Did Churchill promote intolerance and discrimination? That’s the concern that has led a school in Sussex to decide it’s no longer appropriate for one of its houses to be named after the wartime leader who defeated fascism. According to the local paper, The Argus, a letter was sent to parents, saying that: “Churchill could be considered an important historical figure. However, we are now more aware that Churchill was a figure who promoted racism and inequality”.
This is an extreme example, but the dominant role of the dead white male in the school curriculum, and calls to ‘decolonise’ learning, are among the most sensitive and controversial topics in English education right now.
As a former headteacher I believe the desire to move away from a British-centred curriculum is misguided, counterproductive and ultimately damaging for two groups of children: those from ethnic minority and deprived backgrounds.
For a start, many of the arguments in favour of ‘ethno-balancing’ the curriculum are based on a false assumption. We do not teach pupils about Oliver Cromwell, Elgar or Newton because they were white, the Brontë’s, Jane Austen or Marie Curie because they were female, Oscar Wilde because he was gay or Einstein, Mendelssohn or Karl Marx because they were of Jewish heritage. We study these people because they were leaders in their field and helped shape the country and the world in which we live.
Every October we celebrate Black History Month, which has produced some really important work. But does that mean we should also have an Asian History Month – or two months since the British Asian population is more than twice the size of the African and Caribbean populations? What about an Eastern European history month, given the large number of Poles who have made their home in the UK? The problem with such an approach is that it stresses difference over unity, and denies youngsters a proper understanding of their own society.
Of course, Britain is a multi-cultural, multi-faith country and diversity is to be celebrated. Two things, however, unite us, regardless of race, colour or religion: we all live in Britain and we are all British. This doesn’t mean we should aim for monoculturalism, but by understanding British history and culture, without forgetting diversity, we can create a more united society – and schools can play a key role. And remember a very basic point: the school curriculum is finite. You cannot teach everything and if you include one topic, you have to leave out another, so we should surely concentrate on what we have in common.
Some people argue that the curriculum should be made more ‘relevant’ to modern Britain, but surely British history, literature and culture are important to all of us. Why is there a medieval Anglican church in practically every town and village? Why do over 90% of us celebrate Christmas in some guise or other? Why do we speak English? If we want everyone to feel a part of this country, studying its history, literature and culture is the starting point. Not to have this knowledge and understanding is to be forever excluded.
Look at polls to find the country’s favourite poem: topping the bill are works by Kipling, Tennyson and Wordsworth. Equally, in a poll to find the ‘greatest Briton’ the most popular names include Churchill, Brunel, Elizabeth I, Nelson, Captain Cook and Queen Victoria. Given that this is the culture with which the vast majority of the population identify, why should some be denied access to it?
And where better than our schools to learn about Shakespeare, the Tudors, the impact of the Wars and everything else that has shaped this country? Britain is one of the oldest democracies in the world and remains one of the most free. Young people will only make sense of this by studying Magna Carta, Simon de Montfort, the English Civil War and the parliamentary reforms and women’s suffrage movements in the 19th and 20th centuries. Of course, individuals can teach themselves about such things, but young people as a group will have a far better understanding if they study them at school.
Finally, and most importantly, moving away from a British-centred curriculum will create a more divided society. Why? Because families with money or an interest in the country’s traditional culture will continue to take their children to museums, historical sites, concerts and opera. Why should other children be denied access to culture when everyone could experience it at school?
To use the buzz-phrase du jour, education is about ‘levelling up’, and I strongly believe that a British-centric curriculum can create a more unified and cohesive society, and spread opportunities for all, regardless of background. It must not, however, turn out myopic, xenophobic nationalists – we need young people to realise that they are part of both a very diverse Britain and a wider global community. We should, therefore, take every opportunity to study and celebrate diversity and inclusion through events such as United Nations Day, Martin Luther King Day, Commonwealth Day, Disability Awareness Day, International Women’s Day, major religious festivals and so on. Let us use these opportunities to broaden horizons and deepen understanding.
Nor does a British-centric curriculum have to mean focusing exclusively on the UK. In English, for example, we should concentrate on British authors but also include world literature; in science, topics such as the environment; global health and conservation are inherently international. Likewise in history, we must include some non-British/non-European topics alongside a thorough grounding in our own history.
Finally, the curriculum should aim to give as full a picture of things as possible without avoiding uncomfortable and unsettling truths.
To take two examples from history: Churchill was undoubtedly a great war leader and national hero – and to claim he ‘promoted racism’ when he stood against the Nais is an odd claim – but he was also an ardent imperialist who opposed Gandhi and Indian independence (although he did foresee the problems of partition).
Similarly, a discussion of the Atlantic slave trade would of course acknowledge the appalling reality of the Middle Passage, the brutality of the slave owners and the enormous sums of money made by British slavers. But it would also note that slavery flourished in Africa long before Europeans arrived in the 15th century, and that many Africans also profited from physically capturing and selling fellow Africans (with horrendous mortality rates).
There is a powerful case for a curriculum centred on British history, literature and culture, but which places it in the context of a diverse Britain and a wider world. The result should be students who combine a broad outlook with a deep understanding of the country in which they live. Most importantly, it will enable all citizens to be actively engaged with modern Britain and to positively contribute to it.
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