Female-role models within the curriculum

Written by: Shalina Patel | Published:

Are the experiences and contributions of women featured in your school’s curriculum? What about women of colour? Shalina Patel looks at how we can ensure that what we are teaching is properly representative of the society in which we live

How often are the experiences and contributions of women featured within your subject area? I would imagine the general consensus is somewhere between sometimes and occasionally.

There have certainly been strides made in this area, with successful campaigns to include women within the politics and music curriculum (BBC, 2016). But how often are they women of colour? Ask the students and they will tell you that it is alarmingly few, if any.

In this article, I use the term “women of colour” as opposed to “Black, Asian and minority ethnic” (BAME) due to personal preference. I feel “women of colour” is more inclusive and appropriate for the context I am writing about. It is a term which Rupi Kaur, who is on my (in)visible gallery wall – see later – uses frequently (see also Ford, 2015).
With more calls for intersectionality within mainstream media, is it not time that we tried to make the secondary school experience more representative? My focus here will be on women, particularly British women of colour, whose stories are often not invisible within the secondary school experience. The key issue here is time. With more content to teach at GCSE and A level what can we do to explore these marginalised voices meaningfully and realistically?

Diversify what is already there...

Where are the missed opportunities? I appreciate that this is easier in some subjects than in others, with history as the most obvious curriculum area to explore the achievements and stories of women.

For example, for the key stage 3 history curriculum we have tried to include diverse voices within the existing historical contexts we offer. Year 7 work on medieval Britain now includes a comparison with medieval feudalism in Japan, allowing students to explore the story of Tomoe Gozen, a female samurai or Onna-bugeisha.

Our suffragette unit now includes lessons on two suffragettes who faced additional barriers when fighting for the right to vote – race and disability. Sophia Duleep Singh was a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). She was prosecuted for refusing to pay taxes and famously sold copies of The Suffragette outside Hampton Court Palace.

Rosa May Billinghurst was unable to walk due to polio and so campaigned for the WSPU on a tricycle. This did not stop her from participating in the usual suffragette tactics of setting post boxes alight, chaining herself to railings and smashing windows, something she was arrested for in 1912.

Within the GCSE and A level curriculum this is much more challenging, especially since the recent reforms.

However, I recently watched some GCSE drama set pieces which included scenes from the Queen of Sheba, a play that explores the theme of misogynoir (misogyny directed towards Black women whereby race and gender play a role in the experienced discrimination), showing that it is possible to incorporate marginalised voices at key stage 4 too.

Create an (in)visible gallery wall

  • Print out 10 or so individual images of inspirational women – on A4 paper in colour and with their full name above the image – to create a wall display.
  • Ensure this wall display is intersectional with women from different classes, races, cultures, ages – trust me, what will follow is questions from your students.
  • Students will often ask who specific individuals are, in which case I either explain (if there is time) or I ask the student to research the person and to then tell the class who they are in the next lesson.
  • The gallery can be easily updated and students have even suggested new women to place on the display. The current women on my gallery wall include Rupi Kaur, Tarana Burke, The Rani of Jhansi and Noor Inayat Khan.

Resources are everywhere...

...if you know where to look! There are lots of good and inspirational sources out there. For example:

  • @brownhistory – an account which posts incredible images from across different archives alongside biographical details.
  • @illustratedwih – showcases the stories of significant women, both past and present, with brilliant hand-drawn illustrations.
  • @herstory_uk – uses art to engage people in women’s history. They recently created murals across central London that included Sophia Duleep Singh (Calderwood & Sanchez, 2018).

There are many websites providing personal stories of individuals who have shaped the Britain we live in today as well as videos, images and guidance for teachers.

I would recommend, for example, Our Migration Story. One stand-out story for me is about Anwar Ditta, who fought tirelessly for the rights of her three children to move here from Pakistan in the late 1970s.

Wikipedia has also been showcasing the contributions of female scientists thanks to Dr Jess Wade, who has added pages on more than 300 women. And The Female Lead website’s “20 in their 20s” feature lists amazing case studies worth sharing with students.


My journey has been inspired by many British authors who have delved into issues of race and identity recently, such as Brit(ish) by Afua Hirsch (2018), The Good Immigrant by Nikesh Shukla (2016) – a collection of 21 essays by persons belonging to Black, Asian and ethnic minority communities of the UK – and Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo Lodge (2017) – to name but three.

Places to visit

There are an increasing number of events and spaces that are providing a platform to celebrate marginalised voices. The NOW gallery recently housed an exhibition called Another England: Human Stories, which showcased stories and images of Black and Asian presence in England.

The Autograph Gallery is another example, whose aim is to engage “with diverse groups and communities to explore issues of identity, representation, social justice and human rights through photography and film”.


Ask students to research hidden figures, propose suggestions for new bank notes and statues, or even just a different (in)visible woman for your classroom gallery.

Alternatively ask them to look closer to home – display a world map and ask students to place a pin on the country that is most closely associated with their family history. Postcards made by the students can surround the map and explain their link with that particular place.

Encourage them to delve into the history of the local area, too. One such figure who has inspired our students is Jayaben Desai or “the striker in a sari”, who was a key leader in the Grunwick Strike in 1976 (Lyons, 2018).

Assembly time

Mandela, Gandhi, King Jnr and Parks – play assembly bingo with these four on your card and you are guaranteed a win. Two alternative and current role models to share could be Nimco Ali and Amika George.

Nimco is a social activist and her work was instrumental in campaigning to amending the Children’s Act to include protection against female genital mutilation earlier this year.

Amika George, meanwhile, is a teenage activist who started the #freeperiods movement in 2017 with the aim of eradicating period poverty. Her work has led to a decision by the government to provide free sanitary products in England’s primary and secondary schools and colleges (BBC, 2019).

Why not explore your own experiences in an assembly? I recently presented a sixth form assembly that dissected the term “coconut”. In this, I reflected on the struggles I have had with belonging and my own identity as a British Asian woman.

The discussions this sparked among sixth form students about their experiences has been eye-opening. And it goes without saying that it does not need to be International Women’s Day or Black History Month to be able to talk about these issues.


I am a big believer in the idea that you cannot be what you cannot see. Let us normalise and embed these experiences. Let us celebrate these voices loudly. Let us do what we can to provide students with a truly intersectional school experience. 

  • Shalina Patel is head of history at Claremont High School Academy in Middlesex. She was a Pearson Teaching Awards Silver Winner in the Teacher of the Year category in 2018. Visit www.teachingawards.com

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