Learning Together: Why a culturally inclusive and diverse curriculum can benefit pupils from all backgrounds

First posted on Tales From The Reach on 04.01.20.

My colleague, Sarah Hobson-Riley, is setting up a working group of pupils and teachers to explore whether our curriculum reflects their diversity in terms of ethnicity, culture and religious belief as well gender, sexuality and disability. This is an important and exciting development for the school, but it is also worth taking stock of the academic or “evidence-informed” backdrop to this project.

Essentially, a curriculum incorporating the voices of the groups listed above will be part and parcel of an “inclusive curriculum”. Here, Morgan and Houghton define an inclusive curriculum as, “One where all students’ entitlement to access and participate in a course is anticipated and taken into account” (2011, p.7; cited in UCL, 2020). Other thinkers define an inclusive curriculum as the process of developing, designing and delivering schemes of learning that minimise the barriers pupils face in accessing and engaging with subject content regardless of their ethnic, cultural and/or religious background (see, for example, Grace and Gravestock 2009; Thomas and May 2010; UCL, 2020).  

The “ethnocentric curriculum”

Any pupil studying A Level sociology comes across the idea of the “ethnocentric curriculum”, which is the conceptual antithesis to an inclusive and culturally diverse curriculum. The word ethnocentric describes an attitude or policy – implicit or explicit – that gives priority to the culture and viewpoints of one particular ethnic group whilst disregarding others. This is relevant to education; for instance, Nunan et al. argue that if a university, college or school curriculum only reflects ‘a dominant Eurocentric worldview, those who are not members of this culture or who resist Eurocentrism are effectively excluded from the educational process and social advantages that come with success’ (2000, p. 66). Moreover, traditional curricula have also ignored issues such as gender equality, sexuality and disabilities in a similar vein; therefore, a truly inclusive/diverse curriculum would include reference points to other members of society (hooks, 1994). 

In the case of schooling, in the 1980s Troyna and Williams (1986) described the curriculum in British schools as ethnocentric because it gave priority to “white culture”. Moreover, David (1993) suggests the National Curriculum, introduced in 1988, is a “specifically British” curriculum that focuses on the culture of the host community whilst generally bypassing non-European languages, literature and music. Some sociologists go as far to claim that the National Curriculum ignores cultural and ethnic diversity and promotes an attitude of ‘little Englandism’ (Ball, 1994). For instance, in some history syllabuses, observers have noted how the British are presented as bringing civilisation to the ‘primitive’ peoples they colonised; here, researchers have found that this image of non-Europeans as inferior undermines the self-esteem and engagement of pupils’ of non-European heritage (Coard, 1971; Richardson, 2005). 

Although the National Curriculum has been reviewed and was updated in 2014, some researchers are concerned that it remains – by and large – ethnocentric and not particularly inclusive (Gillborn, 2015; Richardson, 2015). This is arguably problematic as bell hooks, in her seminal work Teaching to Transgress (1994), believes that teaching a particular culture, history, gender viewpoint or sexuality whilst neglecting others amounts to a value judgement on the worth of peoples’ collective experiences, both past and present, which often alienate certain groups of pupils. 

Of course, the above examples may be unfair, out-of-date and not particularly representative of many teachers and schools. For instance, my own school has included schemes of learning on Islamic civilisation as well as Eastern religions in year 8. We also focus on Islam in our Religious Studies GCSE and have included the work of African-American mathematicians such as Creola Katherine Coleman in maths lessons. Nonetheless, we are keen to see whether our pupils and colleagues have suggestions on how we could, within the confines of GCSE and A Level syllabuses, take this diversity further. Of course, this would only happen where appropriate and would not involve replacing key areas of study from Elizabeth I in history to the teaching of Shakespeare, Dickens or Wordsworth in English literature. Moreover, STEM subjects would not be forced to jettison content in order to include culturally diverse ideas, but simply look for relevant opportunities to make culturally diverse reference points.    

The need for a diverse curriculum

Research by Schneider and Preckel (2017) confirms that the effectiveness of an inclusive/diverse curriculum is strongly related to pupil achievement and that teachers’ role in this is pivotal (as we essentially plan and deliver the content that we teach).  Their research data indicates that if we disregard pupils’ ethnicity and/or cultural heritage they tend – on average – to underperform. 

Other studies have also indicated that an inclusive/diverse curriculum improves achievement across social groups, including different ethnic and religious groups. Here, a curriculum that embodies inclusivity and cultural diversity provides opportunities for pupils to relate subject content to their own personal experiences or cultural heritage; recognise and handle tension, strong emotions and/or controversial issues with respect and tolerance; react sensitively but honestly to other pupils’ feelings, beliefs and/or needs; recognise and manage potential and actual power differentials within society and their own communities, including those between gender, sexuality, race and socio-economics (see, for example, Flint & Harrington, 2014; Hainsworth, 2015; Thomas, 2015).

Furthermore, researchers have found that inclusive/diverse curricula provide course content and schemes of learning that cover contributions by people from multiple cultures and backgrounds; offer course content and schemes of learning that include multiple perspectives and theoretical standpoints on issues of differences to race, gender, sexuality and disability/ability; integrate themes of equality, diversity and cultural relativity into material and activities, relating these to real world scenarios as well as historical fact and reality; develop the use of counter-stereotypical language, which supports pupils with articulating their own views on issues of equality and diversity with knowledge, understanding and empathy (see, for instance, Arshad, Wrigley & Pratt, 2012; Hainsworth, 2015; Hogan, 2007; Ryan, 2007; UCL, 2020).

