Story and photo by Fran Belbin
My family came here in 1991, because of the civil war in Somaliland. I was about two and a half years old at the time. I went to Owler Brook, Whiteways, Fir Vale, then Longley Park, and eventually to Sheffield Hallam University (SHU) and a Masters and PhD at University of Sheffield. So I’ve always stayed quite local.
I always wanted to go into education, I was fascinated with the schooling system and how people learn. I currently work as a lecturer at SHU and teach on undergraduate and postgraduate courses..
I also run the Black Seed consultancy. I coach students who are trying to navigate their way through the university system, and work with undergraduate students who are offering to mentor students doing their GCSEs and A levels – helping them to get to university and settle in over the first year. The data shows that the majority of students who drop out in the first year are BME and particularly BME girls, but we also know there’s a need to support other groups; white working class boys, care leavers, and those with disabilities.
The second part of my consultancy work is professional development workshops for schools, colleges and universities around inclusive practice, developing culturally relevant educational styles, creating a classroom that engages with parents as well as communities.
I’m working on a project at the moment where the school is trying to engage young people with literacy. I’m trying to get them to ask parents to define what they see as literacy. Literacy isn’t always reading books, it could be music, songs, poetry or storytelling. It’s opening up a dialogue that allows students to feel they have a sense of belonging within that school space. In Burngreave there’s a huge amount of diversity so it’s important for all children to feel their cultures are valued.
The national curriculum is becoming more and more narrow, there’s a push towards an almost 1950s type of schooling where you’ve just got to sit, read, memorise and prepare for tests. Teachers are constrained by these demands and so need to use the small spaces that they have to try and find creative spaces for learning. I always advise the teachers I speak with to try and use the parents and communities around them as resources. They can give you insights into how you can make your curriculum more creative, engaging and inclusive.
I try to encourage as many parents as possible to become parent governors, to understand how their school works, to have an overview of the national curriculum, to get to know the members of staff and let them get to know you. It has to be a reciprocal process. Schools need to step out of their four walls and engage with parents too.
Throughout my education I had opportunities to see people who looked like me in positions of power. Once I went to university I was in the minority and I realised that it’s not just how we learn as individuals, it’s what the system does.
I did a piece of research with colleagues at SHU for the Social Mobility Commission, that focused on the broken promise of social mobility for Muslims in Britain. Muslim students finish their degrees and get good qualifications but are still not getting graduate level jobs. There are anecdotal experiences from students who have said their placement experiences at university makes them realise they don’t want to work in that position because they don’t see anybody who looks like them. That comes down to employers making it a priority to recruit people from diverse backgrounds. Whether that’s social class, disability, gender or race, we need to see more variations of what is visible in our communities in our workplaces.
I love Burngreave, I can’t imagine living anywhere else. There isn’t anywhere in Sheffield that has the same level of diversity, kindness and spirit that people have here. Every year we have new arrivals, so there’s always new cultures to welcome and share. Yes, we face challenges, but Burngreave has always been a locality with so much potential, and it is because of the different communities that live and work here, and I think we need to celebrate that a bit more.