Exclusive: Meet the UEA student who spoke to the House of Commons about diversifying the school curriculum

Her petition gained 88,500 signatures


Cynthia Ashlyne Muthoni spoke to the House of Commons last week after her petition to integrate diversity into the school curriculum received 88,500 signatures.

Cynthia, who is studying MSc Climate Change and International Development at UEA, created her petition during the first national lockdown when she was unable to attend Black Lives Matter protests calling for racial equality, because she is classed as vulnerable to COVID-19. Within 48 hours of setting it up, her petition gained 10,000 signatures from supporters.

She spoke to The Norwich Tab about the petition’s success, and how it felt to present to the Petitions Committee and Women and Equalities Committee at the age of 22. Here’s what she said:

When did you create your petition and what inspired you to do so?

I honestly feel like this petition has been years in the making. As a young black woman who was born and raised in the UK, I have experienced and witnessed racism throughout my life. Although sometimes this was explicit and spiteful, in most cases I felt that racism stemmed from a lack of knowledge and awareness. I actually created my petition this summer following the tragic murder of George Floyd. I think that horrific event inspired a lot of unity around protesting racial inequality, I actually wanted to join these protests but as a Covid vulnerable person I had to look for an alternative form of protest. As I was talking – I say talking, more venting – to my friend about all the the racial inequalities that take place in the UK and the fact we don’t learn about them, they gave me the idea to start a petition.

What do you hope your petition will achieve?

My petition asks the government to teach school children about racism, anti-racism and racial diversity. I hope the government go on to dedicate a significant portion of the curriculum to education on these topics, because children will go on to experience and witness the consequences of racism and they need to know how to protect themselves and others. They need to know.

How did it feel seeing the petition’s incredible success?

I’m overcome with joy. It’s always something you hope – you hope people will like your idea. You hope they will gravitate towards it. But this feels different. Because this isn’t something for my personal gain. It is something that will benefit our nation and the generations to come. I’m in high spirits and excited for what’s to come.

What do you think students can do to help?

First and foremost, students can sign the petition as it will show a wider consensus for changes to the national curriculum. I also created a short survey asking people about their experiences learning about racism in schools, which generates more data to prove that the curriculum does need to be decolonised. This is available on the Instagram account @ukteachantiracism. Most importantly, I think students can adopt an anti-racist mentality and advocate for those changes in their lives like their curriculum, among their friends and family, within their media, their literature, so on and so forth.

What was speaking to the House of Commons like?

I wanted to portray myself as this confident, collected intellectual activist but in reality I was extremely anxious. Not many people have the privilege to go to Parliament and advocate for policy change, and beyond that, this petition was really personal to me. Not say other petitions that have been brought forward are any less so, but my identity is attached to this petition, as are the identities of every other minority. But knowing that more than 88,500 people have co-signed this petition gave me a lot confidence. When I began speaking and I saw the MPs involved in the hearing were very open to listening and learning, that settled a lot of my nerves.

How did you prepare?

In preparation my friend Rachel and I studied the curriculum thoroughly, looking for anything that could counter or support the petition. We shared the survey around to gather a lot of supporting data. I spoke with the MP from my home constituency, Anneliese Dodds, who has been a great supporter of the petition since its creation. I chatted with my personal tutor Mark Tebboth, who connected me to the UEA Media Team, so I’m very grateful to Mark, Cat and Lauren. And I also had a conversation with Dr Sarah Brownsword, who lecturers at UEA and does a lot of research into incorporating anti-racism into the curriculum. I will admit it was hard to balance all of these things alongside my degree but luckily for me, the hearing fell on my reading week and I had a lot of help and support from UEA and my friend Rachel.

Has anything happened since you addressed Parliament?

Not as of yet, they said during the hearing they will be holding another evidence session before taking the petition for debate in Parliament, and that they will keep me updated. So although nothing has happened yet, I feel confident.

Why is it important that the curriculum be diversified?

Without the curriculum being diversified we leave two significant problems. The first being minority students’ dissociation with their education and possibly society. If they do not see reflections of themselves within the curriculum, this in turn will affect their education attainment and that then spirals into affecting their employability, income, property ownership, business ownership. The second problem we see is the growth of racism. What we should note is that racism is also a failure to correct already racist behaviour. In schools where racism is discussed more openly, students learn about the effects racism can have on an individual. In addition to this, students believe that racism is taken more seriously and are therefore more likely to report cases of racism which acts as a disincentive to perpetrators of racism.

Do you have any thoughts about how anti-racism could be taught in lessons?

I would first like to say that as well as having specific lessons on anti-racism, we need to see representation embedded throughout the curriculum. There has to be two elements to anti-racism lessons. The first is tackling the harsher realities of racism such as stereotyping, labelling, prejudice, discrimination, individual consequences and societal consequences. The second is presenting diversity in a celebratory manner. We should be able to be black and proud, Asian and proud, Arab and proud, white and proud. We should all be able to talk about the positive contributions we’ve all made to make the UK what it is. Having these types of lessons is crucial because it associates minorities with positivity, which will help cancel out the stigmas media propaganda creates.

Should curriculum diversity be addressed in universities as well as schools?

Definitely! One hundred per cent. I targeted schools because most schools are state schools and all schools have to follow national curriculum guidelines set out by the government, whereas universities are private institutions and there is no set curriculum, so it would be slightly more difficult. Nonetheless, university is one of the most pivotal timeframes of our lives. I personally consider university one of, if not the most formative stage in my life. We grow tremendously from first year to final year and some of that growth can be dedicated to becoming anti-racist.
Many thanks to Cynthia. If you’re interested in aiding her mission to diversify school curriculums, please sign her petition here.