Being a more inclusive teacher: learnings from the UK context

This is a guest post by Michelle Mangal, an educational consultant, creative and teacher with over ten years’ experience in the not-for-profit sector. Her teaching context – and that of this post – is the UK.

Michelle brings with her specialised expertise of working with young people, BAME community groups, Black History and poetry.

You can contact her at 

EDI in the UK school system

EDI (Equality, Diversity and Inclusion) is defined as ensuring ‘fair treatment and opportunity for all. It aims to eradicate prejudice and discrimination on the basis of an individual or group of individual’s protected characteristics.’

We cannot discuss these ideas in relation to education without first considering the makeup of schools. As a former teacher and member of the Inclusion team in various London schools, certain patterns within schools emerged. This pattern was as follows:

A diverse student body and support staff which included cleaners, dinner ladies, and members of the SEN (Special Educational Needs), EAL (English as an Additional Language) and behaviour mentor departments, a hierarchy of predominantly monocultural teaching staff and an overwhelmingly white senior leader body.

These observations are supported by research, as highlighted by the Runnymede Trust in 2020:

‘According to the Department for Education (DfE), in 2018, nearly 92% of teachers in England’s statefunded schools were white. This is starker in relation to headteacher positions, with only 3% of heads coming from ‘ethnic minority’ backgrounds.’

So schools, supposedly the bastion of equality, can be argued to be a microcosm of mainstream inequalities. This holds true even in areas which have greater incidences of monocultural societies, and the lessons to be learned can be applied to a wide variety of education environments.

Diversity in UK classrooms

In the UK, depending on where you are, a classroom may include students from a myriad of countries or cultures or be filled with predominantly white students and British culture. Both types of classroom require dissection for us to understand the risks of exclusion or unfairness that are perpetuated in the classroom.

Socio-economic factors are the key common denominator in classrooms across the UK, with poorer students not only achieving poorer grades but also lacking in material resources for private tuition and lacking the cultural capital of job connections and educational know-how, from navigating and challenging the school to how to write a persuasive university statement.

But socio-economic factors are just one factor that may negatively affect students, so we must take an intersectional approach when approaching an analysis of the risks of exclusion within the classroom.

We know that race and educational outcomes are intertwined, whether that is the attainment of Black Caribbean boys or white working-class boys. Yet the common denominator often found in the analyses of the attainment of these two groups highlights unconscious bias by their white middle-class teachers working with a paradigm of middle-class values – hence the disproportionate temporary exclusions of Black, Mixed race, Gypsy and Romany children. There is also evidence that those with SEN (special educational needs) are disproportionately excluded from school.

In addition to these issues of race and class, when taking an intersectional approach we also cannot ignore that gender plays its part in the classroom. For example, girls are typically socialised to be polite, follow instructions and complete tasks, but yet may be at risk of learning less due to boys taking up more space in the classroom by being disruptive and demanding attention.

Why do we need to think carefully about an intersectional approach?

The term ‘intersectionality’ is attributed to Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989) ‘to describe how race, class, gender, and other individual characteristics “intersect” with one another and overlap.’ This diagram illustrates the axes of intersectionality:

It’s important to understand intersectionality because minorities in a learning environment can experience feelings of isolation which can lead to marginalisation.

Take the example of a Bangladeshi Muslim girl in a predominantly white classroom in the UK. Not only are her religious beliefs probably different to those of the majority of her classmates, but also her race, culture and language.

From an EDI perspective, we must ask: what attempts are made to ensure that students are included who fall on multiple points of the axis of intersectionality? Or is it assumed that their complex identities will not exclude them from learning? Do educators’ own cultural assumptions based on their undiscovered unconscious bias mean that they are ignoring the elephant in the room?

Luckily there are steps that educators can take to right these wrongs.

A simple step that teachers can take when creating teaching materials is to represent students globally and not take the unconscious, easy shorthand of populating materials, reading texts with representations of white children and individuals whose stories and values are meant to represent all.

This step includes representation and inclusion of case studies and ‘characters’ that are LGBTQIA+ and neurodivergent. Are teachers brave enough to teach about LGBTQIA+ figures during February (LGBT month) and then across the year?

