Decolonising the curriculum… again?


The call to ‘decolonise the curriculum’ isn’t new. But why does it seem that so little progress been made?


In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests of the past few months, there have been increasing calls to ‘decolonise the curriculum’. While much of the discussion has focused on universities, there have also been renewed calls for the teaching of Black History and BLMCulture in schools. One UK organisation doing important work in this area is The Black Curriculum, whose first major report (about Black History teaching) was published at the start of the year.

Of course, this is not a new argument. Perhaps it’s one of the symptoms of old age, but I have the growing feeling that I’ve heard it all before. Didn’t we decolonise the curriculum back in the 1980s? Judging from the observations of the young activists involved in this movement, it’s clear that we didn’t.

One of my earliest memories of starting work in an ethnically mixed inner-London comprehensive school in the late 1970s was helping to organise a conference on multicultural education. A couple of years later, I can recall setting up a training course and publishing a booklet for media resources officers and media teachers called ‘Anti-Racist Strategies’. There was intense debate at the time about the distinction between ‘multiculturalism’ and a more forthright anti-racist approach.

I’m not claiming to be a pioneer: on the contrary, it seemed to me that this kind of activity was fairly widespread at the time. There were teams of local authority multicultural advisers; teachers’ groups like ALTARF, All London Teachers Against Racism and Fascism; and key publications like Teaching London Kids. English teachers were increasingly using literature by Black British writers, and ‘world literature’ (at least in English) was being incorporated in the curriculum. History teachers were teaching about Black British history, and offering alternative accounts of imperialism and colonisation. Or so some of us assumed.

Certainly when it came to Media Studies, teaching about ‘representation of race’ in the media was a standard topic. TV programmes like It Ain’t Half Racist Mum (made by the Campaign Against Racism in the Media, and broadcast on the BBC in 1979) and the ITV schools series Viewpoint 2 (1980), both featuring the leading cultural theorist Stuart Hall, were widely used in classrooms.

HallThis material wasn’t perfect. In the early 1980s, I did some research on students’ responses to Viewpoint 2, and found that the analytical, gently ironic approach of Hall’s commentary failed to neutralise the appeal of some of the material that he was criticising (which included clips from older Hollywood films and popular situation comedies). Indeed, for some students, the programmes provoked outraged expressions of racism that were hard to handle in the classroom.

Yet as teaching in the area evolved, we developed a more complex repertoire. We came to realise the limitations of a kind of ‘counter-propagandist’ approach, and to challenge the individualistic emphasis of ‘Racism Awareness Training’ (or what would now be called ‘Unconscious Bias’ training). Some of us also came to understand (sometimes painfully) the difficulties of what today’s activists call ‘performative allyship’.

By the mid-1980s, Media Studies teachers were making use of the emerging work of the Black film collectives that grew up in the early days of Channel 4, as well as Black-led entertainment shows; examples of ‘world cinema’ (and not just art films) began to appear in classrooms. In terms of pedagogy, Phil Cohen’s imaginative Tricks of the Trade projects offered some ways of moving beyond the rather rationalistic and self-righteous approach of early anti-racist teaching.

I don’t think this work warrants nostalgia: on the contrary, mistakes were made and lessons were learned that should inform contemporary debates. Yet like a good deal of the innovative educational activities that were going on at the time, it really needs to be documented before it disappears from memory. (There’s hardly any evidence of this work online, although you can still obtain the book pictured here.)

Straker WeldsAnd so, as I hear current calls for ‘decolonising the curriculum’, I have found myself wondering what happened since. Are we no longer teaching Black History, or Black writers, in schools? Has ‘media representation of race’ disappeared from the curriculum? Did we take our eyes off the ball, or did we imagine that we had achieved something that never actually materialised?

These thoughts have been reinforced by reading a book from 2019 called Education and Race: From Empire to Brexit by Sally Tomlinson, who can fairly be called a veteran of multicultural and anti-racist education in Britain. It’s a depressing but necessary read.

Tomlinson traces the parallel and related histories of educational policy, and of policies on immigration and race, across the past century. As she suggests, the development of the modern state education system in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was inextricably bound up with nationalist and imperialist ideologies; while from the 1950s and 1960s onwards, it had to deal with the challenges of post-colonialism, and ‘the Empire coming home’. From Enoch Powell and the National Front, through to Stephen Lawrence, Grenfell and the Windrush scandal, the book is a sorry reminder of the persistence of racism in Britain, not least among the political leaders of both main parties. In relation to education, it reminded me of many events and people I would much rather have forgotten: the Black Papers, Roger Scruton, the Honeyford affair, the ‘Trojan Horse’… It’s all here, and relentlessly so.

TomlinsonAs Tomlinson shows, Britain is fundamentally failing to come to terms with the truth of its imperialistic past, and the reality of its post-imperial position – with living in what the eloquent young Black British writer and musician Akala calls ‘the ruins of Empire’. The resurgence of racist populism – evidenced in the Brexit vote and the rise to power of the mendacious bigot Boris Johnson – surely confirms this. (And if there’s any doubt about Johnson, here is a small selection of his views.)

