Razia Parveen

Razia Parveen

Razia Parveen has a Phd in Postcolonialism, Culture and Identity. She is a supply teacher and an independent researcher in all matters regarding BAME identity, cultures and living in diaspora, and is the author of Recipes and Songs. 

In defence of GCSE poetry
Sunday, 16 August 2020 09:19

In defence of GCSE poetry

Published in Education

Razia Parveen criticises the government's decision to make poetry optional for study at GCSE level. The image above is of John Agard

The Tory government has recently announced that poetry will be optional for the 2021 GCSE exams. This retrograde decision will undoubtedly deprive thousands of children of the opportunity of learning about other cultures beyond Boris Johnson’s Little England. There is something particularly offensive about a largely white, privately educated group of privileged politicians deciding to obstruct access to the highest levels of literature to huge numbers of BAME working-class pupils in state schools.

On the current list is a diverse body of writers, both traditional English writers as well as contemporary poets that cover topics such as the Holocaust, diasporic identity, child poverty and Japanese fighters during WW2. Teenagers in their formative years are introduced to a multifaceted range of writers for the first time. For many students this will be their first encounter with a writer of colour or non-English writer. For instance, the haunting message of  Vultures by African writer Chinua Achebe provides an invaluable lesson on the consequences of racism:

Strange
indeed how love in other
ways so particular
will pick a corner
in that charnel-house
tidy it and coil up there, perhaps
even fall asleep - her face
turned to the wall!

...Thus the Commandant at Belsen
Camp going home for
the day with fumes of
human roast clinging
rebelliously to his hairy
nostrils will stop
at the wayside sweet-shop
and pick up a chocolate

for his tender offspring
waiting at home for Daddy's
return...

Praise bounteous
providence if you will
that grants even an ogre
a tiny glow-worm
tenderness encapsulated
in icy caverns of a cruel
heart or else despair
for in the very germ
of that kindred love is
lodged the perpetuity
of evil.

Classroom discussion which begins with an analysis of the poem leads to a discussion of the wider aspects of humanity, including the timeless contest between the powerful and the powerless, and the necessity to fight the scourge of fascism wherever it appears.

We, as teachers, can broaden the students’ learning experience by taking them to locations such as the Holocaust Beth Shalom Centre in Newark. The student feedback when I took a group there a few years was hugely satisfying with comments such as “the poem has come to life”, “I really understand it now” and “I didn’t know poetry could be this important”. By taking poetry off the table we are surely doing this generation of children a massive dis-service. This pandemic has already taken so much from us, and we must not let it take swathes of our cultural heritage as well.

For many years now, Ofqual has rightly facilitated the expansion of children’s minds through the poetry of Shelley, Browning, Eliot, Dharkar, Bhatt and many others. We have canonical works sitting beside contemporary poems by writers of colour, and children are shown the beauty of language through the medium of GCSE textual analysis. Many of these children have continued to study English Literature at university and then onto a lifetime of appreciation and love for the written word. A number of them, no doubt, go on to be teachers of poetry themselves and, thereby, the torch of learning is passed down through generations.

The importance of poetry in these difficult times is impossible to exaggerate. The popularity of reading poetry has surged during lockdown, due to the ability of carefully crafted verse to combat feelings of isolation and loneliness. Many are convinced that reading poems in times of crisis has a cathartic power as it promotes some peace of mind in a world that seems to be out of control.

For instance, William Blake in London speaks of child poverty occurring in English society during the Victorian era but this is a poem that also tragically resonates in the Britain of 2020:

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg'd manacles I hear

How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls

This poem explores themes of both yesteryear but also tells of the current crisis of child poverty and can facilitate important conversations about the impact of austerity in the 21st century. Many schoolchildren in the education system are living the reality of deprivation both at home and at school, so it becomes a poem that they can relate to, unfortunately. This poem is familiar to students of GCSE English and can therefore become an extremely powerful tool to generate discussions that go beyond the narrow focus of passing exams.

