Ensuring diverse representation across the primary English curriculum: reflecting on our National Primary English Conference

    Published: 25 January 2022
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    I cannot remember when I last attended any CPD that was so insightful and contained so many valuable ideas to take back to school, or when I was so moved by the passion and commitment of the contributors. Thank you!

    Helen Hone, Drayton C of E Junior School

    It’s probably fair to say that there is some small measure of relief that this year’s conference has finally come to pass. From the hard work in setting it all up, through the development of a truly diverse range of talks from an array of perspectives, to the challenges of managing such a large event online, it is immensely rewarding to see all of those efforts combine to form something that we hope transcends the potential limits of a one-off CPD event. 

    We’re determined to build on the day, hence this blog.  As much of the feedback, and our own reflections confirm, there was a lot to process on the day: thought-provoking content; calls to action; reflections and revelations. As one subject lead asked immediately after the event: do you get that feeling of being inspired and so excited but also on the verge of panic at how much there is to do?  It’s most likely a common reaction, and this lead has already been doing lots in terms of curriculum development and revision of reading provision in this area.

    Let’s resist panic and work with a no-less urgent, but more practical energy.

    In terms of an immediate response, we wanted to gather links to further reading and supportive resources.  In the opening section, we provide a summary of each session with follow up references and links related to the speakers, who made this such a powerful, galvanising day. In the second section, we gather some of the work we published during the build up to the event. Finally, and fittingly, we’ll close with some select reflections.

    The speakers

    I absolutely adored this conference. Best conference I have attended. How unusual to watch back-to-back speeches and not for one minute feel disengaged. Thank you.

    Eliza Bates, West Hill Primary, London

    Session 1: The value of reflecting realities in children’s literature

    Farrah Serroukh, CLPE Learning Programme Leader

    Farrah discussed our role as educators in ’sewing the seeds for creating an enabling environment in which all of our children are able to thrive and flourish’.  Farrah discussed the toxic background of discourse around race, belonging and Britishness. In this context, she highlighted our duty to counter vulnerability to marginalisation by creating a ‘learning community that is a microcosm of the world we want our children to inherit’.  In support of this, Farrah made a case for the role of books: ‘Books offer readers opportunities to influence, shape, and make sense of their world. By extension, this means that in toxic times in particular, what we find in the pages of books is even more important.’ Farrah went on to discuss the need to ‘evaluate the existing presence of traditionally marginalised characters’ and how this is the key purpose of the annual Reflecting Realities reports.  The link below will take you to the latest of these. They are essential reading; they are doing a great deal to help drive essential change. Earlier entries are also available on the CLPE website.

     

    Session 2: You can’t write that! Stories have to be about white people

    Darren Chetty, Lecturer (Teaching), University College London

    Twitter: @rapclassroom

     

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    From the outset, Darren drew upon his own experiences in the classroom. The screen snip features an excerpt from Darren’s work, linked below, that explores the internalised messages around characters in stories carried by some of the children he taught. The belief that all stories had to be about white people had taken hold despite Darren’s efforts to diversify the books in his classroom, and the space he made for sharing stories featuring  racially minoritized characters.  

    Darren went on to discuss how the books he had shared featured in story time, and not in the ‘literacy lessons’ where books and other texts are explicitly linked to writing through discussion and exploration. As such, it seemed that a very specific kind of marginalisation had occurred in which the children’s own writing was reflective of the texts chosen for literacy, with no crossover effects from the more diverse worlds offered during story time. Darren returned to this theme as you will see below: its not just the books we enjoy that we need to consider, it’s the books that more directly inspire or inform our writing and wider literacy learning.   Given that writing is an expression of self (ideas, belief, understandings), this point cannot be overstated.  As in other blogs and podcasts offered below, Darren drew upon the work of Professor Rudine Sims Bishop, and her influential account of the windows, mirrors and sliding doors offered – or potentially offered - by the books we encounter.  You can hear more from Professor Bishop here.

    Darren went on to cover far more ground, in far more depth than we could do justice to here. The recording is just waiting for you and it bears more than one listen. One aspect we’d like to note links back to the point above relating to the wider literacy curriculum, and a discussion around the characters that children are enabled to write about. Since the session, we have had a request for a blog looking at extending this work into our writing instruction.  We will do our best to explore this in the not-too distant future – or at least to point to further sources of guidance. To wrap up, here are some of Darren’s calls to action:

     

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    PDF of Darren’s paper further setting out the experiences, themes and implications shared in his talk.

    This can also be found in The Good Immigrant.

