Why we need an anti-racist approach in early years education

Afbeelding voor Why we need an anti-racist approach in early years education
The need for social justice and a heightened awareness of global racial inequality is something that we all must be cognisant of. For those of us on the receiving end of racism there may be nothing new in what I share in this piece. However, for those reading this who have, since the Summer of 2020, pledged to be stand side by side with Black people and those of the Global majority (Campbell-Stephens. R , 2021), in dismantling the racist systems and structures that form part of the tapestry of our everyday lives, you may find some nuggets here.

By Liz Pemberton

For 16 years, up until March 2020 I worked as a Nursery Manager based in Birmingham managing a setting that was predominantly Black and brown in terms of the children and families who accessed the provision. It was part of a family business that my mother started in the late 80’s and one of her aims was to create an environment that served the cultural needs of Black children as well as meeting their mandatory care and educational needs too.

When I joined the business in 2004 I knew that the cultural and racial landscape of the setting continued to be predominantly Black and brown. During my time there I always understood that part of my responsibility as a manager who shared the cultures and identity markers of many of the children and families was to share these openly and have the environment be very reflective of this. Culturally sensitive care for Black and global majority children is essential in the early years because it affirms and supports those childrens personal, social and emotional development holistically. It was sometimes the case that the care practices wouldn’t necessarily be universal to the few white children who attended my setting but having an awareness of the wider social constructs which constantly reenforce positive senses of self with regards to the racialised identities of white children the experiences that they had at my setting were not in any danger of negatively impacting how those children saw themselves in a cultural or racial sense. Their own early childhoods would now become more enriched and diversified better equipping them for a life in a multiracial Britain. I loved this blog written by a former white parent that I think really illustrates my point.

The lens of ‘normalcy’ in the pedagogy that we employed in our setting as opposed to a lens of ‘other’ which may be the case when examining how diversity is positioned with regards to race in predominantly white settings is something that I think that we should all be working towards irrespective of the ethnic or racial dynamics in of our early years environments.  This approach not only sees book corners filled with books where Black, South Asian or East or Southeast Asian children are the protagonists but also demands that we as practitioners start to examine our own internal biases and feelings when we view other cultures through a lens that we must accept has been blurred by white supremacist ideas. The more personal responsibility that we take to examine and absorb writings that will help us to understand anti-racism and the Black experience the more that we can start to build on our knowledge. I would certainly recommend both Layla.F. Saad’s book , Me and white Supremacy and Guilaine Kinouani’s book, Living While Black as starting points for early years educators.

Having now worked in the early years sector in various capacities for the past 18 years I continue to see how the sector has hidden behind an excuse of its workforce not seeing children’s colour or stating that children do not recognise the skin colour differences of their peers as a get-out to not seeing a need to explicitly engage with anti-racist approaches in the same way that we approach safeguarding. Seeing racial trauma as a separate issue that falls outside of safeguarding duties and responsibilities has left the early years workforce ill-equipped in this area which means that large percentages of racially minoritised children and families who use early years provision are potentially being left to experience and resolve any racial trauma without the right support. In chapter 5 of Kinouani’s book –Raising Black Children, she brilliantly explores this.

My work as an anti-racist trainer and consultant is centrally focussed on engaging with early years providers, institutions of education who prepare early years educators, Local Authorities and more broadly anybody who has a hand in shaping the lives of children aged between 0-5, to help develop strategies as to how we challenge, refocus, and ultimately dismantle racist systems that impact children and families who are racially minoritised.

I am often asked by white early years educators how to get IT right without causing offence. This focus on centring the feelings of white people in this work is precisely the problem. My response is to start by decentring yourself and start examining why you are prioritising your intentions of not wanting to offend over the impact that you will have on the racially minoritised person if you have offended. I ask white people to accept the fact that they will get it wrong but that this mustn’t be used as a reason to disengage which is what tends to happen so often.

Anti-racist practice in the early years is not a quick fix and cannot be solved by just buying diverse resources. It is not about doing anything as a bolt-on tokenistic gesture, but it is something that starts with examining yourself as an educator and then developing this introspection. You may be uncomfortable about what you discover but lean into that discomfort and use it as a driver to start actively becoming an anti-racist educator. This approach acknowledges how powerful it is to disrupt and challenge what we have for so long accepted as the norm.

I encourage early years spaces to adopt my 4 E’s framework of anti-racist practice:

  • Embrace all children’s racial, cultural, and religious backgrounds.
  • Embed a culture of belonging and value amongst practitioners and children.
  • Ensure that practice is culturally sensitive, and that the child is positioned as the expert of their own identity.
  • Extend learning opportunities for the child by showing interest, expanding conversations, and using diverse resources.

These are the first steps that we should all be taking to start our anti-racist journey’s.

You can find out how to be supported in taking these steps by booking training for your nursery or school or if you would like a half an hour one-to-one session, please book.


IG: @theblacknurserymanager

Twitter: @lizpemtbnm


Further reading:

  • Educational Leadership and the Global Majority: Decolonising Narratives– Rosemary Campbell-Stephens
  • Me and White Supremacy– Layla. F. Saad
  • Living While Black– Guilaine Kinouani
  • Resisting Racism– Kehinde Andrews
  • Black and British– David Olusoga