The brutal killing of George Floyd provoked a furious reaction across the world. In England statues of slave owners toppled and Premiership footballers took the knee. Amid this rise in concern for racial social justice, calls to de-colonise the curriculum now attract huge support. A petition to battle racism by adding more BAME writers to the GCSE reading list has already reached half-a-million signatures and is supported by headteachers. A cross-party group of more than 30 MPs has demanded the national curriculum be re-evaluated. Private schools including Fettes, Ampleforth, Winchester and St Paul`s Girls look set to de-colonise syllabuses after Black Lives Matter protests. So, should we change the curriculum?
Most advocates of curriculum change say they don`‘t want to abolish the canon but simply add to it in order to include a wider range of perspectives. They want to reconfigure subject reading lists, currently `full of dead white men`, in favour of more ethnically-diverse figures.
Others campaign to rewrite the history curriculum to make it compulsory to study the destructive aspects of empire and imperialism which, it is claimed, laid the foundations of racism. Campaigners suggest that these negative aspects of British history are wilfully ignored, but others claim they are already covered in lessons. Regardless of the facts of the matter, the status quo is seen as not taking racism seriously.
Should we welcome the de-colonisation of the curriculum as a way of correcting white Anglocentric bias and institutional racism? Or, however well-intentioned, will it encourage tokenistic box-ticking lessons? Might more diversity in the curriculum allow our BAME students to better see their identities affirmed or is this superficial gesture politics? The answers to these questions may depend on how we see schools. Are they microcosms of society and community, where diversity and identity are explicitly celebrated? Or are knowledge transfer and the curriculum a specific domain which should be immune from the external preoccupations of the world of politics and pressure groups?
What should be the aim of a good education: to affirm a young person’s identity or take them beyond it?
Listen to the debate
primary school teacher based in Leicester, with experience of teaching in disadvantaged areas. She regularly comments on the curriculum. Tarjinder is unconvinced by campaigns to de-colonise the curriculum.
Dr Alka Sehgal Cuthbert
educator, researcher, writer and co-author of What Should Schools Teach? She thinks we need a better curriculum, rather than a de-colonised one.
a passionate supporter of Black Lives Matter who hopes to study politics and social anthropology at Manchester University in September. She thinks the curriculum needs to change and welcomes the increased attention to it provoked by the death of George Floyd.
lives and goes to school in Tottenham and hopes to study history at Cambridge in September. He is particularly critical of “amnesia and bias in the history curriculum that too often brushes over, or ignores, the destructive aspects of British imperialism and its racist legacy”.