A Teacher's Perspective On The Curriculum Wars
I do not believe you can teach identity in a classroom like you can teach Calculus. I do not believe I could ever be a Welshman looking across the Gower; I could ever be a Scotsman manning the battlements of Stirling Castle nor someone who could possibly appreciate the beauty of Gaelic languages. The Conservatives have failed and I expect the critical theorists will fail as well. Evil cannot create anything new, it can only corrupt and ruin what good forces have invented or made. Identity is an emotional calling or belonging that overrides the rational part of the brain.
A teacher has written to us to outline their own perspectives on various debates about the dominance of progressive viewpoints within the education system. Please read on:
A few weeks ago there was an outcry about the depiction on the popular children television show Horrible Histories. I have to admit I did laugh at all the social media hysteria. Imagine Helen Lovejoy, “won't somebody please think of the children.” I might be a bit harsh on many of you reading this, but politics has always impacted what type of history is taught. It is a cliché to quote Orwell but he’s right, ‘who controls the past controls the future.’ Yet, a lot of the conservatives seem to be all at sea. Consequently this essay is a lighthouse so you can find your way and form a bridgehead back on to the beach.
I was asked to write a short essay on British Values because it was believed it is responsible for the politicisation of what is taught in school. This shows how out of touch conservatives are. We lost the battle of the history curriculum almost a decade ago. The Horrible Histories was merely a victory lap by the Cultural Marxists. I would like to improve your understanding on how overwhelming your defeat is when it comes to the history curriculum without most people even realising until now. Only now, at the end, do you understand.
There is a crisis in meaning for so many individuals in the West today, living from television series to television series or sports season to sports season. The value of great civilization as expressed in art and architecture, particularly is to raise us out of the trough if only momentarily, looking upwards towards the sky and up towards higher archetypal forms. This is not possible in a society full of atomised individuals. There needs to be means to bind distinct individuals into a cohesive force that works together in pursuit of a shared goal.
Traditionally conservatives understood this, and their political ideology reflected their bitter fights over the history curriculum. Nicola Sheldon (2011) illustrated that after the 1960s the British Conservatives realised that a national story had disappeared. They saw the history curriculum as a means to reinvigorate society. There were two schools of thought, those who saw it as an opportunity to restore a sense of the traditional national story, against those who advocated for a history designed to help social cohesion. Consequently, she argues, what resulted was a typical British compromise between the two factions. However, it seems in recent times, this pragmatic compromise has broken down, descending into ideological attacks which in reality achieves nothing but greater polarisation.
One of its strengths was it gave huge scope for teachers to include various topics of history as long as they covered these key themes by the end of Key Stage 3 (Year 7-9):
- The development of Church, state and society in Medieval Britain 1066-1509
- The development of Church, state and society in Britain 1509-1745
- Ideas, political power, industry and empire: Britain, 1745-1901
- Challenges for Britain, Europe and the wider world 1901 to the present day. This includes the Holocaust which is the only mandatory topic options in the history curriculum
- A local history study
- A study of an aspect or theme in British history that consolidates and extends pupils’ chronological knowledge from before 1066
In Key Stage 4 (year 10 and 11) history becomes an elective subject. Those who study it will have four big modules depending upon which exam board their schools have chosen. You can access a full list topic that is recommended within the National Curriculum on the government website. I highly recommend you do because the five page document provides the basis of five years of history education. It is clear that when it was created that it would remain politically neutral. However, there has been a covert cultural war that goes back decades.
Educational historians such as Stephen J. Bell & Richard Bowe (1992) criticised politicians’ influence over the National Curriculum. They implied that former Prime Minister John Major used it as a tool to persuade those Thatcherites in his party to support him when he allowed them to implement a ‘cultural restoration’ in education based upon Victorian values. Many scholars have shown that a key aspect of teaching History within schools is so that future generations understand their role as citizens of that country. Whilst the current National Curriculum does not explicitly mention the necessity of teaching citizenship as a concept, it has always been an unspoken objective.
The concept of citizenship is inherent within the history curriculum. The Department for Education used it as a tool for Key Stage Two for teachers to begin to discuss citizenship-related issues (Jordan & Taylor; 2002). ‘It is not the case of History being used to regurgitate historical facts about the nature of Citizenship for that is not what Citizenship is, but rather showing children that it is something that has emerged over time and can, potentially, mean different things’ (Ann Jordan et al; 2012; 66). Critics disputed this evidence, considering it a sinister plot to indoctrinate children into obedient adults who are easy to control.
In Wiel Veugelers and Isolde de Groot’s (2019) study on the Theory and Practice of Citizenship Education, he described three types of Citizenship which are developed from the classroom discussion of history. The first type is Adaptive citizenship, this influences an individual’s social relations and moral commitment to one’s community. The second type is individualised citizenship, this values personal autonomy and freedom and tends to be opposite to the social aspect of Adaptive citizenship. The final type of citizenship is critical-democratic, this uses social justice, equity and democracy to help form the common good for wider society. Many would criticise this influence as sinister. For example, Helen Brocklehurst (2015) would oppose a national education on the basis that a centrally planned curriculum from Westminster would primarily be motivated by the desire by the government to construct a national identity. Consequently, there has always been numerous political ideologies that had competed to influence what is taught to children. In other words, he who controls the curriculum controls the future attitudes of children and the destination of the nation.
