Footballer Troy Deeney, 33, is best known for his prolific goalscoring at Watford FC. After 11 years with the club, he returned to the place of his birth last year to sign with Birmingham City.
The eldest of three siblings, Deeney’s childhood was chaotic. His father emigrated to the UK from Jamaica, but he was raised by his mother and drug-dealing stepfather on a sprawling council estate in Chelmsley Wood. Growing up, he never saw people like himself represented in class, and didn’t learn any Black history. He rarely did his homework – instead spending his evenings collecting glasses in a pub. Deeney left school without any GCSEs, having being excluded at age 15.
Now, he’s using his high profile to campaign for the government to include the stories of Black, Asian and ethnic minority people on the school curriculum. The Big Issue sat down with Deeney for a cup of green tea to find out more.
The Big Issue: When did you first start paying attention to what’s in the curriculum?
Troy Deeney: During lockdown I was helping my kids with their homework and it really opened my eyes to what they’re actually learning. I believe in being transparent – all my kids go to private schools, because I believe that there they’ll get more one-on-one attention, something I didn’t get. But because they’re going to this brilliant school I just assumed they’d be learning more than I did. And I looked at what they were learning, and thought, is that it?
I give my kids to their school for eight hours a day. That’s more time than I get with them. It shouldn’t be on me to be going and buying books about women in science to make up for what they’re missing out on in schools. Lots of families can’t afford that and they don’t have the time. It got me asking what books are my kids being exposed to in school, and shouldn’t they be better?
How has what they are learning changed since you were at school?
It hasn’t! And that’s the problem. The curriculum has changed when it comes to IT – my son, who’s 13, is learning coding and that’s brilliant. But it doesn’t seem to have caught up when it comes to representation or history. Why aren’t my daughters learning about women in science or women in geography? Why are we narrowing it down so much that my daughters don’t feel like they have as many options as the boys? Why are kids still only seeing Roots, which is about slavery? That is what was being done when I was at school 20 years ago. Yes, you have to talk about slavery because that happened, but there’s a lot of positive things that have happened too.
You’re campaigning to “diversify the curriculum” – what does that mean?
Here’s an example for you. In 10 seconds I’m going to show you how teachers could add in some diversity when they’re teaching algebra. Imagine I’m a teacher in a classroom right now: “OK kids, today we’re going to learn about algebra. Mathematics started in Egypt, then the Greeks found out about it and took it one step further. And now in the West, this is how we use it.” So automatically there you’ve already recognised three groups of people that all contributed to modern-day mathematics, just in how you’ve introduced the subject.
We need to be giving credit where credit is due. It’s about challenging the narrative that Black or African heritage is bad. Let’s acknowledge where these ideas like maths came from and how they developed. It gives people a representation of where they come from, who they are and where they can go forward. While filming the documentary [for Channel 4] I met Esmie Jikiemi-Pearson and Nell Bevan at Impact of Omission. They did some research that found that while 86 per cent of people learn about the Tudors, just eight per cent learn about the colonisation of Africa. That’s not right.
What have you got against the Tudors?
Absolutely nothing! At school we learn about everything that’s great about Britain, and the curriculum is quite dismissive of the achievements of other countries. What about learning about what other countries were like before Britain colonised them, and how they came to be colonies of this country? That would better help us all to understand what’s going on today.
Barbados recently announced that it’s leaving the Commonwealth to become an independent country – we need to know the history of how we got to this point. We need to add other elements to give a broader and more inclusive understanding of our history. It’s not about removing Winston Churchill and replacing him with Nelson Mandela, it’s about adding Mandela in as well.
How do you think your childhood would have been different if you’d been taught a more diverse curriculum?
I don’t want to glamourise 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 and work at Land Rover or you could sell drugs.
I watched Wimbledon every summer like everyone else did, but we didn’t have any tennis courts where I lived. I didn’t come from that kind of environment. So when I saw Tim Henman – who was like the nation’s hero – he was someone that didn’t look like me, didn’t speak like me, it didn’t seem like I had anything in common with him at all. But that was my first look into tennis, so from a very young age it gave me the idea that tennis wasn’t for me.
If I could have learnt more about what people like me had achieved, it would have enabled me to have options for what I could achieve.
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 at 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’m very comfortable on the football pitch in front of 80-odd-thousand people. But exposing my fears and my 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 until now, but myself and my family are still subject to vile racist abuse on social media and, at times, in public. I’ve had people comment on pictures of me and my daughter saying, “I hope that n****r dies.”
I’m from a generation when your words came with consequences. But we live in a world now, on social media particularly, where they don’t. So even before I started working on the documentary I knew I’d get abuse for it. But it’s just emboldened me to keep pushing the campaign further.
Footballers like you and Marcus Rashford are really having a moment now when it comes to activism. Why do you think that is?
In the ’80s and ’90s footballers were considered geezers, and there was this heavy drinking culture around it. Then it went through a phase in the mid-’90s to 2010 when footballers were overpaid but they were thick. But you’ve got a new generation of footballers now who were very financially stable from a young age, are also on social media a lot more and are engaging with and are seeing more issues.
But the biggest thing is they’re seeing they can control their own narrative. Marcus has made us all realise that we can use this power, or platform, that we’ve been given to make change in our own areas.
What gives professional footballers the authority to speak on big issues?
I’m so inspired by what Marcus Rashford did. I love everything Marcus has done, but he wasn’t the first person to realise that children were going to bed hungry as schools closed over lockdown or during the holidays. He’s seen this problem, and then used his platform as a celebrity footballer to make the government take note. And it worked, didn’t it?
I wasn’t the first person to say the curriculum needs to be diversified either. Working on the documentary, I’ve met women who have been waiting for a government response on this for years. And these people are more intelligent than me, they know what they’re doing, but because I’m a footballer – a celebrity – I get a response straight away.
Just four hours after I posted my open letter, urging the government to make it mandatory to teach Black, Asian and minority ethnic experiences in schools, I got a response from the Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi – that’s mad isn’t it? If I can bring attention to this issue, and highlight the great work organisations like those I spoke to in the documentary are already doing so that they can go from strength to strength, I’m happy.
So you’ve already had a response from the Education Secretary, what more do you need and how can we help?
It was good to meet with Nadhim Zahawi, and I felt a level of sincerity from him that he wants to help, but right now he holds all the power and he hasn’t made anything happen yet. The petition is key – if we can get that to 75,000 signatures then that will get us into the Houses of Parliament, where we can tell them why this needs to happen. Wales has already written a new curriculum that includes learning about the stories of Black, Asian and minority ethnic people. We want to show that can be done in the rest of Britain, too.
Troy Deeney – Where’s My History? airs at 10pm on May 23 on Channel 4 @EvieBreese
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