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Diversity, politics and education. A personal (re)view.

Updated: Jan 31, 2022

There is more than meets the eye in efforts to bring appreciation of diversity into the curriculum. Attempts to decolonise the curriculum and make it more fitting for today’s young people are another example of a struggle that has been taking place for a long time.

Britain is a multicultural society whose educational system does not formally and comfortably acknowledge that fact. The system overlooks (at best) or ignores (at worst) the achievements, trials and tribulations of the diversity of its inhabitants. A major reason: politicians who seem to fear young people will be indoctrinated by exposure to celebration of diversity (too woke!), critical exploration of Britain’s past and its political policies. Politicians have kept teaching about the different cultural heritages, family connections and backgrounds of many of its citizens out of the curriculum in a formal and systematised way (a political stance?). This stance has led to an arbitrary ‘bolt-on’ approach dependent on the inclination of the individual teacher, the subject being taught and the approach and philosophy of the school.

When major events happen such as race riots, politicians react and look to education as a symptom of and solution for the issue. Following the riots in 2001, the concept of community cohesion was formally adopted after the review by Ted Cantle. The aim was to tackle inequalities in a coordinated way by building understanding, respect and trust between different groups and interests within local communities. It offered a positive vision of diversity to be realised by specific community programmes and eventually formal adoption within the curriculum for schools and colleges. The initiative translated into a duty on providers of education in 2007 and was inspected by Ofsted from 2008 until the Coalition Government removed the duty in 2011. Community Cohesion, like the Every Child Matters agenda for education (2003-2010) were examples of initiatives started by one government and abandoned by another (politics!).

The one subject that seems to have enjoyed all party-political support is Citizenship. It has been in the National Curriculum since 2002 and in the curriculum of many schools before that. Aspects of diversity can be touched on in the different strands of Citizenship lending itself to the topic covering equality, the law, the justice system and the role of international law and human rights. In every subject or course, academic or vocational it is possible to include teaching about diversity. Some subjects such as English, History, Geography, Religious Education more so than others lend themselves to including material about the experiences and relationship between modern Britain and different countries and peoples. Integral to that relationship is exploring the history, cultures, customs, links and the reasons for different behaviours and outlooks. An approach taking a broad view of diversity and education.

This broad view was enshrined in The Education Act of 1988. The act laid down that spiritual, moral, social and cultural education (SMSC) should be taught in the curriculum. It is still a requirement. Multicultural education or any similar name such as cultural diversity spans all the four themes. Ofsted inspects how schools (and in some cases, colleges) promote SMSC. Superficially. It is written into its inspection frameworks. Superficially is how most schools deal with SMSC. A few, however, are committed to the value of integrating the four themes across their curriculum. The government in 2011 made it a requirement for education providers to promote what it called fundamental British values (FBV). These, arising from the Prevent agenda[1] are democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs, and for those without faith: another opportunity alongside Citizenship to embrace diversity in the curriculum.

The hands-off but hands-on, finger in the pie attitude of politicians has meant that education has long been a political football.

I started teaching in 1976. The words of the illustrious Professor Ted Wragg, my tutor in 1975/6, rang true for me in my first year of teaching. He had told our group that when we started teaching, most of us to comprehensive and state schools, we should be aware that we would be entering a world not just of education but one influenced by politics and dogma.

He advised us not to be fobbed off by promises, pledges and policies which were the tools of politicians to win our votes. ‘They weren’t so concerned for our hearts and less so about our minds’, he remarked with typical wit, cynicism and dare I say it, wisdom. He was viewed by his critics, notably the late Chris Woodhead (a former Chief Inspector of Education of Ofsted, my former employer) as a lefty cynic. The encounters between the two are well documented.

His point to us novices, soon-to-be fledgling teachers, was well made. In my first year of teaching, I was politely warned off from talking with pupils about politics, namely the boycott of South Africa, by a senior colleague. I jokingly remarked that I hoped the juicy green apple I was about to eat in the canteen among the pupils at lunchtime had not come from South Africa. He gave me a frown of disapproval, saying that he was sure the pupils were not interested in the politics! Later he said such controversial topics were only for the debating society and as a new teacher I should be wary about bringing politics into education! Our ensuing discussion showed we were on opposite sides. He against boycotts – “they don’t achieve their aim and only harm the people” – me in favour.

