LABOUR LEADER Jeremy Corbyn has argued that British history lessons need to be rewritten to recognise the devastating impact the Empire has had on its former colonies and across the world. This call places him in direct opposition to the Conservative position that has shaped the current curriculum over the past few years.
Under education secretary Michael Gove, the curriculum – already unable to meet the needs of Britain’s diverse population – grew increasingly white-centred, narrow, and nationalistic. These changes were heavily criticised by activists, historians and teachers themselves. Although not the first to acknowledge bias in the curriculum, a 1985 report by Lord Swann highlighted the need to move away from an ethno-centric curriculum in order to provide students with an education relevant to a multicultural society. Unfortunately, right-wing politicians have remained committed to an education that distorts reality. With racial minorities accounting for an ever-increasing proportion of state school populations, the regressive changes imposed by Gove move further away from the recommendations of Swann and do little to meet the government’s aim of providing a ‘first class education for all’. In interviews I carried out with black mixed race males, I found high levels of dissatisfaction with the current curriculum and, like Corbyn, students feel there is a great need for change. Students feel the current curriculum is heavily biased, and this was evident in the conversations I had with interviewees. One, called Max, said: “Everything is white contribution. Even to the point where in RE, even Jesus is white. I didn’t like it how everything was white contribution, nothing of other countries. Not even just black people, nothing of what other countries have done.” His experiences are not uncommon and the awareness that the school was providing him with a whitewashed curriculum led Max, like others, to become disillusioned. The curriculum taught in schools clearly does not match with the knowledge that students gain from outside of school. This was conveyed by another student I spoke to, who argued: “Black people did have civilizations, great civilizations, they still do today but the way that we are told in school, and the way that things are put in school, is that they were all like running around in their jungle.” This dissatisfaction leads many to seek education outside of school through conversations with families, attending supplementary schools, and finding their own reading materials. Unfortunately, this often set students at odds with the school. Teachers and academic researchers have found that students work better when the subject is something that they can relate to.
The current curriculum fails to do this and the absence of racial minorities in the curriculum raises concerns about the absence of role models for future black and mixed race students. Whilst many spoke about the need to introduce more black history into the curriculum, others recognised a specific need to highlight the presence of mixed race figures. People like Malcolm X, Bob Marley, Barack Obama, and Mary Seacole all provide opportunities to discuss the presence of mixed race figures and to consider the close links between black and mixed race experiences. As one interviewee described: “It’s like you’re teaching us about stuff that a lot of us don’t care about; about the Tudors, and royalty, and all of these famous bloodlines…Henry and his wives; I don’t give a damn.” The curricular emphasis on remembering names and dates leaves little room for exploring the social and political context of historical events and misses a useful opportunity for students to discuss how race, class, gender, sexuality and disability impact upon lived experiences. The absence of frank and open discussions of how race and racism impacts life was a key criticism raised by those I spoke to. As one individual put it, schools need to create a space for “real talk” about race. To ignore the topic, can leave individuals ill-equipped to deal with the realities of daily life in a world where race remains important.
According to the Department for Education, preparing students for experiences in later life is a key aim of schooling. In contemporary society, this must include racism in its various forms, from the individual to the institutional. Those individuals who were made aware of racism at an early age felt that they were better able to understand, and therefore overcome, challenges they faced in school and in wider society. A more diverse curriculum would not just benefit racial minority students, but would also benefit white students and lead to greater integration. However, at present, the curriculum promotes a message of white superiority that devalues the important contributions of racial minorities, while breeding racial ignorance and intolerance.
My research suggests there is a very real desire to understand the way that contemporary society is shaped by events of the past. In a world where the economic inequalities of today are still largely shaped by the legacies of slavery and colonialism, this is not possible until the school curriculum begins to reflect the realities of race and racism. For decades, schools have failed their diverse populations. Until the curriculum is overhauled, a more diverse and culturally competent teaching force is employed, and schools introduce clear and robust anti-racist policies, it seems unlikely schools will meet the needs of their students. Remi Joseph-Salisbury is a PhD candidate at the University of Leeds with broad interests in race and racism, particularly in the UK and US ___ This piece originally appeared on the Voice, and was written by RJN’s trustee Remi Joseph Salisbury
Labour leader has called for the national curriculum to reflect the true impact of colonialism