Last week saw Nadhim Zahawi MP become the first non-white secretary of state for education and he has already written an open letter to the sector. In it, he promises to “listen to you and work with you to make sure we do right by children and learners”. I hope he listens to calls for the curriculum to be diversified, along with the demands to include the teaching of Britain’s colonial past.
The government has argued that the current history curriculum provides teachers with the freedom to determine what examples they use when exploring the history of Britain. One junior education minister said teachers should use their expertise to decide what they teach.
But saying that nothing is stopping teachers diversifying the curriculum is passing the buck. There’s a difference between not being prohibited from doing something and being supported to do it. Teachers have been under pressure during the pandemic, and their professional life wasn’t easy before it. The slog is far from over for educators who are responsible for ensuring that children catch up on all their lost learning.
Couple that with the anxiety teachers experience about covering the topics necessary to prepare students for exams and it seems unlikely many will voluntarily deviate from the prescribed curriculum. The fear of sacrificing precious teaching time dominates and can be paralysing.
That’s why it’s imperative that leadership in this area comes from the Department for Education, and Mr Zahawi should make this a priority. If the department agrees that children should learn about something, they should issue clear requirements that it is taught to them.
As a previous head of English, I know there’s an appetite among teachers to explore a more diverse range of materials. However, teachers need to be provided with support to make this a reality in the classroom. Without this, teachers will continue to teach the same topics they always have. For schools to provide children with a broader education, diversifying the curriculum must be less of a risk.
We know our students are keen to engage with topical issues. And the need to expose young people to themselves and each other through literature and the arts and to explore their diverse and shared histories is ethically unquestionable.
In response to that demand, publishers, organisations and charities have made free resources available. The internet is rife with thoughtful packages that include everything from reading lists and lesson plans to quizzes. Teacher forums also have a growing number of lesson plans and resource packs that colleagues have carefully prepared and generously shared.
But the fact remains that those creating those resources are few and those with the time to explore them, curate the ones that are most appropriate for their students, adapt them for their contexts and deliver them in class are all too rare.
That means that students are missing out, and so are our communities. Because that process is better than nothing at all, but it is no match for engaging parents, local groups and even students themselves in developing and delivering a bespoke and relevant curriculum with breadth and depth.
Saying teachers and SLTs need to give themselves permission to step away from the tried-and-tested curriculum is political cover for a lack of leadership. Teachers might devote some time in a lesson to covering something they personally find interesting, but they are most likely to do this where accountability pressures are less – another way students in the most challenging schools lose out.
True, the No 10 petitions website hosts calls for all sorts of things to be added to the curriculum, from yoga, to sign language to feminism. It’s impossible to cover everything and please everyone. But it must be possible to create a better balance between the assessment evidence we need and the curriculum content our communities deserve.
Diversifying the curriculum is a matter of community cohesion, and that must surely be a government priority. So it’s time the DfE stepped up to it and stopped laying the responsibility at the feet of tired and overworked teachers. Mr Zahawi, over to you.