I was reminded of this conversation recently when Ben & Jerry's announced they would stop selling ice cream in the West Bank because of the treatment of the Palestinians. It brings me back to the point of politics, diversity and education. The Secretary of State for Education earlier this year following the escalation of the conflict in Palestine had issued a letter calling on headteachers and staff to clamp down on anti-Semitism and “act appropriately" when they express political views on Israel-Palestine. He reminded them of their “legal duties regarding political impartiality” and urged them to present a balance of opposing views. His government made no such pronouncements following the rise of attacks on mosques over the last few years that increased following 9/11 and then the Brexit issue. Islamophobia and anti-Semitism should both be treated in the same way.

Holocaust Memorial Day is rightly celebrated in many schools, colleges and providers of education. While applauding them and their actions in doing so, I question how many take the opportunity to look into the history of anti-Semitism going back to and before the Romans. Anti-Semitism did not start with the Holocaust. Should it be up to the individual teacher like me to introduce the topic into a Latin lesson and then be wary about a complaint being made[2]?

A complaint that I faced a few years later when I had the confidence and affrontery to discuss slavery with the pupils and question their perceptions that slaves were – in their words – ‘coloured’. Perceptions arising then and perhaps still today as a result of over 200 years of slavery of Black people. The pupils were surprised to see pictures in their books of light-skinned people as slaves. Opportunity! Origin of the word slave! What an opportunity that presented and still does to enter their worlds and open their eyes. Was I indoctrinating or educating pupils? A line, not as fine as detractors would like to draw, that most teachers understand and professionally would not seek to cross!

Shortly after I started my probationary year, Jim Callaghan gave his famous Ruskin College speech on education in October 1976. It was a time when the two main parties were arguing about comprehensive versus selective education. His speech really put education firmly into the foreground of the political landscape where it has remained and suffered ever since. I give without approval or disapproval a brief outline.

Performance league tables of schools were introduced in 1992. Tony Blair in 1997 again raised the profile with his Education, Education, Education promise. The advent of a reformed national inspectorate in 1992, Ofsted, had already put education in the limelight with a common inspection framework and attention to looking at the results of the SATs (Standard Assessment Tests) of schools introduced in 1987/8. A National Curriculum was set in place in 1998 and accountability measures were followed up by the introduction of performance related pay for teachers in 2000.

What have these to do with diversity and the curriculum?

While attempting to bring much desired accountability, transparency and consistency in education, the changes and the speed of the initiatives produced unintended consequences. Not favourable for fostering appreciation of diversity in the curriculum. The pressure to achieve results meant that teachers were reluctant to deviate from the prescribed subject material and explore, let alone promote, what might be considered off-topic digressions. Unless a topic was in the syllabus or subject specification, how could teaching about civil rights in South Africa or America, genocide in Rwanda or Bosnia, women’s rights, disability equality be justified? Topics only for Sociology, Government and Politics, Media Studies? Specific subjects that one government of a particular hue is averse to.

For a brief period between 2009 and 2013, Ofsted inspected how well equality and diversity were promoted in the curriculum, even making the judgment influential to the overall grading of the inspection. The effect was that schools, colleges and providers of education and training actively sought out opportunities to promote and integrate appreciation of equality and diversity in the courses and subjects.

Fast forward to 2019 and the introduction of Ofsted’s Education Inspection Framework (EIF). This made curriculum a central focus of inspections. A sleight of hand perhaps since the quality of education as evidenced by the curriculum and how it is taught was always the focus of inspection. 2020, the killing of George Floyd and prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement questioned the content of the curriculum in respect of how the experiences of Black, Asian, Ethnic Minority people feature in the curriculum and the viewpoint from which the curriculum is taught. Students and tutors in higher education had already started talking of ‘decolonising the curriculum’ and broadening the content of what is taught to take greater account of the backgrounds, heritage and perspectives of the diversity of today’s British society. It was clear what they meant and wanted. Education in this context allows understanding of legacies and conflicts, while challenging prevailing racist, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic misinformation.