It takes courage to recognise that there are gaping holes in our knowledge and teaching practice. It is nothing less than bold-hearted bravery that facilitates taking the action needed to correct ourselves and therefore our lesson content.  We have seen great steps taken by schools to include Black History Month and racial literacy training but as campaigners the Black Curriculum have argued, Black History should be taught all year round and I would argue the same applies to representation of minority and marginalised groups.

The impact of better representation

The benefits of more courageous teachers? More engaged students.

Students who see themselves represented will be able to recognise that their school is one that honours their identity, not one that tries to pretend the school is one homogeneous mass.

What’s more, students that do see themselves regularly represented should be encouraged to be empathetic to those who are not. This can be achieved if both discrimination and successes of minority and marginalised groups are taught in a fair and safe way. Educating students through the use of fair representation in imagery, text and case studies prepares all for the truth of the world they live in and perhaps even encourages them to tackle racism, sexism, ableism and homophobia amongst other things.

We must not hide behind the belief that children are too young to be taught about issues such as race. Education must be appropriate to the age being taught, but this does not excuse personal squeamishness, ignorance or not taking the time to do research on how to teach and discuss necessary topics. Research shows that children as young as four are choosing playmates on the basis of race, so we can deduce that they are not too young to be educated about race. Similarly, challenging sexism and gender roles can be as simple as not reinforcing statements such as ‘Boys will be boys’ and ‘pink is for girls’.

How can I be more inclusive?

Start with yourself first.

It is time for teachers and educators to be more courageous in the name of true equality, diversity and learning. This will require new learning and a great deal of unlearning.

Decolonisation of the self is defined as ‘the process of examining your beliefs about […] Peoples and culture by learning about yourself in relationship to the communities where you live and the people with whom you interact.’ This is a journey that is intrinsic to learning how to be a better educator.

A good starting point would be the White privilege test, created by academic Peggy McIntosh to explore race and privilege. Other useful resources are:

Update resources to be more inclusive.

It would be easiest to choose one set of resources that you would like to adapt. Think of it as updating a resource, rather than starting again from scratch. You could:

  1. Collaborate and connect.
    1. Talk to your colleagues or other teachers, including those not in your department. They may have ideas or resources and be a source of support.
    2. Talk to your students. Ask them who they would like to see represented. This may give you some good starting points.
  2. Research and plan.
    1. Evaluate your existing teaching materials. Do they feature an even balance of different racial groups,individuals with and without disabilities, sexualities, etc.?
    2. Follow educators such as The Black Curriculum, the History Corridor, LGBT, Lgbt_history and use resources such as Humans of New York, Amnesty’s Write for Rights campaign to diversify sources.
    3. Use books which represent a wide number of children – see the report by the CLPE or those from Letterbox library.
  3. Take a critical lens to your work.

The following questions are taken from the SOAS decolonising tool kit:

  1. To what extent does the content of my/our syllabus/programme presume a particular profile/mindset of student and their orientation to the world?
  2. Do programmes/modules enable the use of non-English sources in the curriculum?
  3. What is the demographic profile of authors on the syllabus/programme? 
    1. What is the effect of this on the diversity of views with which the students are presented? 
    2. What is the effect of this on student engagement?
  4. To what extent do we teach ‘controversies’ around key issues in the field or think about how to engage topics dialogically?
  5. To what extent do we teach through the juxtaposition of material from different areas?
  6. To what extent do we contextualise the subject in its historical moment, making explicit the kinds of research programmes, assumptions and aspirations that generated it?

Can I really make a difference?

Educators around the world are doing incredible work changing children’s hearts and minds. Anyone that has taught at all in the last year has been a beacon of light and stability. You may not think of yourself as a social justice warrior, but you are. You choose to educate and therefore you are committed to the best outcomes your students can have.

A commitment to ensure EDI is embedded in our practice and is central to supporting students’ wellbeing. We are not only concerned with their grades but with their souls. Black feminist author, bell hooks (1994), perhaps said it best: 

“To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin…”

bell hooks

The journey starts with you, but it does not end in the classroom.

Good luck!

Find out more about the work we’re doing on Inclusive Learning Design.