How do we begin to challenge eurocentrism in the English curriculum?
Updated: Jun 12, 2022
This month it was announced that..
‘All pupils in Wales are to be taught about racism and the contributions of black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, the devolved government has said.
Under changes to the curriculum the teaching of BAME histories will be mandatory, with the Labour-led government saying this would help young people grow into “ethical and informed citizens”.
A report produced by the working group makes 51 recommendations, including:
Mandatory anti-racism and diversity training for all trainee and acting teachers.
BAME history to be mandatory in schools.
Scholarships to support more BAME students to enter teacher training.
Mentoring and social support to be offered to all teachers from BAME backgrounds.’
This news has been met with mixed reactions from the Black community with some saying that this is a good step forward and others sceptical about what and how things will be taught. Although I am yet to see any opinions that support the current status quo here in England.
A petition from the general public led to a parliamentary debate on whether Black History should be included within the curriculum and several public debates amongst academics continued throughout last year. Whilst the objective of this blog is not to analyse these arguments, it is important for me to briefly say why I believe imbedding Black History and those of other People of Colour into our school curriculum is important.
According to Calvin Robinson he does not believe that teaching Black History would improve the ability of Black students to take in knowledge and learn. ‘For many people, the colour of their skin is an insignificant part of their identity – and the more that we emphasise that and make it a thing, the more we stoke up racism where it didn’t exist to begin with.’
I base my arguments upon my own personal experiences of being a mixed heritage person growing up in a town 98% White with extreme racism, having raised Black children growing up in an inner-city area of London that experienced significant stop and search by police, and having worked in London secondary schools as an EAL Teacher and Humanities Teacher since 2006, where I witnessed many examples of racial bias against Black and Brown students. My perspective, understanding and knowledge have evolved considerably over my lifetime to encompass the experiences of those around me and the changes to our society.
The argument of Calvin Robinson and others who say similar things have oversimplified a very complex issue that I will attempt to make as concise as possible.
Firstly, students who are interested in what they are learning engage and therefore learn more. Children who do not relate to what is being taught or do not enjoy it disengage, which myself and my Dad both did as young people as there was nothing there that we could relate to. In a school in the Isle of Dogs that I worked in, for the first time ever I came across both classes with majority Asian students and students who had very little interest in History – there was little or nothing that they could relate to in what was being taught. Black and Asian students have the lowest uptake of History at GCSE, A levels and Higher Education. I have personally witnessed not only the improved engagement of Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority students in learning, when a diverse curriculum is introduced, but all students who are able to relate to a diverse curriculum that reflects the global world they live in. This has also improved other parts of their education such as Geography, Politics and Sociology. To make sense of the world we currently live in a balanced History is needed. To say as Calvin does that History is currently balanced is incorrect. As an example, in the majority of schools I’ve worked in and those my children attended, the British Empire is taught for a minimal amount of time, if at all. As little as 6 weeks or less is given to a 400 year period of History, that was fundamental to the Industrial Revolution and the development of this country in a variety of ways.
More schools will choose to teach their students about the American Civil Rights movement and US slavery than teach about British slave trading and colonial exploitation which developed our economy and trade. Very few schools engage in teaching about British Black activism post WW2 and the contributions of colonial armies and citizens to the wars and rebuilding. Whilst things have been slowly improving as younger teachers with a more diverse perspective enter the profession, these crucial parts of British History are still conveniently ignored by too many, as they will inevitably expose uncomfortable truths about negative parts of our History.
Teaching the good and bad about how Britain became the country it is today is crucial for all citizens young and old to know so we understand the imbalanced world we live in, the power structures of our institutions and the structural inequalities that currently exist both in terms of class and colour. Many adults today are ignorant of these historical facts which is displayed both by public figures when they speak and by anyone with a social media platform. Even those with knowledge still refuse to accept for example that Black people are British and do not feel they belong here in the UK. For Calvin to say racism is being stoked up is to place responsibility for racism on the victims. ‘If we just stopped talking about it, then it wouldn’t exist’. What about all the people who don’t talk about it and still experience it? Which is the majority of Black, Asian and Minority and Ethnic groups. We are not responsible for the racial stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination of other people. By educating a future generation we have the opportunity to reduce ignorance and model inclusivity and appreciation for others who are different to ourselves.
