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It seems clear to me that the current Government is not going to be part of the solution anytime soon. The Petitions Committee are currently conducting a listening exercise in response to the fact that 268,182 people have signed a petition to Teach Britain's colonial past as part of the UK's compulsory curriculum
created by Esmie Jikiemi-Pearson of Impact of Omission; whilst two other petitions, Add education on diversity and racism to all school curriculums and Making the UK education curriculum more inclusive of BAME history, have received 115,575 signatures combined. While the evidence (watch the 5th November session here; the 18th November session here) makes for illuminating listening, if the 20th October debate on the subject (text from Hansard here) is anything to go by, we have a long struggle ahead if we are to convince the current Government to change the curriculum. The Minister for Equalities herself asserted that the curriculum does not need to change, and that while children ‘can learn about the British empire and colonialism, the transatlantic slave trade and its abolition, and how our history has been shaped by people of all ethnicities…we should not apologise for the fact that British children primarily study the history of these islands.’ This elides the fact that there have been ‘people of all ethnicities’ in ‘these islands’ since at least the Roman period; that Black History is British History, and extends far beyond the narrative of enslavement and colonialism. As I told the Department for Education back in 2012, the Edwardian ‘Our Island Story’ narrative is no longer fit for purpose. But, our Government believe the curriculum is already ‘incredibly diverse’. It is revealing that Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has tweeted approvingly about the frankly worrying right-wing think tank Policy Exchange’s History Matters project, which, concerned that British History is becoming ‘politicised, and sometimes distorted, in the current moment’, are compiling a dossier to record the changes being made, they suggest, ‘without proper thought and against public opinion’. And Saturday’s Daily Express summed up Williamson’s stance, and that of the ‘Common Sense’ group of Tory MPs, under the headline: We will NOT bow to the PC brigade! PM rejects calls for 'woke' school curriculum. While the fight for curriculum change must of course continue, I for one, am far too impatient to wait for this Government to have a change of heart and make teaching Black British History mandatory.
Neither is change going to happen organically, ‘as university curriculums evolve’ as a overly-optimistic article in the Economist this summer suggested. As the Royal Historical Society’s 2018 Race, Ethnicity and Equality Report highlighted, universities have their own problems including a lack of diversity in both the curriculum and the teaching staff. Further, a damning set of recommendations released in November 2020 by Universities UK concluded that British higher education perpetuates institutional racism. And the pace of change would be far too slow. I don’t want to wait for another generation of teachers to become, as the Economist suggested, ‘comfortable talking about topics they themselves were taught.’
Before we decide on a future strategy, it is important to recognize the many individuals, groups and organizations who have been campaigning for this vital change, and providing extra-curricular education for children since before the first National Curriculum was written in 1988. A history lesson on the campaign to change history lessons, if you will. Taking a longer view allows us to learn from the victories and defeats along the way. The establishment of Black History Month in 1987 was a step towards highlighting this history in schools. In 1991 Peter Fryer, author of the seminal Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain (1984), complained alongside Julia Bush, in a pamphlet on ‘The Politics of Black History’ that ‘the intentions of this government are to ram a nationalistic, narrow, stereotype down children’s throats’, which sounds strikingly familiar. The Black and Asian Studies Association (BASA), founded in 1991, petitioned the National Curriculum Council, Educational Publishers, and Ofsted throughout the 1990s and 2000s, and submitted detailed feedback during the curriculum consultation period in 2013. BASA member and history teacher Martin Spafford helped design the 2007 History National Curriculum which recommended the teaching of the continued ethnic diversity of the people of Britain throughout history, precolonial African civilisations, empire and decolonization, but sadly this progress was arrested in 2013. It’s also worth going back to listen to the various public discussion of the subject held over the last few years. Since 2014, education has been a recurrent theme at the What’s Happening in Black British History? workshops I run with Michael Ohajuru at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies. In 2015 Hakim Adi held the History Matters conference highlighting the alarmingly low numbers of Black history students and teachers, which is now being combatted by the inspirational Young Historians Project. There have also been excellent discussions on the Justice2History podcast, at the 2018 Institute of Historical Research event ‘Where do we fit in?’ Black and Asian British History on the Curriculum, and at the new Institute of Historical Research Black British History Seminar in October.
To succeed, we must combine the passion and energy of young campaigners such as the Black Curriculum, Fill in the Blanks and Impact of Omission, and a new cohort of innovative young history teachers with the experience and wisdom of stalwarts including BASA veterans Marika Sherwood, Hakim Adi, Stephen Bourne, Sean Creighton; campaigners like Arthur Torrington, co-founder of the Equiano Society and the Windrush Foundation; Angelina Osborne and Patrick Vernon, who have developed the 100 Great Black Britons project from a poll in 2003 to a nice fat book, out this year; history teachers like Martin Spafford, Nick Dennis and Dan Lyndon (who started his BlackHistory4Schools website back in 2006, and has recently written Colonial Countryside Project teaching materials); and those who train teachers and act as educational consultants like Justice2History’s Adbullah Mohamud and Robin Whitburn of UCL’s Institute of Education, Jason Todd at Oxford’s Education Department, Will Bailey-Watson in Reading; Black History Studies; Robin Walker (who co-wrote Black British History: Black Influences on British Culture (1948 to 2016) with the requirements of the current National Curriculum in mind); the Thinking Black educational project, the Windrush Foundation; the Equiano Society, BTWSC/AHR/BBM/BMC and Black History Walks, to name a few.
It is also vital to include teachers and educational specialists (Mohamud and Whitburn’s ‘choreographers’) themselves in the conversation alongside ‘pugilists’(activists/campaigners) and ‘diggers’(historians): we cannot change anything without considering the many constraints placed upon our teachers and a detailed knowledge of how our schools actually operate. This oversight is nowhere more apparent than in the exclusive focus on curriculum change. Nearly a third of publicly-funded schools in England are now ‘academies’ (22 per cent of primary and 68 per cent of secondary schools), which no longer have to follow the curriculum (though many still do). Schools are also still implementing a vast array of changes imposed upon them over the last few years, including the 2019 Ofsted regulations, not to mention the unprecedented challenges of operating during a pandemic. While curriculum change should continue to be a goal, I fear that demanding this happen under the present Government will only lead to heads bloodied from repeated impact with the proverbial brick wall.
With this in mind, we need to be inventive, and attack the problem from all conceivable angles.
Go to my next blog to find my running list of proactive ideas to change what happens in our classrooms, besides maintaining the pressure on the Government to change the National Curriculum.
This blog is the result of many conversations over several years, made urgent once more by the events of this year. These have at times been hard to keep up with, so if I’ve missed anything, please let me know in the comments and I’ll add/edit accordingly.
I would particularly like to thank the following people for their input and feedback on this blog, while emphasising that any errors remain my own: Shahmima Akhtar, Kerry Apps, Sean Creighton, Hannah Elias, Corinne Fowler, Tim Jenner, Abdul Mohamud, Michael Ohajuru, Helen Sanson, Martin Spafford and Robin Whitburn.