Anti-racist poetry

Making poetry optional now also takes away the prospect of many children going to the theatre for the first time. Many contemporary poets are happy to read their poems on a stage for GCSE students. Trips to the theatre organised and led by English teachers are now in danger of becoming a thing of the past. Many children, for example, listen to John Agard’s voice and hear the anti-racist poem Half-Caste come to life and sit in awe as he performs his work:

Excuse me
Standing on one leg
I'm half-caste


Explain yuself
Wha yu mean
When yu say half-caste

Yu mean when picasso
Mix red an green
Is a half-caste canvas?

Explain yuself
Wha yu mean
When yu say half-caste?

Yu mean tchaikovsky

An when moon begin to glow
I half-caste human being
Cast half-a-shadow

But yu come back tomorrow
Wid de whole of yu eye
An de whole of yu ear
And de whole of yu mind

An I will tell yu
De other half
Of my story

This poem is best appreciated when read out aloud and to have the author in person read his own words to an enthralled audience is an unmissable experience. I recall taking a group of mainly black working-class boys to see John Agard perform his poetry at the theatre in Leeds. For this cohort of children it was the first trip to the theatre, as this is a pastime they would normally associate with the more privileged.

It was the first time that these boys heard someone reflect their own sense of community identity and belonging through the power of the spoken word. This experience was crucial to their own sense of identity and connects to the Black Lives Matter movement, which has provided a moment of hope in these dark times.

We also experienced Carol Ann Duffy reading In Mrs Tilscher’s Class and the vividness of the classroom situation swirling around the children’s eyes as they sat enraptured:

You could travel up the Blue Nile
with your finger, tracing the route
while Mrs Tilscher chanted the scenery.
Tana. Ethiopia. Khartoum. Aswân.
That for an hour, then a skittle of milk
and the chalky Pyramids rubbed into dust.
A window opened with a long pole.
The laugh of a bell swung by a running child.

This was better than home. Enthralling books.
The classroom glowed like a sweet shop.
Sugar paper. Coloured shapes. Brady and Hindley
faded, like the faint, uneasy smudge of a mistake.
Mrs Tilscher loved you. Some mornings, you found
she’d left a good gold star by your name.

The scent of a pencil slowly, carefully, shaved.
A xylophone’s nonsense heard from another form.

You ran through the gates, impatient to be grown,
as the sky split open into a thunderstorm.

These experiences can stay with a child far beyond the examination period and allow them to question the world around them, potentially for a lifetime. These school-based excursions become memories firmly embedded in a generation of children. By taking poetry away from them, Ofqual has not only become the bogeyman of poetry but also the snatcher of memories.

Why and how education must be decolonised
Tuesday, 21 July 2020 15:53

Why and how education must be decolonised

Published in Education

Razia Parveen argues that pulling down statues should only be the beginning of a radical decolonisation of the educational curriculum

I didn’t know that. Why didn’t they teach us that in school? These are words many of us have probably heard in the wake of the pulling down of the Colston statue in Bristol and similar Black Lives Matter protests around the UK. As an Asian educator, I find the current school curriculum leaves little room for manoeuvre when it comes to teaching outside the parameters of the Gove-inspired curriculum. This government would prefer us to be actively kept in the dark about Britain’s imperial past. Many in this country’s black and Asian communities feel that  its history has been whitewashed for generations and that thanks to initiatives such as Black History Month and the recent BLM movement previously marginalized  voices are now demanding a more truthful account of this country’s impact around the globe. Far more needs to be done to educate children on how the British Empire experimented with Ireland and then stretched its talons across the globe from Africa to the Asian sub-continent. Decolonizing the curriculum means confronting the ugly truths of colonialism and the involvement of the British Empire in a string of crimes against humanity.

