Black History and Cultural Diversity in the Curriculum Debate

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Department: Department for Education

Black History and Cultural Diversity in the Curriculum

Gillian Keegan Excerpts
Monday 28th June 2021

(3 years ago)

Westminster Hall
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Gillian Keegan Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Gillian Keegan)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank the many people who signed the petition, and I also congratulate the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) on securing the debate. Like him, we welcome the increased debate about black history in the curriculum, and I thank all Members who have contributed to today’s debate. We welcome the opportunity to respond on this matter, as my right hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards has done on previous occasions.

This country has a lot to be proud of, and children should learn all aspects of our shared history, both the good and the bad. We must teach about the contributions of people of all ethnicities, both men and women, who have made this the great nation that it is today. The shared history of our country is one that is outward looking: a nation that has influenced the world and, in turn, been influenced by people from all over the world. It is those people who have built the culturally rich country that we have today—a true example of a melting pot. A great example of this was commemorated last Tuesday on 22 June, when communities across the country marked national Windrush day. The third national day celebrated and commemorated the Windrush community, and the nation paid tribute to the outstanding contribution of the Windrush generation and their descendants.

The national curriculum enables teaching that includes black and ethnic minority voices and experiences. A shared British history can and should be taught, whether it is events such as the Bristol bus boycott, which many Members have mentioned today and which had a national impact, or the global impact of those soldiers from across the former empire who fought in both world wars. The theme “ideas, political power, industry and empire: Britain, 1745-1901” is statutory—I want to make sure that is on the record—but the topics within the theme are not. We believe that schools and teachers should use the flexibility they have in the curriculum to develop a more detailed, knowledge-rich curriculum to teach their pupils in an inclusive manner. It is knowledge that works to unite people and our nation by revealing the rich, interwoven tapestry of our history and enabling all pupils to see themselves in our history.

It is positive that teachers and schools are responding directly to the renewed attention on history teaching. These debates help to encourage that attention and ensure knowledge-based subject teaching—which, by the way, has changed a lot since many of us were at school. A number of Members referred to their history teaching, but I think it is fair to say it has moved on a lot since then. As a recent survey of history teachers by the Historical Association has shown, many more history teachers are reflecting in their teaching commitments to develop more content on black and diverse histories. That change at the school level will help pupils to gain more breadth and depth in their understanding of history.

The Government believe that all children and young people should acquire a firm grasp of history, including how different events and periods relate to each other. That is why history is compulsory for maintained schools from key stages 1 to 3, and it is why academies are also expected to teach a curriculum that is as broad and ambitious as the national curriculum. The Government have also strongly promoted the study of history to age 16 by including GCSE history in the EBacc measure for all state-funded secondary schools in England. Since the introduction of the EBacc, we have seen entries to history GCSE increase by a third since 2010.

The reformed history curriculum includes teaching pupils the core knowledge of our past, enabling pupils to know and understand the history of Britain from its first settlers to the development of the institutions that help define our national life today. It also sets an expectation that pupils ask perceptive questions, sift arguments, and develop perspective and judgment. It teaches pupils to understand how different types of historical sources are used to make historical claims, and discern how and why contrasting arguments and interpretations of the past have been constructed.

The curriculum does not set out how curriculum subjects, or topics within the subjects, should be taught. We believe that teachers should be able to use their own knowledge and expertise to determine how they teach pupils, and to make choices about what they teach. Teachers have freedom over the precise details, so that they can teach lessons that are right for their pupils, and they should use teaching materials that suit their pupils’ needs.

At the same time, the teaching of any issue in schools should be consistent with the principles of balance and objectivity. We believe that good teaching of history should always include the contribution of black and minority ethnic people to Britain’s history, as well as the study of different countries and cultures around the world. The history curriculum has the flexibility to give teachers the opportunity to teach about that across the spectrum of themes and eras set out in the curriculum.

To support that, the curriculum includes a number of examples that could be covered at different stages and that are drawn from the history of both this country and the wider world. The examples include, at key stage 1, teaching about the lives of key black and minority ethnic historical figures, such as Mary Seacole—she has been mentioned many times today—and Rosa Parks. The key stage 2 curriculum suggests that teachers could explore the topics of ancient Sumer, the Indus valley, ancient Egypt and the Shang dynasty of ancient China, as part of the required teaching on early civilisations. It also requires the study of a non-European society that provides contrast with British history.

At key stage 3, as part of the statutory teaching of the overarching theme of Britain from 1745 to 1901, topics could include Britain’s transatlantic slave trade, its effects and its eventual abolition. That could include teaching about the successful slave-led rebellions and challenges that led to the abolishment of slavery—for example, the Haitian revolution. For the UK, it could include the role played by slaves and former slaves, such as James Somerset, with regard to the Somerset ruling, and Olaudah Equiano, as well as the abolition movement and the development of the British empire.

Peter Kyle Portrait Peter Kyle
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I realise that the Minister is speaking for a colleague at the moment, but would she say that it is fair to set as the aspiration for her Department, once all the changes to the framework have gone through, that within a very short amount of time we should never have a student going through the entire educational process—as is happening right now—without ever having read a book or a text that was authored by a black or non-white author?

