Comment Editor Asher Gibson reflects on efforts to decolonise the UK school curriculum and how they might deradicalise young rural Britons.
From petitions urging that the “unlearning of racist behaviour should not be the work of POC alone; it should begin in schools” to the emergent IMPACT OF OMISSION survey that “…with sufficient evidence of shortcomings in the way this subject is taught” aims to “lobby for the change that is desperately needed”, people are calling for a new, anti-racist school curriculum.
These calls are critical of existing PSHE – personal, social, health, and economic – education, which in its current form “aims to develop skills and attributes … [in] health and wellbeing, relationships and living in the wider world.” The teaching of health and relationships content is set to be made compulsory this year, a decision which sparked protests against proposed LGBT content.
However, PSHE continues to be a “non-statutory” subject without a standardised curriculum. The DfE feels it “unnecessary to provide new standardised frameworks or programmes of study,” supposedly to give teachers room to “understand the needs of their pupils”.
This means that the content and quality of PSHE curriculums differs radically across the country, with each focusing to a varying degree on the politics of recognition: issues like race, sexuality, gender, and disability. This can make some schools less efficient at preparing young people to confront the complex philosophies, theories, and histories that are foundational to racism and other forms of discrimination.
My old secondary school is one such institution, and an exemplar for the dire consequences this can have.
“Not very diverse” was the understated description my ex-pastoral lead once gave of this school. It is based in Middleton Cheney, an isolated village 3 miles from Banbury.
According to the 2011 census – taken the year before I enrolled at the school – 93.3% of the village population at this time was born in England, 96.1% in the UK. 71% were Christian and only 0.4% knew a language other than English or BSL. Only 0.1% of residents cohabited with a same-sex partner. Demographics have likely changed since but, from mere observation, not by much.
With the exception of London, I have only ever lived here – a bubble of cultural homogeny with an oddly long-winded name. It is also in this area where two people were arrested for their membership in the banned neo-Nazi terror group, National Action.
Little was ever said at my school about the British Empire and the Windrush generation in History classes. It wasn’t until I came to London and covered the Black Cultural Archives’ legal workshops that I was implored to research what the Windrush scandal was and what its implications were for West-Indian Britons.
Similarly, it wasn’t until this time that I learned my prior teaching of war history had been completely whitewashed, ignoring the thousands of African and West-Indian colonial subjects that fought for the Allied nations during the World Wars.
I was never taught what implications this had to their claims to citizenship, to whether British history should be allowed to claim these soldiers as “their own”. Learning of these events – seeing “Britishness” in action – as an 11-year old could have been the foundation for greatly enlightened citizenship education for students of any ethnic background. As it was, these questions were never asked.
Science and mathematics also have a role to play. It wasn’t until I was doing A-Level Psychology that I learned about scientific racism – how craniology and IQ tests contributed to an image of white ethnicity as biologically supreme, and how quantitative analysis shows this claim to be false.
Without consciously teaching young people why racism is not only morally abhorrent but factually false, many in areas like mine – where the need to teach oneself is impersonal and the will to capitalise on ignorance is prevalent – are particularly at risk, either of being swept up into racist extremism themselves or standing passive when it comes for their friends.
To call for this, you can write to your MPs. If you haven’t cancelled your rent payments yet, write to both the MPs of your home and university address (Flo Eshalomi, MP for Vauxhall is particularly sympathetic to the cause). You can sign petitions and donate to movements like the Black Curriculum charity.
Meanwhile, as students, we are well-placed to learn and to serve as teachers for families, friends, colleagues, students, and even our own lecturers. We can take up at least some of the slack left by the state.
Here are some resources to get started.