Decolonising the curriculum – re-evaluating past memories

By Joseph Bell

The last few months have been flooded with debates surrounding our past. In particular, questions have been asked of the way Britain remembers its history. Important conversations have been started by the Black Lives Matter movement, questioning the way we present our heroes and the voices we choose to amplify within our history. School curriculums are key in shaping perceptions of Britain’s past, which play a huge role in our culture and beliefs. A burst of online petitions and protests have demanded we ‘decolonise the curriculum’, but what does this mean and how can we do it? 

 A large part of this movement is the obvious need to promote works from more black and minority voices across a range of subjects – especially English Literature and History. This is another hugely important discussion, but as a history tutor, I will focus mainly on the content I have taken issue with in schools’ curriculums over the past few years. 

I have had moments of disbelief when teaching from clearly outdated textbooks. Few offer a balanced view, with the British Empire still portrayed as a force of good across the world and minority voices often pushed to the side. 

As one example, a common entrance revision guide I was recently using to help teach a Year 8 student had a whole section about 19th century Imperial rule in India. The 19th century was a brutal period of colonial rule, with British officials disregarding local customs and stripping India of resources, resulting in mass famines. Despite this, the revision guide in question only used one case study to highlight rising tensions – the Indian mutiny, where Indian soldiers rose up against the British and killed unarmed British civilians. Whilst it is important to view cases like these in context, highlighting this one event alone helps feed the narrative implemented in school history curriculums from a young age that we are historically the ‘good guys.’ Although the killing of civilians was a shocking moment, the British soldiers also responded brutally, burning villages and killing Indian soldiers and civilians in return. There is no mention of this in the revision guide, which chooses to focus solely on one atrocity against the British during colonial rule rather than offering a balanced perspective, which would find that there were many more atrocities committed by the British Imperials than suffered by them. There is no mention of the hundreds of thousands of Indians who were killed or starved to death due to brutality and misgovernment around the same time. Instead, the guide chooses to ignore this part of Imperial history.  

Even as far back as the Crusades, textbooks have a tendency to create one-dimensional British heroes. On the same page, one history textbook describes Richard the Lionheart as ‘devout, strong and courageous’ before writing of how ‘he openly massacred… several thousand Muslim prisoners.’ Despite bringing light to this event, Richard is still named as ‘courageous’ and ‘brave’ and sent to ‘free the city of Jerusalem from the Muslims.’ Again, few Crusader atrocities are mentioned pre A-level and no effort is given to portray Saladin and the people on the other side as anything more than a vague mention of ‘the Muslims.’

It wasn’t until university I found out about the horrendous atrocities committed by the British Empire. I remember feeling physically sick when reading about the methods of torture used by British soldiers against the Mau Mau people in the 1950s, anger at the slaughtering of Indian civilians at the Amritsar Massacre in 1919 and confusion when finding there was more to Winston Churchill than just the cartoon-like grumpy yet charming war hero we are taught from a young age to know and love. My school history lessons rightly covered the horrendous loss of life during both world wars, but never once taught me about the over one million Indian soldiers who served in World War One, or the 2.5 million African soldiers. In addition, the curriculum is quick to tell us about the importance of the Magna Carta in building modern Britain, but less so about the Windrush generation brought into reignite the economy after World War Two. There is a distinct lack of minority voices among historians, primary sources and textbook authors throughout school curriculums. When looking at History, students should grow up with a view that considers everything.

In a 2019 YouGov poll, 32% of British people stated they were proud of the Empire, with 19% saying they were slightly ashamed and the rest unsure. So that’s 49% of people who don’t know enough to express an opinion about the Empire, a key part of our history.

The government has dismissed the need for an overhaul of the history curriculum, which is a mistake. Black Lives Matter has opened new opportunities to revisit uncomfortable debates and we should be seizing them with both hands. Positively, schools such as Winchester, St. Pauls and more have taken this moment to ‘reconsider’ their curriculums, investigating a lack of attention on Britain’s role in the slave trade and the darker parts of Imperial history. Children should be learning everything about our historical figures and events – the good, the bad and the ugly. We appear to be ashamed of admitting the flaws of our heroes and national figures. Instead of ‘Winston Churchill was a wartime leader who did no wrong’, why can’t we have ‘Winston Churchill was an important, intelligent and charismatic wartime leader, but also held controversial opinions and was partly responsible for a manmade famine which killed many people in India.’ We need to present students with a balanced view, instead of raising our heroes on pedestals and erasing the bad bits of history. Now is the time for a rethink of our national curriculum, embracing both the happiness and the pain that Britain has caused in its long and bloody history.  

Useful / well-rounded resources: 

  1. Lucy Campbell, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/jul/30/history-young-black-britons-race-schools-policing , accessed 10/9/2020.
  2. Mason Boycott-Owen, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/06/20/private-schools-look-decolonise-syllabuses-black-lives-matter/ accessed 11/9/2020.

Back to school? Here’s how to help your child adjust

by Lucy Vallance

Has time lost all meaning? Even our most trusted and reliable metric seems to have succumbed to the endless bedlam of pandemic life. Just yesterday we were grimly addicted to a sombre tea-time address from three men on podiums and now, we’ve had a couple of reduced-price suppers, cancelled (then rebooked, then cancelled) a few holidays and suddenly it’s September, the heatwave is over and it is back to school.

It’s all a little unsettling. Here’s how you can help your child adjust:

Reinstate Routine – Much research has gone into the efficacy of routine in helping children handle grief and trauma and the same applies to adapting to major change. The return to school will enforce some structure back into family life. It will no longer be acceptable for them to be eating Wotsits in their pyjamas at 2pm. Whilst this may feel like a major imposition on their newfound liberty, having to be showered, dressed, homework completed, school bag packed etc will restore purpose, giving them a timetable and more definition between work and play. If some of their extracurriculars have been cancelled, insert a few yourselves. Family games night on Wednesdays, Zoom with the grandparents on Sundays, pizza on Fridays. The reassuring recurrence of these events will provide some certainty in a most uncertain time. Establish as many as you realistically can keep up.

