Can we debate curriculum diversity politely? (Please)


It is the 3rd March 2019.

I declare the Great Pedagogical War over.

‘What’ has beaten ‘how’.

While, like Japanese soldiers fighting in the jungle long after the end of World War Two, there are some consultants, teachers and schools still preoccupied with delivery they are isolated now, vanishingly irrelevant and will soon be pushed into the void.

The new debate will be over what exactly pupils should be taught in their schools.

This will be more acute in some subjects than in others. It is unlikely to be particularly contentious in maths and science because in these subjects what pupils should learn is more established than in others, particularly history where discussions are likely to be fraught and potentially antagonistic.

As uncomfortable as this may get it is the right time to be having the conversation. The emphasis of Ofsted’s new framework on curriculum intent means that MATS, schools and teachers are now thinking hard about what they are trying to achieve and what exactly pupils need to know to get there. Curriculums are being strengthened and rewritten from scratch with those responsible for them thinking hard about the very point of what they teach.

Thank goodness, saying ‘to get good exam results’ is no longer a satisfactory answer. Deeper, more profound questions need to be considered and answered. What is the purpose of the curriculum? What will be in it? How has the content of the curriculum been decided upon? Who makes decisions about what pupils should learn? How is curriculum Quality Assured? What processes exist to critique and revise the curriculum?

In these questions lie the seeds of irresponsible attack and unhelpful defensiveness. I think we’re beginning to see this already; accusations of racism, white supremacist views (albeit framed differently to the culturally dominant definition) and propaganda flew around twitter this weekend.

Those concerned about curriculum content, whatever the reason, have the right and responsibility to have their say, but I worry that some of what I’ve seen is based upon assumptions that are often not true.

For example, an argument I’ve heard made recently is that many history curriculums are racist because they teach that the abolition of slavery was solely the result of white abolitionists. Well, quite. But I haven’t come across a curriculum that actually does teach this. At my MAT, the abolition of slavery part of the curriculum contains the work of both white and black abolitionists, economic arguments influenced by Marxist historians, the influence of rebellions in the southern states and Caribbean countries and an examination of the reasons for changing scholarly debates and why these are particularly contentious. My understanding is that this, based on scholarship, has been the most common approach for quite a long time, although I am of course quite happy to be pointed towards evidence that shows I’ve got this wrong.

I wonder this sort of thing happens because some of those concerned about the content of the history curriculum have assumed that pupils are learning what I call The National Myth. This misunderstanding would be understandable, given that such narrative are often culturally dominant.

In this wrongheaded conception of history, Britain alone won World War Two, Churchill, Gandhi and Martin Luther King are secular saints, and there is serious debate over whether humans have ever been to the moon. That all of this is nonsense doesn’t make any of this fluff go away, and as I argued here a core purpose of history in schools should be to act as the Ghost at the Feast and fight such dangerous, inaccurate generalisations.

History teachers are allies here, not the enemy, and rather than call them to task over strawmen, it would be more productive to amplify their voices so that what they teach is better able to challenge the inaccuracies that infuriate us all.

None of this is to say that every history curriculum gets everything right. I think there is indeed a very important conversation to be had around how these are created and who creates them. But for this to happen properly it is just as important that challenge and debate happen in a constructive, collegiate and civil manner. Nobody wants topics or themes to be crudely shoe-horned into learning sequences just to tick a box or meet an arbitrary quota.

This is what went wrong with the way in which Mary Seacole was included on many curriculums in the past, where I’ve seen her thoughtlessly plopped in next to Florence Nightingale, her contributions to nursing and doctoring made to compete celebrity death-match style against those of her more famous contemporary in questions focused on medical significance in which she inevitably came off worse. In order to compensate, I think, I’ve also seen curriculum use the shade thrown by Nightingale at Seacole during the Crimean war to give the death-match an unhelpfully presentist moralistic element. A common, infuriating conclusion reached by pupils ended up being along the lines of, ‘Nightingale more significant but EVIL.’ I think this happened because while Seacole is absolutely worthy of including on a curriculum, not enough thought was given to why. In our curriculum Mary Seacole is included, along with the inherent interest found in any extraordinary life, to show how attitudes towards race and ethnicity are complex and have changed. We teach the importance of her work at the time, that when she returned from the Crimea a huge benefit concert was arranged for her by grateful ex-patients. We teach that her fame faded over time because far less was written about her than Florence Nightingale by historians until a comparatively recent rediscovery, while considering the possible reasons for this. This fits in with the ‘evolution or revolution’ theme of the unit of work, which examines the type and speed of social changes in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

This hasn’t been easy and while confident I’ve put hard thought into getting this right, I’m just as sure there will be some certain I’ve got it wrong. And this is the point. Doing anything properly takes time and careful and sustained thought, and even then it isn’t at all clear that there will be a consensus on how successful curriculum planning has been.

I would go further and accept the likelihood there are themes, events, personalities and interpretations that perhaps should be on the curriculum I planned but aren’t simply because I am either unaware of them at all, or unaware of scholarship that makes them more significant than I thought them to be. Although I am a voracious and curious reader I am very busy, and a part of my own context as much as anyone else. Sometimes things that seem obvious to others are less obvious to me. I want this debate to happen over the specific not the generic. Less “you need more Indian history on your curriculum right now” and more “have you ever thought of including the Black Hole of Calcutta on your curriculum as part of a unit on Britain’s control of India?” Suggestions on history articles, books, exhibitions or new discoveries that challenge existing orthodoxies, the lifeblood of history, are even more welcome.

We do need to have this conversation, we really do. But this is a big, big debate which might involv deep structural changes (or not) for many history curriculums. Erecting strawmen won’t help. Nor will blunderbuss non-specific accusations of white supremacy or racism. Nor will defensiveness from curriculum planners when faced with legitimate challenge.

Collegiality and generous application of the Charity Principle will help. All of us want the best curriculums for our pupils, as we define them, and to say otherwise is at best unhelpful and at worst very disingenuous.

We’ve just finished one war. Let’s not begin another.

If we are to take best advantage of a welcome focus on ‘what’ over ‘how’, we must work together.

(Note: In an earlier version of this blog I wrote that the content of MFL was not particularly contentious. It’s been pointed out to me this isn’t true. I’ve edited. Please excuse my ignorance and thanks to those who patiently pointed me towards a debate I was unaware of.)


3 thoughts on “Can we debate curriculum diversity politely? (Please)

  1. Brian says:

    I think there has always been the what and the how and always will it be thus. Curriculum has always been the what. The war seems to have passed me by.

    My guess is the next one will pass me by too as I carry on doing my job as a professional educator.

    I hope your debate goes well. Keep it within the echo chamber and I am sure you will get your own way.


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