Peter Fleming is CES's Teacher Ambassador. He is a history teacher at a state secondary school in the West Midlands, and an elected councillor.
Whilst the world continues to be gripped with the Coronavirus pandemic, recent events in the United States, and now the United Kingdom, have brought the issue of race to the forefront. For many, this issue is delicate, even uncomfortable, to address; but after a lockdown discussion with teacher colleagues, the part we play as teachers is crucial.
As a history teacher, I explained that it is hard to organically incorporate BAME history into our GCSE provision. Like all other subjects, we are following the GCSE specification so closely. Therefore, with the role of education so imperative in enlightening future generations, surely the exam boards ought to play their part. Popular GCSE topics, like the Cold War, miss out the role of African decolonisation and how East and West toiled with winning over recently decolonised Africa. This topic also omits the tension and presence of civil rights movements, both sides of the Atlantic, and how these issues distracted the major western powers. Here, I feel, is an opportunity to explore. This isn’t ‘adding’ BAME history, like the add-on it has often been perceived as in the past. It’s there, it happened, it’s history.
This leaves Key Stage Three and below time to cover all aspects of history. Like many secondary schools, the challenge is how can we get from 1066 to the modern day, whilst ensuring our curriculum is multicultural and inclusive. Due to the delicate and uncomfortable nature of racism, are teachers frightened to have a black history topic? Does a black history-specific time period or a black history-specific topic look, feel and sound like tokenism? Is this really the best way to incorporate the histories of all the children we are teaching?
Mary Seacole; the legacy of Notting Hill; Windrush, and decolonisation of the Caribbean, Asia and Africa, are all parts of modern black British history that is hardly touched upon, if at all. Yes, we must teach about the slave trade, rightly so. Teachers will sensitively explore this awful stain on our British history and try to make our students comprehend this unthinkable inhumanity. But is this it? Is this the only multicultural history we are comfortable with our children learning? Subordination and inhumanity? Highlighting further, Ajegbo et al identify ‘the effect, if inadvertent, is to undervalue the overall contribution of black and minority ethnic people to the UK’s past and to ignore their cultural, scientific and many other achievements’ (Kirwan, Sharma, & Ajegbo, 2007). Moreover, are we focusing on just the negative histories of BAME, rather than delving into a diverse range?
I have always been conscious to ensure positive, passionate stories are incorporated wherever appropriate, such as the role of Harriet Tubman. Moreover, I. Davies Gove-Humphries' 2008 teaching pack, From Slavery to Emancipation, ‘made reference to pre-colonial Africa’ (Davies, 2007) which, can be argued, offers a more positive multicultural history for curriculum writers to adopt, as pre-colonial Africa shows black people as free and not under the oppressive rule of white people. But this is Britain, not the United States. Surely black British history would be more engaging in our classrooms? As a white British teacher, I certainly agree. The British Empire, taught correctly, can do this. Gone are the days where we just talk about how wonderful the railways in India were, we challenge Britain’s legacy. The Amritsar Massacre in 1919, The Boer War, the first Chimurenga (where the Shona and Ndebele tribes fought the British in 1890s Zimbabwe), the successful independence movements after WWII and the Mau Mau Uprising are all events that rightly have a place in British history classrooms. Many of our students’ heritage lie in the Caribbean, Indian subcontinent and Africa, as history teachers we have the ability to unlock their heritage. But we sometimes hear, ‘what about white history’? The study of multicultural history, like the topics I have stated above, do not exclude our white students. Our white students will have the opportunity to understand where their BAME classmates’ heritage lies, why their town is multicultural, and consider the links to Britain today. My passionate belief is the unconventional, multicultural history is everyone’s history.
We know that the first steps to eradicating racism is through education. However, having education that enlightens and intrigues all students, regardless of their background, is the most powerful tool. Equipping students with knowledge so that they can challenge prejudice that they might encounter at home with relatives or family friends, isn’t that how we eradicate racism? Moreover, what about the ‘all lives matter’ brigade. Their argument is true, all lives do matter and racism is wrong. But, all lives do not matter until black lives matter. Surely education can help to stop racism but also the complacency that many people adopt on the matter.
To further justify the necessity of a broader, multi-ethnic curriculum that encompasses non-white history, in 2005 the Mayor of London’s office commissioned a report called ‘delivering shared heritage’ (Kirwan, Sharma, & Ajegbo, 2007) in the capital’s schools. The Mayor’s report, referred to by Ajegbo et al., emphasises the importance of headteachers and their influence on diverse curricula. Furthermore, The Mayor of London’s 2005 report also stresses the claim that ‘it is not the for isolated teachers to promote a diverse education for enlightenment, nor should this be deemed the sole responsibility of teachers of African and Asian backgrounds’ (Kirwan, Sharma, & Ajegbo, 2007), dismissing claims that the enforcement of non-white curricula is the role of ethnic minorities within education, rather there is need for a concerted effort from all ethnic backgrounds to ensure diversity. If possible, wholescale investment by exam boards, charities, Ofsted and schools in a multicultural history curriculum would, I believe, lead to a robust, representative and effective multicultural history curriculum, helping teachers who were less-confident with subject knowledge and, most importantly, delivering a curriculum that can truly tackle the hidden and hard-to-reach elements of prejudice.