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

Peter Kyle Excerpts
Monday 28th June 2021

(3 years ago)

Westminster Hall
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Peter Kyle Portrait Peter Kyle (Hove) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) for securing the debate, after 270,000 people signed the petition. It is a credit to them that we are having the debate.

I will start by quoting the Minister for School Standards, the right hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Nick Gibb). He is not present, but we have been upgraded with the Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan), who is a fellow Sussex MP. Back in 2014, the Minister for School Standards said the following when he spoke to the Association of School and College Leaders on the importance of the curriculum:

“We all know the cliché of older generations asking their children, or grandchildren, ‘don’t they teach you that at school?’ We were determined to allow the children of tomorrow to answer such inquisitions, ‘yes, in fact, they do’.”

We should think very carefully before constructing a curriculum that is based on the schooling of yesteryear. Let us not forget that it was a Conservative Government who passed section 28, which banned the teaching of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues in schools, until it was repealed by the last Labour Government. Just because some things were taught in the past does not mean that the same things should be taught in the same way today. For that reason, it is essential that we keep the curriculum under continual review and that we ask ourselves some simple questions. Is the curriculum equipping our kids with the knowledge and tools that they need to prosper once they leave school? Is it preparing our children for life and building tolerant citizens who embody the values that we as a country aspire to? And does it reflect the brilliant and diverse history of our country, avoiding narrow interpretations of our national story at the expense of a bigger, more significant truth?

As today’s petition makes clear, generations of young people are leaving school without an informed and balanced understanding of our past. There is no requirement for schools to teach our colonial history. Nor are they required to recognise the role it has played in perpetuating barriers to many black and minority ethnic people enjoying all of the opportunities that life in modern Britain offers. Not only is that holding people back; it is a moral scar on our society that is failing to heal. The Labour party would introduce such a requirement, building a diverse curriculum, including content focused on Britain’s role in the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism. In Labour-run Wales, the Government have already committed to introducing that from September 2022, which shows what Labour in power can do and is doing.

However, this is not about trashing Britain’s history; it is about celebrating it. As the author of today’s petition states,

“By educating on the events of the past, we can forge a better future.”

The Labour party believes that a diverse and complete curriculum is one of the best tools that we have in our armoury to build the future that we all want to see: a just future, a fair future, and a future in which every individual, regardless of their race and ethnicity, feels as though they have a stake in the country that we all call home.

How can a young person benefit by missing out on learning about the Bristol bus boycott in 1963; or the 15,204 men who served in the British West Indies Regiment in the first world war; or Mary Prince, the first black woman in British history to write an autobiography; or Mary Seacole, the historic nurse from the Crimean war; or Walter Tull, the Tottenham Hotspur striker and first mixed-race heritage infantry officer in a regular British Army regiment? Yet research by Teach First has found that pupils could complete their entire GCSEs without studying a single work by a non-white author. Teaching about black scientists, authors and change makers will inspire a new generation. After all,

“You can’t be what you can’t see.”

The murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement were watershed moments that demanded real change. That need for change was accelerated by covid. Baroness Lawrence’s report for Labour highlighted how black, Asian and minority ethnic people have been left over-exposed, under-protected and overlooked throughout the pandemic. Instead, the Government contented themselves with publishing an insulting document, downplaying the role of institutional racism and constructing a false binary between race and class.

The Tories want to tell us that they are interested in ending class and regional inequalities, but in reality they are not interested in ending inequality at all. After all, it was not white privilege that closed thousands of Sure Starts, early years and youth centres; it was Tory cuts. As for the 9% fall in real-terms funding for schools, and policies leading to record levels of child poverty and food bank use, the Conservatives did all of that on their own as well. No amount of cultural provocation can hide the facts.

Labour is listening to the lived experience of black, Asian and minority ethnic people. We will introduce a race equality Act to tackle racism at its root, including through proper education about our colonial past, and we will implement the reviews that the Government have failed to implement, both from Macpherson and the Windrush lessons learned review, which called for action on education, but it has been conspicuously absent. The Government will hide their lack of interest in tackling racism behind any cloak they can. Only Labour can tackle racism root and branch, and that must begin with the breadth of information and sensitive teaching that we offer our young people.

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.