Teaching through the black experience

Written by: Josiah Isles | Published:
Image: Adobe Stok

How can we close the gap of inherited success for our black students? It will take more than one-off or tokenistic activities for Black History Month. Josiah Isles offers some ideas and reflections

I was initially asked to write an article helping teachers with suggestions and ideas for Black History Month, which was a bit of a sticking point for me…

I fully appreciate the value of Black History Month, but essentially have doubts about the long-term impact on the lives of the individual learners and their outcomes.

The celebration of diversity and the acquisition of new knowledge that pertains to black history and culture is vital, but how much of this knowledge is retained? How is this knowledge used to further the life chances of the black learners?

So instead, I will use this platform to discuss some strategies that may be useful in your school context for beyond Black History Month. What should we be trying to achieve with our black learners during their five years in secondary education and how can we try to get there, collectively? Let’s begin by considering some of the key issues.

Inherited success

Many of the ideas that I have tried are rooted in the research surrounding racial wealth gaps; this is often described as “inherited wealth”.

The Resolution Foundation’s publication A gap which won’t close (Bangham, 2020) contains a number of stark findings: “The report finds that, in the UK, people of black African ethnicity typically hold the lowest wealth (a median figure of £24,000 family wealth per adult), a total which amounts to less than one eighth of the typical wealth held by a person of white British ethnicity (£197,000 family wealth per adult).’’

Bloomberg (2021) has also reported: “Other systemic factors contribute towards the wealth gap, such as lack of access to credit or high-paying jobs.”

By using the term “wealth”, I’m not limiting the discussion to financial wealth (although this does play a massive part); the larger issue for education is the inherited wealth of opportunities, role models and routes to success in society in the past, in the present and for future generations.

Use of historical examples

When we teach Black History Month and we talk about Daniel Hale, who performed the first successful heart surgery, are we using this as a platform for a bigger conversation about routes into medicine for learners?

Are we arranging discussions with black healthcare professionals so the learners can see how the work of Daniel Hale has helped facilitate the growth of medicine for us in the present? Or is this an isolated fact that the learners will have forgotten by the time Black History Month rolls around again next year?

We wouldn’t teach the history GCSE curriculum without the correct emphasis on the lessons society has learnt from the events. Black history should be similarly linked to current events. What did we learn? How can we apply this to the current social context, regardless of our backgrounds?

To explore more historical contexts relevant to our students check out the Tes Black Experiences Hub.

Role models in society

The idea of inherited success comes into play here also. The learners and their families are very motivated to succeed. What are the limitations? Often their perception of the opportunities that are viable options for them.

Have the learners even met or spoken to a lawyer, veterinarian, pilot of any description? Compare this to a family who has all these occupations within the extended family unit. Guidance is instantly available for how to proceed with accessing these career opportunities.

If you are a first-generation prospective university attendee, it is likely that your main guidance will come from school, but your choices of what path to follow as a learner are guided by many unconscious, learnt behaviours from childhood. Exposure to a wider range of viable options is essential.

There is data to suggest that the success of black students at university has increased: “From 2014-2020, the percentage of graduates who got a first-class or 2:1 degree went up in every ethnic group, with the biggest increase among black graduates (from 50.8% to 65.8%).” (Bloomberg, 2021)

If the learners in schools had access to this increasing pool of successful black graduates to talk to and learn from, surely the impact could only be a further improvement in these figures?

What can we do?

Many universities have outreach programmes for their local communities. We need to be more specific about what we need from them in order to support the development of future black graduates.

I would suggest canvassing the learners in your school for their aspirations and asking for graduates/undergraduates who can mentor/coach these learners specifically – helping to reduce the gap of inherited success.

Likewise, we can use social media to connect with black-owned businesses from across a broad spectrum of industries. Some learners will be unaware of the vast array of careers that they can have access to and working with local or national businesses can help to widen their world view.

Each city in the UK is now developing a network of black-owned businesses that consumers can seek out with minimal effort. Greater Manchester, where I am based, has quite a number and this is increasing year-on-year.

In my school – Ladybridge High in Bolton – we have set up a programme called Younger Brothers, which has been developed specifically to combat poor career aspirations among black African/Caribbean boys. They are given the opportunity to meet and talk to mentors from a wide network of industries, who have been selected to inspire interest and broaden horizons. Speakers have included musicians, professional footballers, small business owners, a lawyer from a top London firm, a royal marine, graphic designers and music managers, among others.

We can also raise the profile of the celebration of diversity in our schools through the use of traditional dress in school, by introducing foods in the canteen that widen the experience and reduce ignorance around what people from other cultures eat, and by facilitating opportunities to meet and talk to older generations about their experiences, fully immersing the learners in living black history that is full of positivity.


As educators, we have come a long way. Eyes have been opened to the full extent of the challenges that black learners face, and a multi-faceted approach is essential when teaching black history and culture, and most importantly, when considering how to improve the life chances of black learners in education.

My suggestion would be to continue to have a frank dialogue with black learners, open and transparent, unafraid of the uncomfortable truths of black British history, and able to explore the many remarkable gems in black history that can help to inspire the upcoming generation to greater success.

  • Josiah Isles is assistant headteacher at Ladybridge High School in Bolton. Josiah was a panellist on the BBC Teach and Tes programme Beyond Black History Month (October 2020). You can still watch this via https://bit.ly/3C5Ob2T

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