African and Caribbean history and culture are woven across all subjects at one Birmingham primary. Nigel Oram and Philip Hynan explain why
In October 1963, Oxford history professor, Hugh Trevor-Roper delivered several lectures – broadcast on BBC radio – that concluded with these words: “Perhaps in the future there will be some African history to teach. But, at present there is none; there is only the history of the Europeans in Africa. The rest is darkness.”
Thankfully, such ideas are (for the most part) obsolete. Our national curriculum, however, still contains vestiges of that rhetoric when it comes to the study of African history and its people in the diaspora. And there is no excuse for it. It was only eight years after these lectures, nearly 50 years ago, that Bernard Coard published How the West Indian Child is made Educationally Sub-Normal in the British School System.
Addressed directly to black parents, Coard’s pamphlet explored the reasons for the abysmal failure of their children in our schools. Among these, it listed the racist policies and practices of education authorities, the racism of the curriculum; the low self-esteem the vast majority of black children experienced; and low teacher expectations of black pupils.
Two decades later the murder of Stephen Lawrence led to the Macpherson Inquiry. It concluded that the murder investigation had been “marred by institutional racism” that extended beyond the police. It read: “It is incumbent upon every institution to examine their policies and the outcome of their policies and practices to guard against disadvantaging any section of our communities.” Among its 70 recommendations several related to education, including amendment of the national curriculum and holding local authorities and governors accountable for creating and implementing strategies in their schools to prevent and address racism.
Our pupils continue to proudly define themselves as British. There is no either/or
Yet today in Birmingham, the impact of the failure to heed warnings is as shocking as it is obvious. At the end of the early years foundation stage, Birmingham’s black Caribbean children rank third in attaining a good level of development. By the end of key stage two, the same pupils rank 20th for attaining age-related expectation in reading, writing and maths. By the age of 16, they are 21st out of 22 for attainment 8 average, Ebacc average and a strong pass in English and maths.
That’s why we’ve taken our school on a journey to develop a truly reflective and knowledge-rich curriculum.
It will continue to evolve, but it is built on three clearly defined ethical pillars: our Christian values, our high aspirations for pupils, and our commitment to represent the cultural heritage of our families, the majority of whom are of African or African-Caribbean heritage.
Everything in it is intentional. The influence of African and Caribbean history and culture is woven across all subjects. We took a systematic approach to studying the continent’s history before the arrival of Europeans, and our pupil knowledge journals now include the often-hidden civilisations of Great Zimbabwe, Carthage, Kush, ancient Mali and others.
In stark contrast to the recent Reflecting Realities report – which stated that just five per cent of children’s books have BAME protagonists, despite 33.5 per cent of primary school-aged children being BAME themselves – we ensure our children see themselves in the books they read.
And these books, like Don’t Touch My Hair by Sharee Miller, ensure the curriculum reaches beyond core and foundation subjects to issues routinely faced by black school children. A quick Google Image search of “unprofessional hairstyles” is sufficient to exemplify the problem. Across the country black and mixed-black pupils are being excluded because their hair is too short, too long, too big or too full. Here, we promote healthy hair relationships.
And given the chance to beam with pride about their own illustrious heritage, our pupils continue to proudly define themselves as British. There is no either/or. So while changes to the national curriculum’s content may not have been forthcoming, other changes mean schools have all the scope they need for creative adaptation.
But to truly make Trevor-Roper a relic of the past requires all schools take up that responsibility – not just those where the majority of students are from BAME backgrounds.
It is the future. And there is African history to teach.