But ‘decolonising’ was politicised by opponents of reform and attacked as being another attempt by the ‘woke brigade’ to change history to suit their narrative. It followed its predecessors such as multicultural(-ism), political correctness, diversity into the charged arena where words are the weapons to inflict wounds, score points and undermine those with whom you disagree. Wokism. Cancel culture. Identity politics. No platforming. Othering. Gender identity. Binary and non-binary. Unconscious bias. Critical race theory. Taking the knee. The list goes on.

It is easier to mock labels than unpick what they stand for. Thus, the real intent of teaching about all aspects of Britain’s colonial past, the gains and the negatives, is set aside, dismissed as rewriting history. In so doing, the heritage, cultures and experiences of many in the education system are again told from one perspective. Is this education? Or are such matters to be confined to single, neatly boxed events like Black History Month, Asian Heritage Month, LGBT Month, International Women’s Day, Holocaust Memorial Day?

Thus, the label of ‘decolonising’ has not been as useful as it was intended to be and attempts to include in the revised national curriculum specific topics like for example a compulsory Key Stage 3 History module on British colonial history have failed. Failed due to political pressure bolstered by much of the media who see it as an attempt to push ‘lefty, woke’ values. That is not the case.

Learning about colonialism is not a bad thing, it can help to understand how our modern-day society came about. For example, almost all of the Middle East, including Palestine, was once controlled by the British. Decisions made influenced history and region today. I suggest that many today are unaware of the relevance.

Many people moved from British colonies overseas to start new lives in Britain and what a welcome they received! Windrush Caribbeans, Asians from Uganda for example. The story of immigration into Britain and Britain’s influence, positive and negative is the story of today’s Britain. It should be told in the curriculum as part of education for life through all the many subjects offered. Teachers know their own subjects and are perfectly capable and resourceful, given the time and permission, to integrate and present issues fairly in a meaningful way and balanced way. Topics like women’s rights, disability equality, race equality, faiths and beliefs, colonialism, sustainability and human rights. To this list, I would add more specific human rights issues such as Kafala in Qatar, women’s rights in Afghanistan, The Uighurs in China, Rohingya in Myanmar, conflicts in Yemen, Syria. The list goes on.

The resources and information are numerous and available as are websites offering help with schemes of work and guidance on presenting ‘difficult’ topics. Suitable literature exploring diversity abounds too as do films and programmes on television. Today, discovering the world is exciting and easy. Learning becomes so much more relevant, interesting and motivating when home and home traditions, society, politics are integrated into what is taught and learned in the curriculum. Students guided by informed, knowledgeable and enthusiastic teaching engage willingly, with awe and wonder, with surprise and sadness, with indignation and anger when they have the time and space to reflect on the diversity of the world as it is, as it was, and perhaps influencing how it might be.

P D Green. August 2021

Peter Green is a retired, qualified teacher and senior manager in comprehensive and grammar schools and adult and further education, with over 25 years' in the profession. His other career roles were as a recruitment consultant, educational consultant and trainer in equality and inclusion, and quality improvement. Retired in 2018 after 14 years as Her Majesty’s Inspector (HMI), inspecting schools, Local Authorities, colleges and providers in the learning and skills sector.

Voluntary work over 40 years to date includes being a school chair of governors, governor of a college and adult education, founder member and chair of a race equality council. Peter is also a trained mediator, trustee of a local Citizens Advice, Mediation and Chair of a local YMCA.

In retirement, Peter has continued the voluntary work, maintained links with professional bodies and writes verses and educational articles.

[1] Prevent. Initiative to prevent radicalisation and promulgation of extremism. It followed from the rise of the extremist groups namely ISIS but not entirely Islamic fundamentalism. It includes far-right extremism. [2] The Roman poet, Juvenal in his Satires opens the opportunity for discussing xenophobia with his criticism of Jews and Greeks.


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