School curriculum – a multicultural past

Former teachers Dave Lister and Mike Davis reflect on different times

The current anger around police brutality and killings raises issues about the teaching of black history. Michael Gove’s reactionary curriculum reforms included introducing a much greater emphasis on British history. Whilst this has now been modified, there is no requirement to teach black history at any point. Helen Hayes MP made a powerful case for change in our last issue.

At secondary level, whilst the history of slavery is now one optional suggested topic at Key Stage 3, and topics of world history need to be taught at Key Stage 4, black students are leaving school saying that they have not studied any black history.

While I was teaching in the 1990s there was a unit in Key Stage 3 on ‘Black People in America’. This covered not only the history of slavery but slave revolts, emancipation, segregation and the civil rights movement, which is a more positive approach than just teaching slavery. At Key Stage 4 it was possible to teach exclusively the World History syllabus developed by Hampstead School in London, which covered topics such as the Amritsar Massacre, apartheid and the struggle against it, the Vietnam War and Nazi Germany.

Dave Lister

Back in the 1970s and 80s, in the heyday of the Inner London Education Authority (abolished by the Thatcher government in the late 1980s), an innovative curriculum that covered Black history, slavery and colonialism was promoted. A new approach to history teaching extended to English and other subject areas. The ILEA had a Multicultural Inspectorate providing guidance and training. Part of my teaching experience was in the Humanities Department in a large Hackney secondary school. It was an active learning curriculum based on project themes enabling students to develop knowledge and understanding by exploring common themes across subject areas. History texts like The People who Came helped establish slavery and colonialism as major features of the history and geography components. In English, Caribbean and African writers like Edward Kamau Brathwaite, Samuel Selvon, Chinua Achebe, Linton Kwesi Johnson, and Ngugi wa Thong’o all featured in the curriculum and large stocks of books were in the resource library.

Most importantly, BAME students were encouraged to draw on their own family experiences of being first or second generation immigrants. This critical curriculum continued in many schools even after the arrival of the National Curriculum made it more difficult with exam boards dictating content in Key Stage 4. The advent of Mr Gove as Education secretary in 2010 amounted to a whitewashing for most schools.

Mike Davis

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