In Reni Eddo-Lodge’s monologue Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race, she explores the very reality of being black in Britain today. One aspect of her secondary education that stands out is the fact that she knows black history or herstory was completely ignored, and it was not until university and her second year when she took an optional module on the transatlantic slave trade that she learnt about this country even having a slave trade:

The Albert Dock opened four decades after Britain’s final slave ship, the Kitty’s Amelia, set sail from the city, but it was the closest I could get to staring out at the sea and imagining Britain’s complicity in the slave trade. Standing on the edge of the dock, I felt despair. Walking past the city’s oldest buildings, I felt sick. Everywhere I looked, I could see slavery’s legacy.

 Here she makes it clear to her readers that the elision of black history has resulted in an educational void at the heart of England’s real history. This glaring failure of UK education urgently needs to be tackled by a thorough decolonisation of the curriculum. Before we can remedy the problem, we need to accept the fact that this void exists and cannot be allowed to continue.

Shashi Thapoor’s Inglorious Empirechronicles the complexity of the involvement of the East India Company and the atrocities carried out in the name of Queen Victoria and the British state. The repercussions of these atrocities are being felt even today. It is remarkable that Throor argues in Inglorious Empire that:

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, India’s share of the world economy was 23 per cent, as large as all of Europe put together. By the time the British departed India, it had dropped to 3 percent. The reason was simple: India was governed for the benefit of Britain. Britain’s rise for 200 years was financed by its depredations in India.

We are presented here with an aspect of history that has so far been forgotten by the educational curricula which currently govern our schools and colleges of learning. The consequence of learning an essentially pro-imperial historical narrative creates what some literary theorists call epistemic violence (or cultural violence) against minority groups. A decolonisation of the historical record would allow future generations of students to experience the full picture of this country’s role in propagating slavery and systemic racism.

As many parents of schoolchildren will be aware, Poetry from Other Cultures is one of the headings for study in the GCSE curriculum. Verses such as Blessing, Half-Caste, Island Man, Limbo, Night of the Scorpion, Vultures, Nothing’s Changed and Sujatta Bhatt’s Search For My Tongue are discussed as part of a commendable attempt to decolonize the KS4 learning programme. This is to be applauded and BAME communities welcome the effort to address the current imbalance of cultural diversity. However, these rays of light are often undermined by the Gradgrind-style of teaching and learning fostered by the DFE’s cult of testing and examination.

If a true decolonisation of the curriculum is to happen then several measures need to be put in place. We need a space where an ‘unlearning’ of the hegemonic historical narrative can take place. We need more Equality and Diversity training rather than the current regime of one day every six months that can become a token gesture that skirts a more serious problem. The teachers themselves need to have the opportunity to return to the classroom in conjunction with higher education institutes, and rethink the narrative the Tories want them to deliver. Many educators feel a lack of knowledge in aspects of black and Asian history. This gap can only be filled with a new emphasis on programmes of professional development that reduce the administrative duties forced on them. As the current school system is already overburdened with monotonous monitoring and is close to collapse, a decrease in teaching duties is necessary, otherwise the status quo will continue. Only be the intervention of a radical rethink of priorities can overhaul the current system and allow for a decolonisation of the curriculum.

A decolonisation of curricula in higher education should mean many more modules on courses on black history. This would not only make for a more diverse course, but also allow BAME lecturers to take up posts in the sector. I am currently aware of numerous white lecturers teaching the slave era to lecture theatres full of black and Asian students. This is highly problematic and only serves to reinforce hierarchical prejudices. By employing BAME lecturers to teach on BAME subjects, not only would it diversify the teaching quota but also widen participation for students from this background.

As a BAME educator, I find the current GCSE English Language and Literature syllabus highly eurocentric, and almost traumatising in places. The texts that must be studied are a 19th Century novel, a piece of drama and poetry that have all been written from within the culture of the colonizers. There is little room for any teaching ‘outside the box’.  For instance, there is barely any time to divert from the prescribed reading list and dive into a James Baldwin story or a Maya Angelou novella. The school timetable is rigidly controlled by the demands of external assessment and leaves little scope to study these authors and others like them. Pulling down statues in city squares can only be a start of the decolonising agenda - we must now pull down prejudice and stereotypes in the classroom.