In the latest of his series of Q&As, speaking to key figures on the policies and innovations shaping the future of education, writer James McEnaney talks to Nuzhat Uthmani. A primary school teacher and anti-racism campaigner, Nuzhat speaks about her work raising the profile of equalities issues in Scottish education.

You are a primary school teacher, which of course means you need to cover the whole curriculum while also exploring bigger issues and themes – such as climate change or social justice – that we want young people to learn about. How do you approach that particular challenge?

When I came back into education years ago I actually started off in early years, so I did the early years qualification first. I worked in nurseries and I had an amazing experience as part of a forest school nursery. So that really I think very immediately opened my eyes to how the curriculum can be flexible and applied in various different situations and that inter-disciplinary aspect of it. Then I went back to do the postgrad for primary teaching.

I've developed more of a specialism around interdisciplinary learning. I’m trying to make teaching and learning a lot more relevant to real life and encouraging the asking of the big questions as opposed to just teaching individual topics at individual times.

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So you're asking questions like how do you develop a more sustainable city, or how do we grow an economy? You're thinking more about the theme and the messages and the skills you want to get across, and then tying in the various aspects of the curriculum to be able to do that.

I think it does take a bit of a fundamental mind shift as teachers as well because we need to be able to identify what the big questions might be before the children can, and then think about how we encourage that thinking in them.

My baby ultimately is global citizenship and trying to really make that, and equalities, the foundation of what we're actually wanting to achieve in schools. I'm not looking at what job a child is going to have ten or fifteen years down the line. I care about the kind of person that is developing in front of me.

Beyond your classroom, you are also one of the most prominent teachers working in anti-racism in Scotland, and have been involved in various projects to that end. That all happens on top of your teaching work, which must be particularly difficult and take a lot of commitment. Why does anti-racism matter so much to you?

Of course it matters to me because it’s absolutely personal in the sense that I’ve had my own lived experienced. I’ll be the first to say that I haven’t personally experienced horrific racism but there are everyday things that you experience. You’ll have heard the term micro-aggressions but sometimes it’s just total ignorance.

I had my son in a Paisley hospital and the nurse in the morning, she was supposed to be asking me about breakfast or something, I can't remember what the conversation was and then she said: "Oh your English is really good."

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For a split-second I was slightly confused and then I said to her: "I know - I'm a Scouser." She was totally confused and then just kind of walked away and these are everyday experiences that black and minority ethnic people go through.

So in that sense that absolutely forms part of your identity and who you are. I then came into teaching as a mature student and one of the things I noticed straight away was that the spaces I was going into, the training events I would go to, the schools I was in were so, so undiverse. This is in Glasgow, our biggest and most multicultural city, and I'm thinking: "where is everyone?

So your own experiences helped you to identify the problem – but what sparked the decision to not just be aware of this but to try to do something about it?

I came across the Teaching in a Diverse Scotland report by Professor Rowena Arshad and her team and at the time I think 1.6% of the population of the teaching workforce was not white and there were no BAME headteachers, even in Glasgow.

So that really got me interested and coincidentally I had become an EIS rep in my school at that time as well. I think maybe the age that I came into education meant I was very keen to start making a difference, so I got onto the EIS and asked the questions: have you seen this report? What are we doing about this? What is the EIS stance on this?

So those conversations started and I was directed to the BAME network in Glasgow which used to meet in one of the high schools every now and then, but it had no presence as such in the sense that knowing about it was word of mouth.

I was introduced to the people that were running it at the time - really lovely people who've been working so hard for decades in the system to try and bring changes.

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But it's always been very up and down. I think there had been phases when things have been a bit better and then others when it was all kind of forgotten and side-lined. So I asked if it was okay if I set up a social media profile for the network to see if we could get more people involved because there were teachers in Glasgow that didn't know it existed.

I then got involved in the Scottish Government’s Anti-Racism in Education Programme, and it is running quite well overall but I have a huge frustration that I feel not enough people know about it. It is bringing about positive changes but not enough is being done to promote that work.

There might be people who read this and think that it all seems a bit much, a bit of an over-reaction, or a bit too political. They might feel it’s unnecessary in this day and age, and that issues like racism aren’t anything like as bad as they used to be, so why burden our children with all of this. What would your response be?

When someone says that it’s usually someone who’s never been affected by the disadvantages of the situation, you know, and therefore they have that privilege. But then even the understanding of having privilege is controversial.

I think it’s about time we recognise that actions of the past have very lasting consequences. So, for example, slavery may have been abolished, but the legacy continues through the way we’ve set up our systems, and the dominance - that we have maintained - of one community over another.

So it’s about how to identify that and if there are stark disadvantages to certain communities that exist in education, in employment, in housing, and in health then we absolutely have to talk about it.

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We are privileged, all of us, to be living in this part of the world that does give us many benefits over the global South, which is still suffering from the effects of colonialism. It is suffering from the impact of climate change, and of our wealth and our lifestyle. We have to understand what our position in the world is and I think that’s a really important skill for children and young people to learn as well.

It comes back to that importance of citizenship and understanding. Why is the world the way it is? Why are some people advantaged while others are disadvantaged - and what is our position in that?

It can be uncomfortable and I'm fully aware of that when I'm speaking to colleagues and but again it's about understanding.

You and others are doing a lot of work to try to address issues like racism in education, but as is the case with so many of the big problems, there are limits to what individuals and working groups can achieve. Sometimes action needs to be taken at state level. With that in mind, what would you say to Jenny Gilruth if she asked you what she should do to improve Scottish education?

Equalities outcomes and citizenship-based outcomes need to stop being something we do on the side. They should be the cause for everything else that we do. As opposed to being told that you can always do this stuff in your spare time, or in non-contact time, or at an assembly, I would like to see a push that makes equalities the foundation for everything.

We say that we want to be a progressive country and we value citizenship and we're inclusive and blah blah blah – but all these values seem to sit on the side. We talk about equality but we don’t put it into practice.

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Government policies are still not eradicating poverty, and that’s not up to me as a teacher. I cannot do that. It doesn’t matter how much support I give a child – I cannot change that. That holds families of all kinds back and even though the Scottish Government does genuinely do a lot to try to address it compared to some other parts of the UK, it is still not enough.

Another one of those things that will help is, of course, having more teachers and having more time for teachers to collaborate and work together and build that quality education.