Katherine Edwards 

Image© John Addison, Print, Government Office, East India Co St Helena

At the recent memorial service to mark the twentieth anniversary of the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence, the Prime Minister spoke of Stephen’s death as having brought ‘monumental change’ to British society.  Those of us concerned about the implications for equality and multiculturalism in the proposed new history curriculum found the irony of this comment hard to take.

One of the recommendations of the 1999 Macpherson Report on the Stephen Lawrence case was a ‘National Curriculum aimed at valuing cultural diversity and preventing racism, in order better to reflect the needs of a diverse society’. Yet although there are good grounds for thinking that this aim has been taken seriously in the education system up to now, we need to be clear about what a stark reversal the new draft national curriculum for history represents.  If it comes into force, it is very likely to set the recommendations of the Macpherson Report back by at least a generation. 

In fact it is hard to see how the Department for Education can possibly have taken into account the bare minimum of its legal obligations with regard to equality when devising the history curriculum.  Clarification on this is sought by a Freedom of Information enquiry, so far unsuccessful but awaiting internal review.

There can be few areas of government policy with the potential both for advancing and for hindering the cause of equality than education, and there can be few academic subjects with greater potency in this area than history.  History has been hijacked in undemocratic states to incite discrimination.  In contrast in Britain today it arguably helps empower minority groups and dispels prejudice.

One current GCSE pupil who is a refugee from Afghanistan and recently attended the Black and Asian Studies Association’s meeting on the new history curriculum remembered how he had been left with negative stereotypes of other races from his history lessons in Afghanistan, but how his history lessons in a multicultural London school had now challenged those and dispelled these.  Another participant at the meeting, a history teacher of Ghanaian origin, described how she had been inspired partly by the study of African civilisations in a British school in the 1990s to study and ultimately to teach the subject herself.  Sadly this situation is unlikely to persist for much longer if the government’s proposals are put into effect.

By marginalising and misrepresenting the role of non-white ethnic groups in British history the new curriculum is very likely to alienate and disengage children and young people, especially those of Black and Asian origin, and may encourage a sense of superiority in white British pupils.  Black and Asian people are excluded completely from the primary history curriculum and, apart from the token inclusions of Seacole and Equiano, they only feature as slaves in the secondary curriculum until the arrival of ‘the Windrush generation’. British Asians only appear as refugees from East Africa.  This obscures the long and important history of people of African and Asian origin in Britain and creates a false sense that ethnic diversity is something new.  It might mislead people into harking back to some fictional bygone age of an ethnically pure Britain, with the potential for drawing conclusions that people are in some sense ‘other’ if not white.

The Egyptians have been removed from the primary curriculum and there is no requirement to study any other African or Asian civilisations.  Given the enormous volume of obligatory content, it is very unlikely that anything unspecified will be covered.  This will deprive Britain’s current diverse mix of non white students from the empowering opportunity to ‘see themselves’ in their history curriculum and deprive their white classmates of a chance for developing respect and cross-cultural understanding.

There are no mentions of Muslims and Islam in the curriculum, an issue raised recently by the Muslim Council of Britain. This runs the risk of alienating the 10% of British schoolchildren who are Muslims and is a tragically lost opportunity to build bridges between communities by increasing awareness of the Muslim contribution to multicultural Britain.

Doreen Lawrence, mother of Stephen, and prominent campaigner for equal opportunities, commented on the draft history curriculum as follows:

“I hated history at school, because it had nothing to do with me. We were taught about empire but not about slavery, what our grandparents and great grandparents went through. I wanted the Macpherson report to ensure that we opened up history lessons so all the kids in the class knew where they were from. If kids just hear that these people are over here taking our jobs, they will believe it. If they hear that in the past Britain has exploited every single aspect of the places where these children come from, then perhaps they will see things differently. Black boys in particular have a sense that their self-worth is not much; we need to change that. All children should have an understanding of the forces that created the country we all live in today.”

The cause of gender equality fares no better than racial equality in the draft history curriculum.  In particular there are no women at all mentioned in the Key Stage 2 syllabus except for two Tudor Queens.  In Key Stage 3, four of the five token women mentioned (Florence Nightingale, Mary Seacole, George Eliot and Annie Besant) are patronisingly grouped under one amongst a sea of bullet points headed ‘the changing role of women’.

Equality of religious groups is also a concern.  No consideration is given to the wrongs done to Catholics, particularly in Ireland, in a curriculum designed, in the current Education Secretary’s words, ‘to celebrate the distinguished role of these islands in the history of the world’.  The Dutch invasion of 1688 which deposed Catholic James II is referred to by the biased and archaic term, the Glorious Revolution.  Its results were hardly glorious for British Catholics.

If the Prime Minister allows the changes to the history curriculum to go ahead, it is a bleak reflection of the hollowness of his rhetoric and his need to pander to the unease clearly felt by some within his party about multiculturalism and equality.  History curricula reflect what matters to those who write them and this curriculum sends a stark message about what matters to this government: the “achievements” of white Protestant male elites.


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