No sacred cows

Does the curriculum really need ‘decolonising’?

11 July 2020

9:00 AM

11 July 2020

9:00 AM

Layla Moran, the Lib Dems’ education spokesman, has written to Gavin Williamson urging him to do something about ‘systemic racism’ in schools. ‘Changes to the history curriculum, such as learning about non-white historical figures and addressing the darker sides of British history honestly, are a vital first step to tackling racism in our education system,’ she wrote. ‘This chasm in information only serves to present students with a one-sided view of the events in history.’

I’m not sure Moran knows very much about how the education system works. For one thing, Williamson cannot dictate how history is taught in free schools and academies — they don’t have to follow the national curriculum. Since that’s about three-quarters of secondary schools, there isn’t a great deal he can do. Then there’s the fact that children already learn about ‘non-white historical figures’. Doesn’t Moran recall the petition seven years ago insisting that primary school children continue to be taught about Mary Seacole? It secured more than 35,000 signatures, forcing Michael Gove to abandon plans to dump the ‘black Florence Nightingale’.

As for the ‘darker sides of British history’, my own kids have been taught about little else, including Britain’s role in the transatlantic slave trade. The ‘chasm in information’ is all on the other side I’m afraid, with children not being taught that many more Europeans have been enslaved throughout history than Africans. What’s unique about the British Empire isn’t that it participated in the slave trade — that’s true of every empire. It’s that it committed blood and treasure to abolishing it.

Listening to the politicians and activists urging schools to ‘decolonise the curriculum’, you’d think children were being taught about the ‘white man’s burden’ and re-enacting Gordon of Khartoum’s defence of Sudan in the playground. Even in the Tom Brown’s School Days era, I doubt the curriculum was ever as pro-Empire as these people would have us believe. At the last general election, 85 per cent of teachers voted for left-of-centre parties. Do the Black Lives Matter protestors really think these hand-wringing liberals are getting children to measure skulls in biology classes?

You think I’m exaggerating? A whistleblower sent me a memo on ‘decolonising the curriculum’ that had been distributed to all the teachers at a secondary school in Haringey. The headteacher asked them to ensure that ‘the curriculum diet offered our students in terms of anti-racism, anti-fascism, anti-prejudice, is broad, thorough, comprehensive across year groups, faculty areas and times of the year’. And woe betide any member of staff who challenges the idea that schools are perpetuating a system of white supremacy. A teacher at an academy in south-east London has got in touch with the Free Speech Union because he’s being put through a ‘disciplinary’ after writing a blog post criticising the violence of some of the BLM protestors.

It’s not just state schools, either. If anything, the BLM agenda has been even more enthusiastically taken up by private schools; 635 old and current Etonians and parents recently signed a letter to the headmaster, Simon Henderson, demanding that the school start teaching children about ‘entrenched systemic racism in our society’. In response, Henderson issued one of those boilerplate confessions that reads as if it’s been written by someone in an orange jumpsuit, and announced that ‘decolonisation’ will be incorporated into assemblies, religious services, tutorials and societies.

There’s one small problem with these attempts to make schools more diverse and inclusive — they’re already among the least racist institutions in the country. Layla Moran takes it for granted that black and minority ethnic (BME) children are doing much worse than their white counterparts and concludes it must be due to ‘systemic racism’. In fact, they’re doing better. The lowest performing ethnic group in England’s secondary schools are whites. According to the new Progress 8 measure, which assigns a score to GCSE entrants based on how much progress they’ve made between the ages of 11 and 16, Chinese pupils do the best, with a score of 1.03, Asians are second (0.45), then blacks (0.12), mixed race (-0.02) and, bringing up the rear, whites (-0.10).

But when did facts matter to progressive activists? It’s as well I’m not a teacher, because I would probably lose my job for writing this column.

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