and how they're the same (e.g. "these children have different skin colours, but they all laugh at the same things")
- Make sure you have a diverse representation of people in your books, images around your school (in displays, posters, murals) and the toys and dressing up clothes in your EYFS areas. Find out how to review and improve diversity in books
- Talking about current events such as police brutality or the death of George Floyd is harder. But although these topics might not seem “age appropriate” for primary school pupils, children of all ages will have heard about these issues in the news and likely discussed them at home. If you don't talk about this at school, pupils are more likely to feel afraid or misunderstand what is happening. Have a look at the resources at the end of this article to support you
Don’t take a colour blind approach
It's easy to think that the best way to promote race equality is to pretend to pupils that you don't see race (e.g. saying "everyone is the same at our school, we don't think/talk about people's skin colour"), but race is an important part of people's history and identity, so don't ignore it.
- Talk openly about the different ethnic groups in your school or class and celebrate the different identities or countries of origin within your school community – include staff and families within this too
- Create displays that show the different languages spoken in your school, and different places around the world that pupils or their families are from. Hold international days or events where pupils/parents/staff wear traditional dress or bring in traditional food or objects of cultural significance to share
Talk about the fact racism exists
- Don't just celebrate all the good things about diversity: be honest about the challenges. Talk to pupils from a young age about the fact that racism sadly exists and could even happen in your school. Make sure pupils know the processes you have in place to deal with racist incidents and what they should do if they think they've witnessed or experienced racism
- This book/video is a great tool to explain racism to younger pupils and this book is helpful for older pupils
- If you’re white, understand your own experiences and make it part of the conversation. Be open with pupils about the fact that as a white person there are things about racism you can never fully understand, because you haven't experienced it first-hand. Show Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) pupils that you’re an ally by actively challenging and discussing different forms of racism
- If you feel comfortable, share your own experiences of racism, e.g. talk about the number of times you’ve been stopped by the police while driving, compared with white colleagues
- Show white pupils how they can be an ally by recognising and actively challenging racism, so they don’t feel like they’re the problem
Challenge stereotypes and prejudice in a non-judgemental way
- Always challenge pupils when they say something based on prejudice or stereotypes, and correct misconceptions which could lead to prejudice if they go unchallenged. Use everyday incidents, such as a pupil in the playground saying "you can't play in our game because you don't have blonde hair" as an opportunity to educate all pupils
- Use non-judgemental questions, such as "why do you say that?" or "what makes you think that?", rather than telling pupils off or closing down the conversation
- Help pupils to recognise how stereotypes and bias can be hurtful and untrue, and give them an alternative point of view
- Find out more about incorporating these kinds of conversations into your personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) curriculum in our article on how to review and re-frame your curriculum
Start from where pupils are and encourage questions
- Ask pupils open-ended questions about what they know already about racism, what they've seen recently on the news and what questions they have
- This will allow you to pitch your conversation at the right level, correct any misconceptions and fill in gaps in understanding. Don't assume pupils know nothing, but don't assume they have lots of pre-existing knowledge either
- Educate yourself as much as possible (our anti-racist reading lists for staff is a good place to start), but you don't have to have all the answers. Be honest if you're not sure about something and show pupils that you're eager to find out. Research together and model good research methods (e.g. using trusted sources such as reliable news websites)
- Create a safe environment to have these conversations, where everyone is listened to and respected. Encourage pupils to speak from their own experience if they want to
Be honest about racism in Britain (past and present)
- Don’t make present day or historical racism seem like an "American problem" to pupils: this denies the very real racism that goes on in Britain today and has shaped Britain's past
- Don't just talk about Rosa Parks and the American civil rights movement: talk about the Bristol Bus Boycott and the struggles for equal rights in the UK (e.g. the origins of Notting Hill Carnival)
- Talk about Britain's central role in the slave trade and how the UK benefited from slavery, not just that slavery happened in America
- Find out more about incorporating these topics into your curriculum using our anti-racism curriculum review tool
Download and share our staff handout
Download and share the handout below with your staff: it summarises the key points above.
More resources to help you with these conversations
- A Teacher Toolkit on Race – a powerpoint by Sarah Sarwar
- Let's Talk! A Teaching Tolerance Guide to Facilitating Critical Conversations With Students
- The School That Tried to End Racism – Channel 4 documentary
- Resources from BBC Newsround (for 6 to 12 year olds):
Having these conversations with pupils is a good place to start, but it isn’t enough on its own. This should be part of a wider work that includes:
- Reviewing your whole curriculum in relation to anti-racism and improving diversity in children’s books to support an anti-racist curriculum
- Creating a working group to improve your approach to anti-racism, creating an anti-racism action plan to suit your school community and leading whole-school discussions about racism and whiteness
- A Teacher Toolkit on Race – Sarah Sarwar
- Let's Talk! A Teaching Tolerance Guide to Facilitating Critical Conversations With Students
- How to Talk With Children and Young People About Race and Racism – EqualiTeach
Thanks to Jack Sloan, headteacher at Hanover Primary School, who spoke to us about talking to pupils about racism.
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