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

Wera Hobhouse Excerpts
Monday 28th June 2021

(3 years ago)

Westminster Hall
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Wera Hobhouse Portrait Wera Hobhouse (Bath) (LD)
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It is a pleasure to work under your chairmanship, Mr Gray.

History is written by the winners. However uncomfortable and however painful it is, we have a responsibility to confront the whole history of our nation, not only the things that are easy to celebrate. We must learn from the parts about which we are disturbed and ashamed. Most importantly, we need to recognise that the history of the transatlantic slave trade has thrown a very long shadow and that we are still living with the legacy of the injustices committed both long ago and not so long ago. Learning from our past should create a better future. We cannot hope to reach a place of true racial equality without having the difficult conversations about our colonial past.

Education is a valuable tool to empower young people to make change happen. We have a duty to ensure that the next generation better understands historical injustices and the way in which those injustices still play out in our society today. Teaching black history and the histories of other ethnicities and cultures adds an important layer to our overall understanding. That does not mean erasing someone else’s history—far from it. Including more in our history books can only be enriching. I find it hard to understand why some people feel threatened by that.

Last Friday evening, I had the honour of chairing a discussion panel exploring Bath Abbey’s historical connections with slavery and Empire. The event coincided with the abbey’s exhibition on the same topic—I encourage anyone visiting Bath to see that fascinating exhibition. Bath Abbey has more monuments than any other parish church in our country. Some of those monuments praise the achievements of people connected with the slave trade. I commend Bath Abbey for bravely confronting the legacy of its history and demonstrating how we should respond sensitively today.

The speakers at that moving and thought-provoking event last Friday taught us so much. Two speakers recounted their and their parents’ lived experiences of arriving in the UK from the Commonwealth and the indignities they were subjected to. Sadly, they were not alone. Irvin Campbell, chairman of local charity Stand Against Racism and Inequality, told us that the only time black history was mentioned when he was a pupil was when the diagram of a slave ship was shown. The richness of black history has been left out of our school curriculum. We need to rectify that. Irvin taught me to use the term “enslaved”, instead of slave. To call someone a slave robs them of their innate dignity. He has spoken in schools about the proud history of African culture, their kings and queens, and he has watched young people swell with pride as they learn about their history.

Education has a hugely important role to play in ending institutional racism and in closing inequalities in the UK. Our curriculum must be broadened and, where those topics are covered, reviewed. We must ensure that teachers have the resources and training they need to deliver an honest, open and inclusive curriculum, so that we see real progress in schools. One of our Bath Abbey speakers read a poem by Steve Turner, which still echoes in my mind:

“History repeats itself.

Has to.

No-one listens.”

Let us have the courage to share all our collective history. In doing so, we have the opportunity to show that we listen and that—maybe—history does not repeat itself.

--- Later in debate ---
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.