For many White people colour is indeed far less important than other parts of their identity. As the dominant population and the default colour that is represented in all aspects of their lives, they have less reason to think about it. Although I have noticed that when White is not being represented then there seems to be a significant backlash with numerous examples continually played out in the public arena. If you have always been made to feel welcome and included and have yet to experience prejudice or discrimination due to your colour, or have not recognised it, then you may like Calvin conclude that colour is not part of your identity. But if you are never allowed to forget your colour then how can it not be a part of your identity? Either people like Calvin are disbelieving the experiences of those who have been made to feel like outsiders or he and others have a fundamental misunderstanding of ‘Black culture’ that has developed for some groups in response to the rejection of the Black community in this country. It is far more convenient to tell Back and Brown communities what they should identify as and how they should feel in response to racial inequality, than it is to do the hard work of anti-racism that will bring about real change.
What should we choose to include in our curriculum when making it more diverse?
Firstly, it is important to note that children bring a wealth of their own knowledge to the classroom that they can teach to their fellow students and teachers. Who better to teach their peers about cultural practices and their own countries than children of that background?
In St Matthews, the Head teacher says, ‘in her school, which serves a large Somali community, reception children begin with a unit on family histories entitled “our lives, our families”, as part of what the head called “sharing literacy lives”. From here, they explore the history of traditional Somali food and clothing. Black and Muslim inventors, philosophers and leaders are studied and celebrated so pupils view them as change-makers in their own right’.
Decolonising the Curriculum is also about collaborating with Black and Brown staff within and experts outside the school to assist in making it more diverse. It is about recognising the talents of staff from different ethnic groups and ensuring they are getting the relevant training and mentorship as well as recognising the skills, contributions and knowledge that they bring to their roles and promoting them accordingly. Schools in white areas also have a responsibility to promote diversity through learning and collaboration.
This video shows links made around the world, however the importance of making links with other British schools that are more diverse is equally if not more important. This helps White children to see the similarities with children of colour and appreciate their differences. It is also helpful to view diverse staff members in other schools to build positive images they may not have seen before.
In short decolonising the curriculum should be about closing the gap in terms of missing knowledge, misrepresentations of History and challenging cultural and class misconceptions. It should not be tokenistic or for one month but should add value to pupils’ learning and understanding by imbedding Black History and other cultures into learning, so they are no longer an ‘other’ or 'add on' but are part of Britain’s make up and have intrinsic value. Topics should develop critical thinking and dialogue and should be continuously reviewed to ensure the knowledge and delivery is relevant and sensitively delivered. It is important to check if these also reflect recommendations from bodies such as the Runnymede Trust and discussions about diversifying the curriculum should always include input from Black and Brown colleagues or work in partnerships with other schools if necessary.
Below are some examples of how diversity can be imbedded into the existing topics currently taught at KS3 that I have successfully used in my lessons over the past 12 years :
Crusades should include Islamic perspectives and be clear about the technological and tactical improvements brought from the Islamic world into Europe. This is important to counteract the perspective that all technology and advances in general originated in Europe. When examining medieval medicines there is an opportunity to examine medical practices throughout the Islamic world, including African kingdoms that had more knowledge than Europe. When looking at ‘Medicine through time’ at GCSE, Chinese medicine and other global practices like Ayurveda medicine should be examined.
Medieval African Kingdoms should be taught to counteract the negative stereotypes of African cultures being ‘uncivilised’ before Europeans. Similarly, when looking at ancient kingdoms in primary school, places like the Kush Empire which coexisted with Egypt should also be taught so that it is clear that Black Africans also created ancient kingdoms – again to combat negative perspectives of Africa and the idea that Egyptians were White. I am still amazed at the number of people who do not realise that Egypt is in Africa and that ancient Egyptians were far darker than what they are today.
When talking about the Norman invasion of 1066 it is important to compare this invasion to the actions of Britain when establishing its colonies and empire. Here we see that language as well as events are important as in discussions about the British Empire, words like ‘invasion’ and ‘conquer’ are seldom used, but in comparison the Norman Invasion is titled as such from the outset. Even in public discourse the Empire is portrayed as a benevolent entity rather than something that raped, pillaged, murdered an exploited. There is a disconnect when talking about the acts of other countries who conquer. The bloodshed and suffering that accompany such acts are always clearly laid out in historical interpretation when speaking about countries other than Britain, however descriptions are ambiguous and dismissive of the perspectives of indigenous peoples and full of omissions that may show Britain in a bad light.
