Tackling Racism in School through Professional Learning Networks – Part 1

Back in 2018, a Somali student told me about letters being posted to Muslims around the city, threatening them with various acts of violence and humiliation that would occur on April 3 of that year. In response, the Easton Jamia Masjid made April 3 ‘Love Thy Neighbour Day‘ to welcome everyone with food and to talk about the role of the mosque in the community.

I got on the 24 bus with a fellow North American teacher to attend – we’d both been horrified by the stories of the verbal and physical abuse that our female Somali students face on their walk to and from school. These mainly from white men in cars, who can speed away from the consequences.

While my colleague and I were chatting on the bus, an elderly white man complimented our accents. Said he wished he could live in Canada or the States. I argued back – you can’t walk or cycle across the countryside, jump in a river, and then gorge yourself on Somerset cider and real Cheddar cheese in Canada.

“Ah well, the countryside is alright, but it’s all these Somalis in Bristol that’s the problem!” he replied.

The bus was packed with a diverse crowd, including Somali people, and no one even blinked. I merely looked at him like he’d pissed himself, which shut him down, though I wish in retrospect that I had conquered my shock and given him a bollocking.

The point is that when the 2017 Runnymede Report stated Bristol was the worst major city in the country for ethnic inequality, particularly disadvantaging Black African people, I was not surprised. Before this report, I had encountered casual, public hatred of Somalis a few times. Like all social problems, this is played out in schools, and the lack of staffing or formalised input from the Somali community means the problem is often hushed up rather than confronted.

I know of two schools, both in suburban, mainly white neighbourhoods, where the social segregation of Somali kids is so extreme, and racism so casual, that it has erupted in riot. One of the schools was put in special measures for, as some locals call it, ‘the Somali problem’. At the other, when a white kid repeatedly used the N-word to provoke the Somali kids, the conversation was snuffed out rather than opened up, to the disappointment and frustration of many staff and kids who wanted to confront the issue.

Following a visit to this school, I got on a bus with kids on their own way home. All the white kids went upstairs. The black kids stayed downstairs, and surrounded me. Headphones were of no use – they were rowdy and LIVID about a recent sanction given to a Somali girl.

When I took my headphones off, told them I was teacher, and asked what was going on, they told me: a Somali girl and a white girl were partnered for a Science lab. They both chatted at the end and didn’t get equipment put away in time, but only the Somali girl was sanctioned. The white girl protested, said she too was at fault, but this was ignored.

There were over 20 kids sat around me, and apart from the speaker, all became silent, calm and respectful. They explained the situation in empirical and rational terms. They were mature and reasonable. They just needed to be really listened to. I reported this back and recommended a Somali community leader who could help, but it wasn’t picked up.

Like the first school I mentioned, some members of this community locate the problem in the Somali students themselves, noting religious conflicts with Sex & Relationship Education (SRE) and evolution in the curriculum, though having taught SRE to year 11 students myself, I find it odd that anyone would identify the religious views of Somali students in particular and in general as a problem.

Somali kids are not distinctive in their response to SRE – most kids are open and pragmatic. A few, from a range of backgrounds, will find the content challenges their conservative social views.

The real intent of highlighting Somali students is that it positions the whole community as “backwards”. The narrative goes like this: we feel for these people, we can’t imagine what they’ve come from, but they bring their extreme religious views and trauma and violence here and ….

It’s White Man Burden stuff. Actually these students bring what most students do: engaged and hard-working parents; an urge to fit in and do well. A culture and perspective that, if respected, can bring great value to the curriculum and the school ethos.

In another very different school, there was an unfortunate assembly after the New Zealand mosque shooting. The speaker had already prepared a talk on ‘the importance of forgiveness’, and news of the shooting came minutes before his delivery. He acknowledged possible sensitivity, but delivered it anyway, saying that it was perhaps even more relevant.

One female student I knew expressed her anger and frustration after the assembly. That the tabloid media had represented the shooter as an angelic child who had gone mad. No sign of the terrorism label that is applied when the culprit is BAME.

She was angry that she and her friends are regularly harassed, that they don’t feel safe on their walk to school. That Asian and Somali Muslim boys deny Islamaphobia “is a thing” because they don’t want to challenge their white male friends or look like they’re “attention-seeking”.

But on this day, she and her friends were really mad that they had been asked to forgive a man who had shot innocent people in the back while they were praying. They wanted acknowledgement that this was an evil and horrific act. They wanted anger and real talk and real solutions.

So I arranged a meeting between this student, her friends, the speaker at the assembly, and the Principal. And I gave her a signed copy of Baroness Warsi’s book, The Enemy Within, for preparation.

She didn’t need it. The white male school leaders listened to her and her friends with deference and respect. They were shocked, humbled and also galvanised afterwards.

The result? Assemblies run by these female students across 7-11 year groups, changes to the Religious Education curriculum, visits from Muslim community leaders, and changes in mind-set and the distribution of leadership. In short, a very real commitment to change that has manifested in ways I will discuss in part two.

NB: My personal output from my adventures in decolonising the curriculum, a SoW on Somali Poetry, is here:


With some accompanying docs here:




Order Warda Yassin’s excellent poetry collection Tea with Cardamom for the diaspora poetry section.

Reference in title to:

Brown, C. (2020) The Networked School Leader, (Bingley: Emerald)


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