    Shared principles around ongoing dialogue explored by Darren & Adam Ferner.

     

    ‘When I grow up….’ 

    Dr Michael Catchpool, District Schools Effectiveness Adviser, HfL 

    In this session, Michael discussed his childhood ambition to be an author and his journey towards realising that dream. Along the way, Mike discussed the authors and books that formed and nurtured his fascination with books and their potential to affect others- and how he had no alternative but to lap up the works of white, middle-class authors. Michael shared examples of crude, racist representations from his own early reading, echoing Darren Chetty’s exploration of racist depictions in classic titles, and foreshadowing Gemma Bagnall’s later exploration of depictions of characters from GRT communities.

    Michael shared his own back catalogue of books that he has written for children, stopping to note that in all of the titles featuring humans, each character was illustrated as white despite the books having a black author. Not so in Michael’s latest book, SuperJoe Does Not Do Cuddles, in keeping with the statement of intent of his current publisher, Lantana, pictured below.

     

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    You can find out more about Michael’s book:

    Lantana: SuperJoe Does NOT Do Cuddles

     

    No outsiders: everyone different, everyone welcome

    Andrew Moffat, Class Teacher at Green Meadow Primary School, PD Lead Excelsior MAT

    Andrew’s entire talk was firmly grounded in the school context – literally.  Sat in a school office, facing a window, Andrew warned us that if he waved at the screen, it would be because he would have to return the greetings of passing children. This was a turbo-charged session, kicked off with a clear statement of intent of supporting children to have an ‘inner core inside them of a love for diversity…an acceptance of diversity…to be able to live alongside anyone, work alongside anyone.’  This followed an account of the horrific and rising statistics for the incidence of hate crimes. An overwhelmingly positive agenda, underpinned by a stark reality.

      No Outsiders is a an approach to education and inclusion that is as much cultural as about resources, books, or approaches. But Andrew had plenty of books and very moving stories to share.  Along the way, Andrew would stop to highlight apparently casual stereotyping and made clear that these present opportunities for discussion, challenge, and learning. It was clear from the chat for this session that keeping up with all the suggested titles was challenging. As such, you may wish to head to Andrew’s site below for a more leisurely exploration of the kinds of work that Andrew has pioneered in his various schools.

    Andrew’s site – a rich source of further reading and helpful resources.

     

    What does diversity look like in schools?  Outcomes and impact from our Explore & Engage unit: And Tango makes three

    Michael Gray, Class teacher, Gamlingay Village Primary, Bedfordshire

    Sally Lafflin, Deputy Headteacher. Longmeadow Primary

     

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    Michael began the session by outlining statistics relating to abusive behaviour, bullying, directed towards LGBTQ+ students and the startling impact this has one their lives, and so echoed Andrew Moffat’s session.  You can read more in Michael’s blog, linked in the ‘Build Up’ section above.  Michael and Sally moved on to discuss the fantastic work emerging in schools based on the picturebook and Tango makes three.  This heart-warming true tale of two Daddy penguins and their adoptive egg is the subject of a whole school plan, created by Michael in his time at HfL, and brought to brilliant life in a range of schools, including Sally’s own, Longmeadow Primary in Stevenage.

    You can purchase this plan and some associated training.

     

    Raising awareness of stereotyping in books

    Sophie Driver, Deputy Headteacher, Highover JMI School

    We were delighted to have a second session showcasing work from a local school, and Sophie Driver of Highover Primary in Hitchin provided a rich account of work in her setting to interrogate and challenge stereotypical representations across a very wide range of children’s books. Sophie discussed how she was approached by a parent of a Year 1 child at the school who had noted that a number of books shared in lockdown served to reinforce gender stereotypes in various and quite insidious ways.  Sophie readily accepted an offer of support from this parent, a policy professional specialising in equalities and human rights, and so began a period of reflective and developmental work, springing from the learning from this parent-teacher partnership.  One message that struck a chord was that Early Years educators can be ‘powerful disruptors’ in countering the potentially limiting effects of stereotypes.

    Sophie went on to contextualise this work in terms of national policy, and through the aim of developing global citizens. She shared a powerful resource, Lifting Limits, that you may wish to use. Beyond this, Sophie highlighted the importance of talk within and beyond the school, between colleagues, and in response to books. A key takeaway was that this was not about necessarily removing such stereotyping, but more being equipped and ready to challenge them in context.  Once again, there was so much more to the session than can be summarised here. Another recording that needs to be revisited.

