On 20th October 2020, the Junior Minister for Women and Equalities, Kemi Badenoch, told Parliament that the teaching of ‘white privilege’ and ‘critical race theory’ as uncontested facts is “breaking the law”. She went on to argue that there is no need to decolonise the curriculum “for the simple reason that it is not colonised”.
There are several worrying assumptions underlying these statements. But perhaps the most troublesome is the notion that teachers are not skilled or professional enough to approach these topics in a nuanced way.
I teach history and RE at secondary level. When I introduce students to contentious debates, I always prioritize engagement with the evidence on both sides and challenge pupils to justify points of view contrary to their own. Indeed, training students from an early age to evaluate both sides of a debate is a priority for all my colleagues and is fundamental in nurturing critical thinking skills.
To address Ms. Badenoch’s second assertion, the Junior Minister argued that there is already sufficient provision in the National Curriculum for topics around race and diversity, such as AQA’s GCSE History course Migration, Empires and People. She claimed that the decolonising of subjects like maths, engineering and the sciences is “misguided” and “actively opposed to the fundamental purpose of education”, since it makes race a focal point in the learning of these subjects.
It seems that Ms. Badenoch has fundamentally misunderstood the #DecoloniseTheCurriculum movement. Much has been written on this topic, and from this it is clear that the aim is not to make race the focus of every discipline. Rather, a simple explanation is that when teaching or learning any subject, we should “question whose viewpoint the information is coming from”.
Schools and universities are free to put this into practice as they see fit. For example, Kingston University simply has three core principles:
- Create an accessible curriculum
- Enable students to see themselves and their backgrounds reflected in the curriculum
- Equip students with the skills to positively work in a global and diverse world
None of this requires teaching maths, engineering or the sciences with ‘race as a focal point’; it just means taking a step back and asking whether or not what we are teaching and learning captures the full story. After all, one of the goals of our education system should be to imbue students with a breadth and depth of knowledge.
Ofsted highlight this commitment to breadth and depth in education in their latest handbook for school inspections. They call on schools to provide, especially at Key Stage 3 (KS3 – Years 7-9, aged 11-14), a “broad, rich curriculum” which provides “cultural capital”. Ofsted supply a handy definition for this, supposedly based on the National Curriculum:
“…the essential knowledge that pupils need to be educated citizens, introducing them to the best that has been thought and said and helping to engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement.”
Thus, even though the Junior Minister may not think it is necessary, schools will undoubtedly be looking for ways to diversify their curricula and imbue this ‘cultural capital’. But they are currently facing a dilemma.
Ofsted’s new guidelines have created confusion about the length of KS3. Since the introduction of the English Baccalaureate (EBacc)*, many schools have started teaching GCSE content for EBacc subjects in Year 9, traditionally the final year of KS3. The reason for this is to cover the mammoth amount of content added year-on-year to the GCSE (particularly EBacc) curriculum.
Now, Ofsted seem to be sending conflicting messages on whether schools will be penalised for shortening KS3. For example, Sean Harford, Ofsted’s national director for education, says that “It’s not the years – it’s the mileage”. So the official line is that it doesn’t matter whether KS3 is two years or three years; what matters for schools is to show “that they’ve thought about the curriculum carefully”. But schools are not seeing this reflected in their inspections, with some reporting criticism for running three-year GCSEs (i.e. starting GCSE content in Year 9).
On the one hand, schools are expected to diversify their curricula and ensure the KS3 curriculum does not get ‘narrowed’. On the other, they are expected ensure high levels of EBacc performance. How can schools be expected to diversify their curricula, whilst simultaneously convincing students to take difficult and expansive EBacc subjects, and cover all the content of these EBacc subjects in a short time-frame (i.e. all of Year 10 and half of Year 11)?
The answer, strangely enough, lies in decolonising the curriculum. It seems that KS3 is the perfect opportunity to do this, as it teaches students early on about diverse perspectives within different subject areas and does not eat into precious GCSE content time.
For example, maths and science departments could go beyond display boards and actually teach units that show how BAME mathematicians and scientists have propelled developments in STEM. Similarly, design technology and art can bring in the works and ideas of designers and artists from around the world. None of this need be at the expense of regular or core content – it is simply a reframing of how it’s taught. As I said above, schools have the independence to do this as they see fit, and many have already started.
There are multiple benefits to this. Not only will schools show that they have met Ofsted’s criteria for a “broad, rich curriculum” that imbues “cultural capital”, but they will also have inspired a generation of learners with ideas and people who tell a shared story. Moreover, students enjoy discovering aspects of a subject which until now have been ignored or hidden – something that will also help convince them to take those subjects for the EBacc.
Despite what the Junior Minister says, there is an abundant need to #DecoloniseTheCurriculum, particularly in the wake of recent political and social events. As educators, we have a responsibility to ensure our students are prepared for the world they will inherit, and we may not get a better opportunity than this.
This blog post is within the aegis of the Race Matters in International Social and Public Policy initiative by Dr. Kumar and Dr. Hughes in the Department of Social Policy. If you are a teacher and would be interested in discussing further how you can decolonise your curriculum, feel free to get in touch with the author.
*The English Baccalaureate or EBacc is a set of parameters for GCSE options – the government use both selection of the subjects and performance in them as a measure of overall school performance.
This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Social Policy Blog, nor of the London School of Economics.