Meena Wood FRSA argues that the challenge we face as educators is having a radical rethink of our curriculum. Teaching history through source evidence is not a binary choice of good versus evil. Who chooses the 'source evidence' will decide the narrative we want all our students to learn.
The island of Zanzibar where I was born was famous or infamous on two accounts; clove plantations and slavery. From 17th century until 1909, spice plantations were worked by Black Africans sold into slavery by Black African tribes to Arab Traders. Zanzibar, East Africa's slave hub held slaves on Prison Island before transportation to other destinations. The history of Black slavery is nuanced; not just perpetuated by Whites on Black Africans. 17 million East Africans were sold into slavery by Arab traders, much higher than those sold into transatlantic slavery.
History must include a balanced view of colonisation, the British Empire and its impact on peoples from Africa, Asia and nearer home, Ireland. The Windrush scandal report concluded “…it was able to happen because of the public’s and officials’ poor understanding of Britain’s colonial history…”
Generations of young people learning that Britain was an intrinsic force for ‘good’ against Nazi tyranny and therefore, ‘saved the world’ from the forces of evil in the first and second world wars, will also end up believing that the British Empire was a force for only good. Churchill, for instance, whilst applauded for his WW2 victory, also contributed to atrocities in the Empire. During the great Bengal famine (1943), millions died as rice was exported to elsewhere in the Empire. Churchill attributed the famine on the fact Indians were “breeding like rabbits”. History does not comprise of binary choices. Even Mahatma Gandhi, revered as the founder of the Indian Independence movement, is discredited by some prominent Indian historians as a racist and a sexist, owing to his values and behaviours towards women and Black Africans.
It is imperative our children are taught of the multi-faceted prism of history; the narrative we select to teach will influence our young people’s lives. Our students must learn of the importance of unity amongst the European nations, in fighting tyranny and fascism, alongside the role of the ANZAC, African and Asian troops. Finally, they must see how these factors led to establishing the European Union (EU), including, for instance, its key relevance to the Brexit debate.
Following the referendum on EU membership in 2016, I met with a class of predominately White British students, including 13-year-olds jubilant about leaving Europe, taunting another student to go back home to Poland. Their reasoning was that their grandparents had died freeing Britain from the Europeans and now, they wanted their freedom and their own ‘passport’ back from Europe. A mish mash of ignorance and distorted history viewed through their families’ lens influenced these young students and sadly, resulted in the racism they meted out on fellow East European students.
Heritage matters through the curriculum
All German school children learn about the holocaust. If knowledge is power then we must enable all of our children to become more knowledgeable and to learn of all the myriad facets of their heritage. This includes Britain’s enslavement of millions in the transatlantic slave trade and its exploitation of millions more in Africa, India and the Caribbean. No statutory requirement exists in the National Curriculum to teach British Imperial or Black British history. Exam boards OCR and AQA already offer GCSE History modules on Migration and Empire. Few schools choose these, owing in part to the complex issues they raise. Moving forward, it is imperative for teachers to be trained in addressing these topics confidently, so these become the norm.
If we want All BAME Lives to Matter equally, we must respect ‘heritage matters’ through the curriculum. We cannot simply continue ‘celebrating diversity’, through iconic figures such as Mandela and Martin Luther-King, or scheduling well-intentioned activities during Black History Month. Opening all students’ horizons through global cultural influences is best threaded through a school curriculum that showcases the many prominent BAME achievements that exist in every subject. As the National Curriculum states, cultural capital comprises genuine respect for “…the best that has been thought and said…to engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement.” We must equip a nation of young people to be truly proud of their individual and collective heritages.
Numerous examples include Katherine Johnson, one of NASA’s ‘hidden figure’ employees, referred to as a ‘computer’, whose calculations of orbital mechanics (armed with pencil, paper and slide rule) were critical to the success of the first US crewed space flight. Or Otis Boykin (inventor of the pacemaker). Including a lesser-known black musician in Catherine of Aragon’s 16th Century court – John Blanke – when teaching the Tudors or Music normalises BAME achievements. The Arab scholar Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī (773 AD) demonstrated the zero in algebraic equations, and the Indian Srinivasa Ramanujan’s ground-breaking contribution in mathematics to the partition numbers function can both be referenced in mathematics. The Bollywood film industry has the greatest reach worldwide, in countries as diverse as China, Nigeria, Germany, Egypt and Taiwan. Nevertheless, in none of the GCSE Media Studies exam boards, do students ever encounter even a glimpse of films from the largest film industry in the world?
A balanced and nuanced curriculum
I am not arguing for a decolonisation of the history curriculum. Neither would I support the toppling of statues, or for hiding them away in museums, as both of these politically motivated actions risk stifling debate. How many disadvantaged or vulnerable children will visit museums and have the opportunity to see these? Statues on prominent view in our cities and towns, enables all of society to equally access our history. However, the difference is the placards that explain the multi-dimensional legacy of each individual as a force for ‘both good and evil’.
For lasting impact, schools must reflect this through a balanced and nuanced curriculum, comprising both knowledge and skills. Perpetuating a polarised view of British history, risks creating schisms that are counter to global citizenship in 2020; this is key for our young people. To gain deeper understanding and apply the knowledge, they learn, young people must acquire critical thinking and be equipped with critical literacy skills. Only through becoming critical readers, can they understand for themselves the British Empire’s legacy in how it risks perpetuating invidious and divisive racism. This is how we can hope to create future generations, who change society for the better.
Meena Kumari Wood was Equalities Lead for Ofsted, conducting training for the inspectorate. She has held senior leadership positions as Principal in English schools and further education colleges and now works as an education consultant in India and the UK. She has authored two books Assessment of Prior Learning and Bilingual Learners (1995) and Secondary Curriculum Transformed: Enabling All to Achieve (Nov 2020), published by Routledge. She is Chair of ClimateED; an educational charity working with schools to raise environmental awareness.
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