Gillian Keegan Portrait Gillian Keegan
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Of course we want a broad variety of reading in particular—it is very important—and a wide range of books are available now in all our schools. I am sure that the hon. Member goes into as many schools in his constituency as I do in mine, and we see the broad range of books, but we cannot be taking away the teacher’s role here. Teachers want to be able to come up with their own curriculum and to be able to choose the materials. There is a broad range of materials. Obviously we have the statutory themes, but within that it is up to teachers; they are empowered to decide at what point they teach things and introduce many of the black authors that we have now on the curriculum. It is up to them to decide at what point they want to introduce that; it certainly is not for me to set out what all the teachers in our 20,000-odd schools should be doing.

In the theme about challenges for Britain, Europe and the wider world from 1901 to the present day, the end of empire can be taught. For key stage 4, the Department sets out that GCSE history specifications produced by the exam boards should develop and extend pupils’ knowledge and understanding of specified key events, periods and societies in local, British and wider world history, and of the wide diversity of human experience. The GCSE in history should include at least one British depth study and at least one European or wider world depth study from the three specified eras.

There is significant scope for the teaching of black history within these. Two exam boards, OCR—Oxford, Cambridge and the RSA—and AQA, provide options to study migration in Britain and how this country’s history has been shaped by the black and ethnic minority communities in the past. Also, Pearson announced last year a new migration thematic study option, which will be available to teach this September. Therefore, the sector is responding and there are many organisations that support the sector with the production of these materials.

Many of the issues discussed today are matters that can also be taught in other curriculum subjects. As part of a broad and balanced curriculum, pupils should be taught about different societies and how different groups have contributed to the development of Britain, including the voices and experience of black and ethnic minority people. Across citizenship, English, personal, social, health and economic education, arts, music and geography, teachers have opportunities to explore black and ethnic minority history with their pupils, helping to build understanding and tolerance.

We cannot shy away from the major part that this country played in the slave trade, which children need to be aware of and understand. However, the UK also has a tremendous history that we should be proud of, standing up for freedom and tolerance around the world.

Wera Hobhouse Portrait Wera Hobhouse
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I thank the Minister for giving way, and we have a little time to debate this issue. Does the Minister agree that a lot of why we are debating this is that a profound sense of injustice lives on as a legacy of the injustices that have been committed in the past and continue to this day, which people from ethnic minority backgrounds want to be debated on a moral basis? I speak as somebody of a German background. The most atrocious inhumanities in the name of “race” have been committed by Germans. In my school days, we needed to learn that and to feel the pain, disgust and shame at what our people in Germany—my people—had committed. Do the people discussing this issue today not want the British people to also understand and do that?

Gillian Keegan Portrait Gillian Keegan
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I find it very difficult to compare what we are talking about today to the holocaust, if I am honest. However, we cannot shy from the major part that this country played in the slave trade, and it is important that children are aware of that. In a lot of the debate and discussions we are having, there is a lot of movement in this area. Teachers are very much learning about new materials and embracing the opportunity to do so as well. However, the UK also has a tremendous history that we should be rightly proud of.

Wera Hobhouse Portrait Wera Hobhouse
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Mr Gray, may I just correct that? I am not comparing the holocaust—

James Gray Portrait James Gray (in the Chair)
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Order. Is the hon. Lady seeking to make a point of order? Or does she seek to intervene on the Minister? Does the Minister wish to give way to the hon. Lady?

Gillian Keegan Portrait Gillian Keegan
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I am happy to give way again.

Wera Hobhouse Portrait Wera Hobhouse
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I am so sorry, Mr Gray, but I want to put on the record that I do not compare anything to the holocaust.

Gillian Keegan Portrait Gillian Keegan
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I agree that it is very good to put that on the record.

As I say, we should be proud of the UK’s tremendous history of standing up for freedom and tolerance around the world, from Magna Carta to our ongoing commitment to individual rights, civil liberties and freedoms. Our rich and diverse cultural heritage has been created by Britons from all over the world and has been globally influenced. It is through this rich heritage of arts and culture that we continue to have instant global recognition, from Shakespeare to Zadie Smith. Black and ethnic minority Britons have played a fundamental part in our island’s story, from the black Tudors to the Commonwealth soldiers who served with such distinction in the world wars. It is absolutely right that our curriculum ensures that children have the opportunity to learn about them at school.

I want to turn to tackling discrimination and intolerance, which a couple of hon. Members mentioned. On this matter, I say first that there is no place for racial inequality in our society or in our education system. The Department for Education is absolutely committed to an inclusive education system that recognises and embraces diversity and supports all pupils and students to tackle racism and to have the knowledge and tools to do so. Since 2016, we have provided more than £3.5 million to organisations, including the Anne Frank Trust, to prevent bullying. We are currently running a procurement exercise to fund activity in 2021 and 2022 to make sure that schools have the right support in place to prevent bullying of all pupils, including those with protected characteristics.

Our preventing and tackling bullying guidance sets out that schools should develop a consistent approach to monitoring bullying incidents and evaluating the effectiveness of their approaches. It also points schools to organisations that provide support for tackling bullying related to race, religion and nationality. Within and beyond their curriculum, schools are required actively to promote fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect and tolerance for all those of different faiths and beliefs.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Islwyn for raising this important matter. I welcome the opportunity to set out how black history and diversity is already supported within and beyond the national curriculum. I am confident that our schools will continue to educate children to become tolerant and culturally and historically knowledgeable citizens who embrace the values of modern Britain, and of whom we should be proud.