How has what they learn changed since you were in school?
This is not the case ! And that’s the problem. The curriculum has changed when it comes to IT – my son, who is 13, is learning coding and it’s been great. But it doesn’t seem to have caught up in either performance or story. Why don’t my daughters get to know women in science or women in geography? Why do we narrow it down so much that my girls don’t feel like they have as many options as the boys? Why do children still only see Roots, who speaks of slavery? That’s what was done when I was in school 20 years ago. Yes, you have to talk about slavery because it happened, but there are also a lot of positive things that happened.
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You are campaigning for “diversifying the curriculum”, what does that mean?
Here is an example for you. In 10 seconds, I’ll show you how teachers can add diversity when teaching algebra. Imagine I’m a teacher in a class right now: “OK kids, today we’re going to learn algebra. Mathematics started in Egypt, then the Greeks discovered it and went further. And now, in the West, that’s how we use it. So automatically you have already recognized three groups of people who have all contributed to modern mathematics, just in the way you introduced the subject.
We must give credit where credit is due. It’s about challenging the narrative that black or African heritage is wrong. Let’s recognize where these ideas like mathematics came from and how they developed. It gives people a representation of where they came from, who they are, and where they can go forward. During the filming of the documentary [for Channel 4] I met Esmie Jikiemi-Pearson and Nell Bevan at Impact of Omission. They did research that found that while 86% of people learned about the Tudors, only 8% learned about the colonization of Africa. It is not fair.
What do you have against the Tudors?
Absolutely nothing! At school we learn all the great things about Britain, and the curriculum is quite dismissive of the achievements of other countries. How about learning what other countries looked like before Britain colonized them, and how they became colonies of this country? It would help us all better understand what is happening today.
Barbados recently announced it was leaving the Commonwealth to become an independent country – we need to know the story of how we got here. We need to add other elements to give a broader and more inclusive understanding of our history. It is not about removing Winston Churchill and replacing him with Nelson Mandela, it is also about adding Mandela.
How do you think your childhood would have been different if you had been taught a more diverse curriculum?
I don’t want to glamorize it; where I grew up in the West Midlands was a very poor place. You had one of two options to look forward to as a young man: you could go to work at Land Rover or you could sell drugs.
I watched Wimbledon every summer like everyone else, but we didn’t have tennis courts where I lived. I don’t come from that kind of background. So when I saw Tim Henman – who was like the nation’s hero – he was someone who didn’t look like me, didn’t talk like me, it seemed like I had nothing in common with him. But it was my first look at tennis, so from an early age it gave me the idea that tennis was not for me.
If I could have learned more about what people like me had accomplished, it would have given me options for what I could accomplish.
There’s a scene in the documentary where you and your partner are sitting with your daughter on her bed talking about what she’s learned in school. How did you feel sharing your personal life with the cameras like that?
I was very, very nervous about doing it, believe it or not. I am very comfortable on the football field in front of 80 thousand people. But exposing my fears and vulnerabilities is something I’m not very good at. I’ve done a pretty good job of keeping my kids out of the public eye so far, but my family and I are still subjected to vile racist abuse on social media and, at times, in public. I’ve had comments from people on photos of me and my daughter saying, “I hope this n****r dies.”
I’m from a generation where your words had consequences. But we live in a world now, on social media in particular, where they don’t. So even before I started working on the documentary, I knew I was going to be abused. But it just encouraged me to keep pushing the campaign further.
Footballers like you and Marcus Rashford really have a moment when it comes to activism. Why do you think that is?
In the 80s and 90s, footballers were seen as geezers, and there was this culture of binge drinking around them. Then it went through a phase from the mid-90s to 2010 where footballers were overpaid but they were thick. But now you have a new generation of footballers who were very financially stable from a young age, who are also much more on social media and who are engaging and seeing more problems.
But the most important thing is that they see that they can control their own narrative. Marcus made us all realize that we can use this power, or platform, given to us to effect change in our own areas.
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What gives professional footballers the power to speak out on big issues?
I’m so inspired by what Marcus Rashford has done. I love everything Marcus has done, but he wasn’t the first person to realize that kids were going to bed hungry as schools closed during lockdown or during the holidays. He saw this problem and then used his platform as a famous footballer to make the government take notice. And it worked, didn’t it?
I was also not the first person to say that the program should be diversified. While working on the documentary, I met women who have been waiting for a response from the government on this for years. And these people are smarter than me, they know what they’re doing, but because I’m a footballer – a celebrity – I get an answer right away.
Just four hours after posting my open letter, urging the government to make it compulsory to teach about the experiences of black, Asian and ethnic minorities in schools, I received a response from Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi – c is crazy, isn’t it? If I can draw attention to this issue and highlight the great work that organizations like the ones I talked about in the documentary are already doing so that they can get better and better, I’m happy.
You have already received a response from the Education Secretary, what more do you need and how can we help you?
It was good to meet Nadhim Zahawi, and I sensed a level of sincerity from him that he wants to help, but right now he holds all the power and he hasn’t moved anything yet. The petition is essential – if we can get 75,000 signatures it will get us to the Houses of Parliament, where we can tell them why this needs to happen. Wales has already drafted a new curriculum which includes learning about black, Asian and minority ethnic histories. We want to show that it can be done in the rest of Britain too.
Troy Deeney – Where’s My Story? broadcast at 10 p.m. on May 23 on Channel 4
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