     

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    ‘Talking about race with children’ 

    Toks Olusamokun, Race Equality Adviser Education Services, HfL

    In this session, Toks spoke about the book Wish We Knew What To Say – Talking To Children About Race by Pragya Agarwal. Toks acknowledged some of the difficulties that can emerge around talking about race, and how a book like Agarwal’s can help to build the tools to support such dialogue. Toks offered a walk through the book: why such conversations matter so much, and why they can be so difficult; a consideration of specific issues and environments and how ideas about race form in those contexts; an exploration of child development and how this might interact with the subject. Particular attention was drawn to Agarwal’s exploration of the language of talk about race and ethnicity, and how this exploration may prove especially helpful for those in the earliest stages of embarking on work related to the themes of the conference.

    You can find out more in this podcast by the book’s author.

    Find out more about the book:

    Hachette: Wish we knew what to say

     

    If books are mirrors, then where are our reflections? An exploration of the representation of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people in children’s literature

    Gemma Bagnall, Reception teacher in Worcestershire

    This was another deeply thought-provoking session that we cannot do full justice to here.  In common with earlier sessions, Gemma flagged an array of upsetting statistics relating to discrimination against GRT communities. Gemma referred to the EHRC description of this discrimination as ‘the last respectable form of racism’.  In her own words, Gemma described this form of racism as the ‘one I hear challenged the least, the one I hear dropped into conversation the most.’ In keeping with other sessions,  Gemma shared ‘jokes’, illustrations, and writing that not only reinforce but also amplify this pernicious hatred.

    Moving on from these stark messages, Gemma offered historical perspectives on the representation of characters of GRT heritage, and made the case for enhanced space for properly reflective representation of GRT communities. Gemma closed with a list of reading recommendations.  She added caveats that each offered different benefits, and noted some variations in quality.  Gemma closed with a list of next steps and just this section alone demands a re-watch.

    Gemma’s booklist is pictured below – please note some titles are for more mature readers.  You can follow Gemma on Twitter where she tweets as @missBprimary.

     

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    The Campaign for the Stephen Lawrence Foundation

    Honourable Stuart Lawrence, author, educator & motivational speaker

    At the outset of our closing keynote, the Hon. Stuart Lawrence thoroughly celebrated our profession and the ways by which teachers are a power for positive change. This celebration was made all the more meaningful through his personal accounts of his own journey as a teacher and the people that inspired him along the way.

    Stuart very generously shared some admiration for our own work and referred to our recent podcast on empathy (you can find the link above in the Build Up section).  Drawing upon the podcast, Stuart further explored the work of Dr Rudine Sims Bishop, as well as a talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on the reductive dangers of singular representations of peoples. Given that this talk featured in two sessions and the podcast, it’s likely that you may want to watch it for yourselves.

    Stuart moved on to discuss the profoundly difficult subject of the racist murder of his older brother Stephen.  He shared a powerful video exploring his early memories of family, and the events surrounding the killing of his brother.  He then shared the work he does in school to explore with the children the ways by which choice, agency and empathy can shape our lives.  In talking about this, he moved on to the importance of stories, and how it is stories that make us human. As such, Stuart drew us back to the heart of the conference.  It was a powerful, wide-ranging and generous presentation, with fluidly woven acknowledgments of all of the other speakers. Part of the power of this closing session was the ways in which it galvanised, and the ways by which it encouraged collective effort.

    The comments in the chat and the feedback after the event made clear that this was just the sort of session, with just the right dose of reflection, celebration and – once again – inspiration – to draw events to a close. But above all else, the lasting message that Stuart wanted us to take away was that ultimately this was all about love and how that enables ‘the drive to make the world a better place.’  

    We’d just like to re-share Stuart’s reminder that Stephen Lawrence Day takes place on April 22nd 2022.  Please do look out for details of events planned for this very special day.

     

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    The build up

    Ahead of the event, we shared a series of blogs and a smaller number of podcasts to set out our rationale for the day.

     

    Blogs

    Our opening blog, came in the form of a very personal blog from one of the conference’s lead organisers, Penny Slater.

    Theresa Clements, the other lead organiser, was up next with a similarly personal exploration of the nature of talk about heritage, origin, and race in relation to mixed-race families.

    Our third blog came from Michael Gray, one of the speakers at the conference.  Michael offered a third personal account of the effects of government legislation in relation to LGBTQ+ students.

    Finally, Martin Galway explored the importance of empathy in reading development, as well as in terms of the more widely recognised social benefits.