In education, the hostility to multiculturalism goes back a long way, and was aggressively taken up by Margaret Thatcher and her successor John Major. Despite New Labour’s apparent embrace of modern, multicultural Britain, it quickly gave way to a xenophobic distrust of minorities – stoked by its enthusiastic involvement in foreign wars. In this context, teachers who adhered to multiculturalism were regularly derided as ‘Marxists’ or as cultural relativists.

More recently, this resistance to multiculturalism has become evident in both the neo-conservative and the neo-liberal dimensions of education policy, which I’ve written about before. On the neo-conservative front, we have seen a continuing effort to return to traditional notions of ‘Englishness’, most notably in the curriculum for History and English literature. For Gove, education became a crucial means of promoting our ‘island story’, and encouraging ‘national pride’. Most recently, as part of the Conservatives’ creation of a ‘hostile environment’ for migrants and their attempts to prevent ‘radicalisation’, schools are being required to impose some imagined version of ‘British values’.

Meanwhile, on the neo-liberal front, the marketization of education has led to an increasingly segregated and unequal system, apparently premised on notions of consumer choice. This is a system in which working-class and minority groups inevitably lose out. Young black males in particular have remained a significant target for discrimination, and are still disproportionately excluded from schools that are seeking to improve their ratings in competitive league tables. Meanwhile, the decline of local education authorities has decimated the training and advisory services that could support curriculum innovation.

British valuesTomlinson argues that young people in schools are still not being taught about the realities of empire: there has been a dismal failure to address ignorance and xenophobia, she says. The jingoistic celebration that prevailed in the earlier twentieth century is no longer so apparent in school textbooks – although it undoubtedly surfaces in the political rhetoric of Gove and Johnson. What’s more evident today is a straightforward neglect of the apparently unmentionable aspects of Britain’s rise to global dominance; and indeed of the origins and experiences of more recent migrants in the post-colonial era. At a time when these stories are increasingly being told – not least by TV historians like David Olusoga – young people are bound to be more aware of the absences. In this context, it’s hardly surprising that they might feel like toppling statues.

This neglect is also apparent in teacher education: Tomlinson suggests that courses on education and race were steadily erased during the 1980s and 1990s, as multiculturalism was increasingly derided (and teacher education itself came under systematic attack). ‘Race’ has become almost unmentionable, cloaked in a bland rhetoric of diversity; and racial inequalities have been effaced by the bureaucratic discourse of ‘BAME’ (black and minority ethnic). Yet outside schools, race and immigration have become the central, obsessive preoccupations of British politics; and in the wake of the Brexit vote, racial violence continues to increase.

Nevertheless, reading Race and Education, I couldn’t help feeling I would like to hear more of the positives. I can’t speak for History teaching, but in other areas the multiculturalism of the 1980s and 1990s lives on. English teachers now routinely include literature by Black writers. Media teachers have to some extent embraced world cinema (an approach that’s been enthusiastically promoted by Roy Stafford and his colleagues). ‘Globalisation’ is a standard topic on the Media Studies syllabus.

This is certainly multicultural, although whether it’s necessarily anti-racist is perhaps another matter. Thinking back to those TV programmes from the late 1970s, it would be hard to identify examples from mainstream media today that are as blatantly racist as those they include – although more subtle, ‘dogwhistle’ racism (and particularly Islamophobia) is certainly a familiar feature of contemporary political campaigns, and is widely reproduced in journalism and in social media. Of course, it’s vital that teachers should teach about the history of racial representation; but in the current climate, my sense is that many would avoid it, for fear of getting it wrong, or it proving counter-productive.

Black-Lives-Matter-protesters-march-through-centre-of-UK-city-to-make-a-standThe situation is made more difficult by the government’s insistence on prescribed curriculum content. For example, media teachers and their students would undoubtedly have taken note of growing calls for greater ethnic diversity within the media industries – promoted most prominently by the actor Lenny Henry – but the opportunity to teach about these issues remains limited. How far might teachers be able to respond to the issues raised by the Black Lives Matter protests – and indeed to the media coverage of the debates that they have provoked – in a situation where they are overburdened with compulsory content to cover?

Perhaps, like most liberal white people of my generation, I’m coming to the belated recognition that much less has changed for the better in this country than I had imagined. What might seem like a retreat from the gains of the 1970s and 1980s may merely reflect the fact that such gains were illusory in the first place. A poll released earlier this month suggested that 55% of ethnic minorities (and no fewer than 64% of Black respondents) believed that racism in the UK has either increased or stayed the same during their lifetime: white respondents were much more inclined to believe it had reduced.

Whatever progress was made in ‘decolonising the curriculum’ (and the wider education system) in the 1970s and 1980s, it has met with continuing hostility from policy-makers; and in recent years, it been consistently undermined, not only by a resurgent racism but also by broader developments in education policy. Addressing structural racism requires more than lip service and tokenistic change – although even these are things that our current political leaders seem reluctant to offer. The rhetoric of Brexit has been infused with vainglorious claims about Britain’s global status: yet as Tomlinson suggests, we are very far from having a curriculum that can address a globalised future.




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