Admit when you don’t know the answer to a Corona related question

Will we see our cousins at half-term? When will things go back to normal? Why does Mrs Wilkinson’s mask make her look so weird? 

Parents and teachers are often held up as gatekeepers to all the world’s information but it is absolutely ok to explain that we are dealing with something highly unusual here, many variables are unknown and some of what we think we know, we might get wrong as the situation is constantly changing. Don’t attempt to conceal your uncertainty and worry by not talking about it. This will increase the fear it conjures in young minds, not unlike horror films, the most effective of which you never actually see the evil, you only sense it. Bring Covid out of the shadows and into the light and the whole thing becomes less scary. Joke about it, explain that everyone is having to ride the coronacoaster and all of us (including the politicians) are having to wing it.

Accept that all safety precautions and preventative measures implemented by the school will not succeed all the time. My primary school teacher friend had me in hysterics regaling her dismay at duly quarantining the class rubbers for 72 hours after each and every use, only to find her pupils licking each other in the playground during break. They are only 6 years old. Encourage your children to adhere to all safety efforts but let’s not get overly neurotic. If everyone does their best, most of the time, then with any luck, it should be enough. Which brings me on to…

Give everyone a 25% margin of being a covidiot. I got yelled at by a lady ambling out of a supermarket the other day. She was ignoring the massive arrows and exiting through the entrance.’That’s not 2m!!!” she shrieked. My eyebrows shot up. “I’ve got vulnerable people at home” she added, as if it were case closed. Honestly, reader, I was seething at the pure injustice of it. Yet it has taken me years to realise there is no point arguing with idiots. – it does the blood pressure no good. Emit a silent sigh and bite your tongue because we never fully know the burden someone else is carrying. This woman and I are not operating under the same circumstances. We all have vastly different home set-ups, family demographics, health concerns, attitudes to risk, anxiety levels, political ideologies and we certainly all have different theories on how we would have handled this better if we were in charge. Allow everyone – teachers, pupils, other parents – a margin of getting it a little wrong and extend that tolerance, compassion and empathy to yourself too. Trust me, it’s a better way to live.

Look for the good. Sorry to go all ‘gratitude warrior’ on you but dwelling on the positive where you can is crucial. It becomes easier the more often you force yourself to do it and will have a knock-on effect on the perceptions of those around you. Yes, it has been an awful time, but hey, it’s also been fascinating. Humanity has had to rapidly innovate and adapt to survive. There have been notable winners as well as losers (shout out to anyone who bought shares in Zoom at the beginning of the year). Our human spirit has found benefits to this new life, salvaged from the wreckage. That’s the macrocosm but in the microcosm find as much joy in the minutiae of family life as you can, celebrate each and every achievement even if it feels insubstantial in the grand scheme of things. This morning one of my students was dancing with happiness on scoring 41% in a maths test. Not impressive in isolation but given that she used to hit 30%, this was a milestone. Celebrate them all. Attitude is everything.

Take-away tutors

by Harry Constant

I recently heard someone say that they are looking forward to the moment when things become precedented again after Covid 19. I think we can all agree that a little normality would go a long way towards calming the storm whipped up in the wake of all the changes we have seen. Schools and universities have been hit hard by the UK’s attempts to navigate the best course through the pandemic. However, there are some common, perhaps subconscious assumptions about teaching and learning that Covid 19 has given us cause to question. In the long term, I think that the true value of private tutors will be better understood as a result.

We often associate learning with a specific place and time. For many, school is a limiting factor on their education, a place that bounds and confines the potential for new opportunities and challenges. Now, parents may rightly be questioning whether there are other options for their children. Whether out of concerns for safety, the demands of practicality or the preferences of individuals, people are seeking out alternative times and places for their children to learn. One of the more obvious options available is hiring a tutor. 

The greater flexibility and more personalised learning experiences that having a tutor makes possible has always been useful, but never more so than now. Perhaps more families will take the opportunity to hire a live-in tutor now that we are advised to keep social contact to a minimum. I expect that many will come looking for tutors because of the pandemic, but that they will continue to use them long after the present crisis is averted. Tutors are a little like academic umbrellas. Most people go about their lives without bothering to use them. Most of the time, the rain is only a little annoying, sometimes the weather is even sunny. In most cases, parents only look for tutors around exam time or in other important moments in a student’s development, but, much like umbrellas, once you get used to having one around, it is difficult to imagine how you ever got by without one.

If I tried to list all the advantages of using a tutor, we would most likely have a new head of Ofqual by the time I finished. Tutors provide a learning environment free from the pressures and expectations of peers. In a classroom, it might seem more important to crack a joke than note down that physics formula. In a Zoom class, there is often no need for any engagement at all. With a tutor, your questions are not lost in the maelstrom of considerations even the best of teachers cannot overcome all the time. Even the most dedicated teacher will struggle to give each individual student the degree of attention that a tutor can. And now, the value of having the chance to learn in the comfort and safety of their own homes has probably never looked more appealing to students. 

So many things have become available to us in our homes lately. It seems as if you can find a take-away option for almost anything at the moment. The tutors from Bonas MacFarlane are no exception. Unlike a standard take-away, Bonas MacFarlane does not make a mess of your kitchen or give you a stomach ache the next morning. In fact, the report system used by our tutors helps to ensure that you are kept in the loop and able to tailor the experience to best suit your children. There is no need to put all of your academic eggs in the uncertain basket of the UK’s school and university system. Get a take-away tutor. They deliver results.