I also taught lessons about Jewish people brought to Britain by the Normans and how they were used by successive Kings, forced to wear yellow stars and how they were blamed in various European countries for the plague and expelled at various points. This is important to counteract the idea that persecution of the Jews is something that only Germans did.
There are also opportunities to talk about the exploitation of Ireland and the contribution of Irish people in the Industrial Revolution and after WW2, something which increased the engagement of a significant number of students over the years. At GCSE I have only seen one school (the same) that ran a unit on the Northern Ireland and Middle Eastern conflicts, both topics that Britain has been intimately involved with. Many adults would struggle to know the events of such significant parts of our History.
Tudors is over taught to many different age groups in primary and secondary and needs a more coordinated approach to allow space for other topics. What topics do you remember being taught the most about in school? Most of us know all about Henry and his wives but know little about Britain and the Cold War or contributions by Britain's colonial citizens who helped to rebuild this country after WW2, again key parts of our History that help us explain the modern world.
Tudors should include John Blanke the Black trumpeter in King Henry’s court and other Black communities settled here and visitors from Africa. It should include the incursions into the ‘New World’ and interactions with indigenous communities and the slave raids of John Hawkings on African villages. The wealth gained from exploration, colonisation and trade and the subsequent increase in Britain’s industries should be clearly mapped out for students.
The Renaissance should show the knowledge brought into Europe through the Moors in Iberia, Africa and the Arab world which influenced areas such as medicine, technology, astronomy etc. When talking about the printing press it should be acknowledged that other countries like China had a long tradition of printing centuries before Europe.
When teaching the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, areas I find that are missing from lessons in schools that are important to teach are Pre-colonial Africa, resistance to slavery in Africa, on the ships, passive and violent resistance, economic and social consequences of the Slave Trade and the links with later colonialism. Focus should also be on Britain’s involvement in this trade and far less on the USA as this makes it sound like Britain was not really involved. Profiteering of individuals and subsequent investments into the British economy and the Industrial Revolution should be highlighted as many adult today do not understand how it helped build our wealth as a country. How enslaved people were treated during the Middle Passage, on the plantations and in Britain itself is important. As is the role of Black people in gaining their own freedom. The ‘White saviour’ narrative must be challenged, and a voice should be given to the Black abolitionists and freedom fighters. The compensation deal for slave owners and other economic factors that encouraged abolition should be clearly laid out for students to combat the narrative that Britain's moral disposition was higher than the rest of Europe and why Enslaved peoples were freed.
Colonialism and Imperialism is rarely taught in detail and is mostly from a political and from British perspectives. Areas missing that are important are racist ideologies used to support slavery, invasions, and conquest. Indirect and direct rule, colonialism and colonisation – many adults today do not understand Britain’s ability to control a country without actually colonising it. Many also do not understand imperialism exercised against places like China, so this must be taught. The atrocities committed against indigenous people in British colonies like Australia and Kenya must be exposed as many British people are unaware of these as well as the economic exploitation, deindustrialisation, and general arrested development of colonies like India. This again is needed to combat the idea that Britain 'civilised' these nations and that stealing life and liberty is an acceptable thing to do. Students must be made aware that had these countries been left alone they would have been able to develop themselves and that many were already more advanced than Britain. This is a massive part of British History spanning about four centuries so to give this a few hours on the curriculum compared to years’ worth of the Tudors, seems to me to be deliberately designed to avoid accountability for inhumane acts that continue to affect former colonies today.
The opportunities and motivation to teach more of these topics needs to be provided by exam boards who should include more diversity in their programme of study. Additionally, teachers also have gaps in their learning that make the process of challenging eurocentrism more difficult, but despite the stonewalling by central government and OFSTED, strides are being made to improve things.
There are various organisations like the NEU, schools and local LEAs that are starting to build banks of resources to assist with making curriculums more diverse. There are also groups like my own Black British Studies who provide staff training in anti-racism and Black British History.
Below are some websites you may find useful.
If you work in education, I would be interested in hearing about what you or your organisation have done to make the school curriculum more diverse? Please feel free to share your opinions in the comments or contact me directly at email@example.com.
This blog is an extract from a schools unit on my 7 week course 'Introduction to Black British Studies and reducing racial bias'. It can be used by individuals wanting to improve their knowledge or by organisations who wish to provide flexible online diversity training for their staff. The link below gives you full details of the course content.
Alternatively if you would like a bespoke webinar or series of online workshops for your staff please contact me to discuss your needs. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.