The date on the first page of my year 10 GCSE history book reads 8th September 1999. Why have I kept an exercise book for over 21 years? Because it was the module on India under British rule and I have been unable to part with that early memory of my history becoming visible to me.
According to my notebook, the advantages of colonial rule included that the “British built railways to improve travel and trade”, a point often made by colonial apologists. Glaringly absent is the fact that train lines were first conceived of by the East India Company not for the purposes of travel but for commercial gain, i.e. to transport raw materials out of India to be used or sold at a profit for Britain.
Going through the book, there are several more mischaracterisations and half-truths, but I also learned that over two million Indians were recruited into the British army between 1939 and 1945 – a source of immediate personal pride, but a fact missing from the countless World War Two modules I had studied up until that point. Also omitted from lessons about WW2 was the Nazi persecution of the queer community, of how they were forced to wear pink triangles and sent to concentration camps.
That same year I was studying partition, Sir William Macpherson published his report following the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry. One of his many recommendations was that “consideration be given to amendment of the national curriculum aimed at valuing cultural diversity and preventing racism, in order better to reflect the needs of a diverse society”. More than 20 years ago, a high-profile public inquiry on race made an imminently sensible recommendation and yet, a report from earlier this year found that many students leave school without having read a single piece of writing by a BAME author.
The issue isn’t confined to our history books, nor to the under-representation of our BAME and queer communities. A study by charity ‘Teach First’ found that no woman’s name appears in the national curriculum for GCSE science: not scientist Marie Curie, whose achievements included discovering radioactivity, inventing a mobile X-ray unit used during WW1 and being the first person to win the Nobel prize twice (once in physics and once in chemistry – no big deal); not mathematician Gladys West, whose work was the foundation for GPS technology; and not biologist Flossie Wong-Staal, who cloned HIV and created a map of its genes, leading to the creation of a test for the virus.
In their 2009 book Still Failing at Fairness, David Sadker and Karen Zittleman wrote that “sitting in the same classroom, reading the same textbook, listening to the same teacher, boys and girls receive very different educations”. The fact we teach our children nothing about these women who changed the world illustrates why.
This matters. An inclusive education empowers young women, teaches BAME children about where they come from so that they can make sense of where they are, helps instil a sense of acceptance for queer people who have been marginalised for too long.
But a reformed curriculum isn’t just of benefit to those groups. In fact, the greatest beneficiary of a broad, inclusive curriculum is our society as a whole.
If we reform the way our young people are educated, it will strengthen future political discourse. We are currently stuck in a binary news cycle of left and right, remain and leave, ‘Black lives matter’ and ‘All lives matter’; poor and rich; feminist and, believe it or not, ‘meninist’. Newspapers and politicians might profit from these divisions, but we the people do not. A comprehensive and inclusive curriculum will produce better-informed citizens who, with an appreciation of context, will more readily be able to identify nuance.
Education has become yet another battleground in the so-called ‘culture wars’ of our time. But what can we do when dispensing education – knowledge and truths that have, in an increasingly binary world, become less and less agreed upon – becomes a controversial act?
The Government should commission an independent review of the national curriculum, with the aim of making it broader and more inclusive, so that it properly prepares our young people for a globalised and diverse future. It could be similar in nature to the Lammy Review, commissioned by two Conservative Prime Ministers and chaired by David Lammy MP, which interrogated the treatment of BAME people in the criminal justice system.
The review into our national curriculum could be chaired by a non-partisan, respected public figure with the assistance of prominent people from across the political spectrum and different walks of life. It would have to provide a mechanism to incorporate the widest possible range of input from teachers, students, academics and educational organisations.
All schools are required to promote the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of pupils and British values, such as mutual respect and tolerance. Recommendations flowing from a systemic review of the curriculum could drastically improve the way in which this is done.
In PE, could South Asian people be told that they are six times more likely to suffer from type 2 diabetes and how to mitigate against it? Think of the money the NHS would save. In PSHE, could children be taught that young Black people are far more likely to be stopped and searched by police officers? Think of all those budding officers in that classroom that might think differently about their actions once they wield that power. In computer science, could we teach them that the father of the modern computer was gay (and persecuted for it)? In geography, could we teach them about the Irish border, so that future generations might understand the importance of a ‘backstop’ in negotiations with Europe? In business studies, could we teach them about the impact of aggressive capitalism on the working classes?
In a Parliamentary debate on Black History Month earlier this week, Kemi Badenoch, the Equalities Minister, said that the Government doesn’t want white pupils to be taught about “inherited racial guilt” and that there needed to be a “balanced treatment of opposing views”. But this 'balance' is precisely what advocates for educational reform are seeking.
This is not about kicking Churchill off the curriculum. It is about providing context: to Churchill, cultural history and the world as we know it today. Nor is it about vilifying Britain; it is about shedding light on our country’s failures as well as successes, so that we can learn from them. It is not about left or right. It is about fairly reflecting history and society, warts and all, in order to build a better, more harmonious tomorrow. Education should be a mirror, not a mirage.
The essay is part of penguin.co.uk's 'Small idea, big impact' series.
The essay is part of penguin.co.uk's 'Small idea, big impact' series.
Learn more about Lit in Colour, Penguin’s campaign to support schools to teach a more representative English literature, and to increase student access to more books by writers of colour.
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Illustration: Bianca Bagnarelli for Penguin