     

    Podcasts

    The importance of empathy

    In this podcast, Martin Galway speaks about the importance of developing empathy and its benefits for the child, society and educational outcomes. We were delighted to hear the Rt.Hon Stuart Lawrence’s enthusiasm for the podcast, and the authors referred to within it, during the conference’s closing key note.

     

     

     

    The importance of LGBTQ+ literature in the primary classroom

    Michael Gray, then working as a colleague on the primary English team, talks about the importance of diverse literature in the primary classroom - especially LGBTQ+ literature - reflecting on his own experiences and the impact of section 28. 

     

     

     

    Reflections

    To close we’d just like to share some of the reflections offered by participants and colleagues.  We are extremely grateful for the overwhelmingly positive feedback we have received on the day and since. It really does help to spur us on and it fills us with confidence to see the strength of commitment to this work in our schools.

    Let’s reflect…

    "The thing that shone out for me about Tuesday’s conference was how very real it all was. The incredible speakers really reinforced for me that people’s lived experiences and personal truths don’t lie – we all need to be more prepared to listen, and even ask, what we can do differently, better, faster than this. Maybe we need to ‘dare to be brave’ and tell ourselves it’s actually not okay for someone to not feel okay, when it comes to how they are made to feel about their identity. We’ve been so wrong about how we treat each other as humans for far too long – we in education have such a responsibility (and privilege) in what we can do about this."

    Kirsten Snook, Primary English Adviser, Herts for Learning

    "Standing out in my mind is the photograph of a staff meeting in the school hall at Highover Primary where teachers were reading, discussing and analysing for unconscious bias, a range of books commonly used in school. Examples of well-meaning but biased sterotypes had been highlighted and my mind at once started jumping to others with ‘oh good lord, yes’ resounding about me. And the core message shared by Sophie was brilliant (and a common message from lots of the speakers) – let’s still read these books, of course let’s still read these books, many of them are wonderful, but, let’s just pause and point out to the children that ‘ooh, maybe that’s not really how it is, there are lots of daddies who do the cooking’. Or equally, ‘that’s an interesting view isn’t it; we don’t think like that nowadays because we know/believe …’. What a brilliant and practical way of getting all the teachers in a school to start thinking about unconscious bias, so that they can get their children thinking and noticing. Thank you Highover. I’ve already shared the suggestion in school visits this week."

    Alison Dawkins, Primary English Adviser, Herts for Learning

    "An incredible event! Thank you for all the organisation, thought and effort that went into it. Wonderful to have a diverse range of themes discussed, but all linked by an overarching message of empathy, understanding and positive representation."

    Rebekah Ng, St John’s CE Primary School, Lemsford

    "Reflecting on Andrew Mofatt’s, No Outsiders presentation has made me consider even more deeply about book choices in school.  Having ‘no outsiders’ as a reminder will help me suggest texts that encompass and reflect the variety of beautiful children in our primary schools."

    Jane Andrews, Primary English Adviser, Herts for Learning

    "I really enjoyed today. The speakers spoke with passion, inspiring me to take action to ensure there is more diverse representation across the curriculum. Thank you to everyone who made today possible."

    Sarah Williams, Bushey Manor Junior School

    "I just wanted to get in touch to say how brilliant the conference was on Tuesday. It was truly inspirational, thought provoking and change-making. The speakers were excellent, each bringing profound wisdom around diversity, inclusion & representation; I know that I felt privileged to have the opportunity to listen to the speakers & I don't believe anyone left the 'room' without taking something away that will have a positive impact in Hertfordshire schools and beyond. Thank you again for one of the best events hosted by HfL EVER!"

    Cynthia Rowe, Headteacher, How Wood Primary School and Nursery

     

    A final thank you!

    We’d like to offer our deeply sincere thanks to all of our speakers.  We knew they would be great, but experiencing them altogether in a single programme was something else.  Further heartfelt thanks go to the wonderful, thankfully local Next Page booksellers of Hitchin who offered their bookish expertise across the day.  You can visit them online, or better still pop by to the shop for a warm and well-informed welcome.  Thank you too to our very own Theresa and Penny for expert hosting, and to all of our colleagues that made this event possible. Finally, and above all, thank you to everyone who joined us.  Let’s keep thinking, talking, and acting on these points of inspiration.

    On demand recordings

    If you missed the conference and want to hear the sessions then on-demand access to all the session recordings is available until Friday 18th February 2022 and costs £79.

    Access the recordings


     

     

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    Primary English

    Herts for Learning Primary English team

    primaryenglish@hertsforlearning.co.uk

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