Shukri Abdi and the urgent need for anti-racist education

The Shukri Abdi case is a painful reminder that UK schools are not safe for everyone. We need an explicitly anti-racist curriculum, argues Remi Joseph-Salisbury

December 4, 2020 · 4 min read
Mourners march to Shukri’s school. Photo: The Campaign for Justice for Shukri

While this year’s Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests have focused on policing, anti-racist protesters have also drawn attention to much wider issues of endemic racism, and particularly the racism that underpins schooling in Britain. Alongside others, the name of Shukri Abdi has come to define the UK protests.

Shukri was found drowned in greater Manchester’s River Irwell in June 2019. A 12-year-old black Muslim girl who arrived in the UK as a refugee, Shukri was victim to severe bullying. According to her family, as is too often the case, their reports of bullying were not addressed by Shukri’s school. Despite Greater Manchester Police’s near-instant denial of suspicious circumstances, her family and campaigners have always held that this is more than a tragic accident. As the findings of a police inquest continue to emerge – and as campaigners have warned from the beginning – it is becoming harder and harder to ignore the fundamental role that institutional racism played in Shukri’s death.

We must take this opportunity to honour the memory of Shukri Abdi, and to actualise the radical potential of the BLM movement, by pushing for a transformation of our education system.

The development of anti-racist students should be regarded as a key purpose of schooling

I recently spoke with teachers while researching for a Runnymede Trust report on Race and Racism in English Secondary Schools. The educators I met left no doubt that there is a drastic need for change. ‘The situation is dire,’ as one teacher put it. As I was repeatedly told, there is a desperate and longstanding need for more teachers from black, Asian and other minority ethnic backgrounds. This is but one small, and somewhat limited, step in the right direction. Schools must also ensure that all teachers are racially literate. To be racially literate is to understand how race and racisms work in society, and to teach in ways that promote anti-racism. This should be a key requirement for becoming a teacher and should be reflected in teacher training and continued professional development.

We also need a radical overhaul of the curriculum – and related resources – to ensure that students are taught to reckon with the colonial histories, and racist present, of Britain. By cultivating such an understanding, schools can look to develop an anti-racist student body and contribute to the development of an anti-racist society. If we are taking the lessons of Shukri’s death seriously, the development of anti-racist students should be regarded as a key purpose of schooling.

As important as these changes are, they will be insufficient if they are not supported by wider changes in culture and policies within schools. This starts with clear anti-racist policies, including taking seriously the kind of bullying that students such as Shukri experience, and grappling with the issue of how schools might create the institutional conditions for such bullying.

We also need to recognise the racisms embedded in many existing policies. For example, we can no longer allow schools to discriminate against black students for their natural hair. Nor, in the wake of BLM protests, can we allow police to become a permanent presence in our schools. As history attests, schooling will be a key battleground for anti-racism in the coming years. There is much work to be done.

We need a radical overhaul of the curriculum to ensure that students are taught to reckon with the colonial histories, and racist present, of Britain.

Remi Joseph-Salisbury is a Presidential Fellow in Sociology at University of Manchester and a Red Pepper columnist. This article originally appeared in issue #229, published September 2020

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