Words of caution

Troyna (1994) warns that any attempt to make a curriculum more culturally diverse needs to be serious and subject focused as opposed to superficially tokenistic. He criticises much of the multiculturalism of the 1980s as a series of add-ons; summed up as the “3 Ss – saris, samosas and steel bands”. 

We should also be wary of potentially well-meaning but misplaced views of others’ cultures and religions creeping into our curriculum. Key to understanding this is Edward W. Said’s book Orientalism (2003), which explains – at great length – how Western writers and explorers have depicted the Near East/Orient through their eyes with little understanding of how the people of the “Orient” see the world. Said sees this as a form of imperial control over cultures and faiths seen as primitive. Of course, very few – if any – teachers would intend to do this in their classrooms, however, it is worth bearing in mind that our own view of the world may not always be accurate of – or the same as – the peoples or cultures we are discussing.


In conclusion, it is clear that ample studies have found that an inclusive and culturally diverse curriculum can widen pupils’ subject knowledge as well improve their empathy, respect and tolerance of pupils from different backgrounds. One issue, however, with this blog and the “evidence” presented is that about half comes from studies in higher education and perhaps more research needs to be done at primary and secondary level. Nonetheless, I hope that my school’s own “Curriculum Diversity Working Group” goes some way to informing us how our pupils feel about issues of inclusivity, diversity and, of course, cohesion in both our curriculum and school community.   


Arshad, R., Wrigley, T. & Pratt, L. (eds) (2012). Social justice reexamined: dilemmas and solutions for the classroom teacher. London: Trentham Books Ltd.

Ball, S. (1994). Education reform: a critical and post-structural approach. Milton Keynes: Open University Press. 

Bernard Coard (1971). Making black children subnormal in Britain. Equity & Excellence in Education, 9(5), 49-52.

David M.E. (1993). Parents, gender, and education. Educational Policy, 7(2):184-205.

Healey, M., Flint, A. & Harrington, K. (2014). Engagement through partnership: students as partners in learning and teaching in higher education. York: Higher Education Academy. Retrieved from: https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/sites/default/files/resources/engagement_through_partnership.pdf 

Gillborn, D. (2015). The Monsterisation of Race Equality: How Hate Became Honourable. In Alexander, C., Weekes-Bernard, D. & Arday, J. (eds) Race, education and inequality in contemporary Britain, pp. 6-10. Runnymede Trust. Retrieved from:  http://www.runnymedetrust.org/uploads/The%20School%20Report.pdf

Grace, S. & Gravestock, P. (2008). Inclusion and diversity: Meeting the needs of all students. New York: Routledge.

Hainsworth, P. (2015). Embedding equality and diversity in the curriculum: a model for learning and teaching practitioners. York: The Higher Education Authority. Retrieved from: https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/sites/default/files/resources/EEDC%20Model%20for%20Learning%20and%20Teaching%20Practitioners_1.pdf 

Hogan, M. (2007). Four skills of cultural diversity competence: a process for

understanding and practice (4th edition). Brooks/Cole Cengage Learning.

Hooks, B. (1994). Teaching to transgress: education as the practice of freedom. New York: Routledge.

Morgan, H., & Houghton, A-M. (2011). Inclusive curriculum design in higher education: considerations for effective practice across and within subject areas. The Higher Education Academy. Retrieved from: https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/inclusive-curriculum-design-higher-education

Nunan, T. & George, R. & McCausland, H. (2000). Inclusive education in universities: why it is important and how it might be achieved. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 4, 63-88.

B. Richardson (ed.)(2005) Tell it like it is: how our schools fail black children. London: Bookmarks.

Richardson, R. (2015). Narrative, Nation and Classrooms: The Latest Twists and Turns 14 in a Perennial Debate. In Alexander, C., Weekes-Bernard, D. & Arday, J. (eds) Race, education and inequality in contemporary Britain, pp. 14-17. Runnymede Trust. Retrieved from:  http://www.runnymedetrust.org/uploads/The%20School%20Report.pdf

Ryan, S. E. (2007) Radical pedagogy: lessons from the “Africa Book” project. Journal of Public Affairs Education, 12 (3/4), 487-497.

Said, E. W. (3003). Orientalism. London: Penguin. 

Schneider, M., & Preckel, F. (2017). Variables associated with achievement in higher education: A systematic review of meta-analyses. Psychological Bulletin, 143(6), 565–600.

Thomas, L., & May, H. (2010). Inclusive learning and teaching in higher education. York: Higher Education Academy. Retrieved from: https://www.lboro.ac.uk/media/wwwlboroacuk/external/content/services/cap/downloads/documents/HEA%20Report%20on%20inclusive%20teaching.pdf

Troyna, B. (1994). Racism and education. Milton Keynes: Open University Press. 

Troyna, B. & Williams J. (1986). Racism, Education and the State: The Racialisation of Educational Policy. Capital & Class, 10(2), 222-224.

UCL (2020). Creating an inclusive curriculum for BAME students [online]. Retrieved from: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/teaching-learning/publications/2020/apr/creating-inclusive-curriculum-bame-students

Featured image: Pixaby.com (used under a Creative commons licence)

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