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Teaching Modern Britain: How can the curriculum include us all?

Event type: Webinar
Date: 28/06/2021
Location: Online

There were some lively exchanges between the panellists at our event ‘Teaching modern Britain: how can the curriculum include us all?’ on Monday 28 June. That was perhaps to be expected, given that its starting point was a recommendation from the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparity (CRED), the report of which has sparked such polarised debate on its publication.

Windrush campaigner Patrick Vernon clashed with Maggie Aderin-Pocock, one of the Commissioners on the the CRED panel, over the contentof the report’s foreword and its depiction of slavery.

Yet there was much agreement too – both that we are not yet getting things right when it comes to teaching modern Britain in a way that feels inclusive to everyone in today’s diverse classrooms – and that it is very important that we do.

Several of the panellists took looked back at their own education to identify what was missing.

“For quite a bit of my schooling I felt like the outsider – ‘You don’t come from round here’,” said Maggie Aderin-Pocock, a science educator and member of the CRED panel. “If I’d known that there was a history going back two thousand, three thousand years, of people coming to the UK, I would have felt much more included. And I think the people teasing me would have felt that I was more included,” she added.

Writer Dr Samir Puri agreed. “My white British friends had no idea of the circumstances of the arrival of my forebears’ and the arrival of our black British classmates forebears’ to Britain,” he said. “They’d never heard of Windrush, they hadn’t even heard of the Commonwealth, they had no idea that my parents weren’t immigrants, they were British subjects. All this stuff is basic and I would go back to basics.“

Commentator David Aaronovitch underlined the centrality of our history to a shared sense of identity – suggesting that this government should be looking to embrace this theme.

“How we got here and who we are, and the various ways in which that came to be, is such a big thing for Britain,” he said. “This government bangs on about Global Britain and so on, but if that’s not the meaning of Global Britain, i.e. who we are, I don’t know what is.”

And Patrick Vernon agreed that there was much wider value in telling these stories well: “I think COVID-19 has been a kick up the backside that’s reminded us about the glaring inequalities in society and how we need to educate young people so they can take on some of the big challenges for the future, that we’ve left behind.”

Patrick said that this issue isn’t only one of the curriculum but also one of representation. There are still too few black and Asian people in senior teaching roles, such as head teachers. So we should consider the importance of role models and the people doing the teaching, as well as the content of the schoolbooks. He also appealed for teaching to be inoculated from ‘culture war’ clashes, with the curriculum a ‘politically neutral zone’ in which there is less meddling from politicians.

Samir underlined the importance of getting this right. An understanding of the making of modern Britain, he said, is a great foundation for any child as they leave education and go out into the world. Many teachers are already wrestling with this in our diverse classrooms and dealing with it very well, he added – and civil servants and politicians could learn a lot from existing good practice:

“There’s a lot of responsibility on teachers to understand the basic ancestry of the inhabitants of the classroom and I think in many cases schools and teachers do an incredibly job of that because it’s so local. So if there are good examples of that I’d like to see it cascade upwards,” he said.

Maggie said that teachers will need resources to enable them to implement changes. But, the making of modern Britain should be part of the core curriculum, she said – because it really does matter to everyone.

“I think the idea of just having the good bits of history, and forgetting the bad bits of history, is criminal,” she said. “We need to have the full picture so people can understand their heritage.”

David added that we might also want to look beyond the classroom too, to adults in the wider world. Yet ‘Culture war’ arguments – for which the media must take some responsibility – do have an impact and make it harder to find consensus, he said.

But wrapping up the event, Sunder Katwala offered some hope that we could unlock the common ground that exists among the public:

“This is potentially a polarised debate where we disagree, it’s also potentially a debate where we agree.” He said.” But it’s very clear from British Future’s research that there is much more consensus, along ethnic and class and geographic lines, among the general public on this theme of what we all want to know about this history than there is among the politicians and the commentators and the tweeters, for sure. So if we can get a broader engagement in this debate there is a much broader ‘middle’ to unlock – but you need leadership to do that.”

Later that evening, MPs took part in a Westminster Hall debate prompted by an e-petition calling on the Government to teach Britain’s colonial past as part of the UK’s compulsory curriculum, which received over 240,000 signatures.

You can read a transcript of the debate, moved by Chris Evans MP, here.

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