In the modern context, this was particularly apparent in the government’s effort to use history to teach ‘British Values.’ In 2014 the government released a report to advise schools on how to promote fundamental ‘British’ Values to help schools promote pupils’ spiritual, moral, social, and cultural values which it was argued were essential to living in a free and democratic society (Department for Education; 2014). Educational theorists believed that teachers might not be able to explicitly express a professional knowledge of these values, but that they automatically transmitted these values in everyday life. (Thornberry; 2008). At the time, Sally Weale (Guardian) reported that many teacher associations viewed ‘British’ Values as ‘political posturing’ and an overreaction to a problem within British Muslim communities. What this meant in layman terms was, a poster on the wall to impress Ofsted and a few times each year there will be an assembly or a lesson on questions such as “what it means to be British?”, “Why is it morally important to be tolerant, debate ideas and turn the other cheek?”, “How great democracy is and how you too can participate in it when you turn 18 (or 16 if you think the voting age should be lowered.)”
One of the advantages of British Values was its vagueness as with all liberal democratic societies. Thus, there was often overlap with most British teachers’ own attitudes which are rooted in any well-run school. Values that include respect, aspiration, tolerance, hard work, and resilience. The educational theorists The Key for School Leaders (2018) explained ways to implement it. Simple things such as a discussion with pupils on friendship and how to treat our friends can be viewed as a ‘natural connection’ between the British Value of mutual respect. A key recommendation for schools was to use history lessons to discuss and teach the importance of these values. Since there have been laws that have been enshrined in terrorism legislation and the Prevent Strategy. To briefly summarise, its efforts to prevent vulnerable children being exploited by extremist groups (primarily far right and Islamists groups) and ruining their lives. The most famous case would be Shamina Begum who ideally would have been raised as a risk, so that an intervention could take place before she acted. These are now the benchmark for Ofsted inspections and schools have reacted accordingly (Harris; 2017). Ofsted (2013) has also reported that Citizenship has been strongly ingrained in the Education Curriculum. Nonetheless, the Prevent Strategy was not without controversy especially against groups it was designed to appeal to with accusations that it was counterproductive and alienated countless Muslim students (Cobain; 2016). Yet teachers are also responsible for reporting all signs of radicalisation including far right extremism so I always keep an eye out for those students who love steam engines and reading Tolkien.
Officially the signs of radicalisation tend to be vague and differ depending upon the respective organisation. Here is an example or what to look for from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children:
- Isolating themselves from family and friends
- Talking as if from a scripted speech
- Unwillingness or inability to discuss their views
- A sudden disrespectful attitude towards others
- Increased levels of anger
- Increased secretiveness, especially around internet use
The first time the history curriculum became a real political cultural war issue outside of academia and a few politicians was during the David Cameron years of government. One of his most controversial appointments was Michael Gove as his Secretary of State for Education. Gove was appointed to reform education to implement a ‘dramatic toughening up of standards in mathematics and science.’ There had been an outcry within The Telegraph (2010) that Churchill had been removed from history lessons and that there was an underrepresentation of English literature within the school curriculum. Surprisingly, historian and TV personality Simon Schama was made a government history adviser and thereafter referred to Gove as the government’s “History Tsar” and felt he was the perfect individual for the task of returning “to a gripping history” of the Britain’s “island story” rather than “dry-as-dust instruction.” The real brain behind these reforms though, was Dominic Cummings, before becoming public enemy number one for being the architect of Brexit. He had an obscure online blog where he threw a hand grenade into the political establishment. Cummings (2015) wrote that very few within Parliament, Whitehall, or media have had any training in statistics. Consequently, they did not understand terms such as ‘normal variation’ (bell curve) or ‘variance’ which they are responsible for, or understand scientific discussions. Or issues such as ‘how financial models contributed to the 2008 crisis’ or ‘intelligence and genetics.’ From reading his blog, Cummings clearly despises the education system that has created them:
‘Courses such as Politics, Philosophy and Economics (and economics in general) do not train political leaders well. They encourage superficial bluffing, misplaced confidence (e.g. many graduates leave with little or no idea about the fundamental issues concerning mathematical models of the economy, and they do not train people to make decisions in complex organisations. Ministers are selected from MPs but MPs are not selected for their ability to devise policy, prioritise, manage complex organisations, or admit and fix errors. In the absence of effective training, many default to gimmicks and attempts to manipulate the media. In the choice between ‘to be’ or ‘to do,’ insiders tend to choose the former because the system incentivises behaviour that is contrary to the public interest.’
Reading this passage, one can see how Cummings' revolutionary spirit motivated his efforts during this period. Both saw themselves as revolutionaries and members of this new vanguardism for English education and the government’s efforts to improve social mobility. He clearly saw something in Gove and I would argue that their experience of the History Wars was the primary motivation for recruiting Boris Johnson for their next war. Johnson’s charisma cut through and neutered the attacks from the media that had caused their humiliation during these History Wars. But it suggests he had underestimated these ‘gossipers at the dinner table’ and just how resistant they would be to a revolution of ‘weirdos and misfits’ since, he has been forced out of politics again.
I was a student during this time, so it is impossible to say how much of teachers' concerns about Gove's reform ideas were legitimate or not. Since Gove left his role as Education Secretary in 2014, there have been nine other individuals in this role. Very few have had a lasting impact, but merely act as a face filling a Ministerial seat until they are replaced by the next one. However, Gove was different; he was the centre of a fierce media battle for his efforts to implement changes to the education system. Richard J Evans (2013) referred to the battle as the History Wars. For him, Gove had attempted to instil a patriotic sense of British identity via an ‘uncritical hero-worship of great men and women’ in our past. Richard J Evans is a well-known WWII historian so I wonder if he was thinking of someone in particular.
Meanwhile, academia was taking note of the culture war breaking out over the history curriculum. Matthew Watson (2020) wrote an analysis of Gove’s reforms. He suggested that it merely reflected his own ideological interpretation of Whig History which can be summarised by the march of progress demonstrated in the development of parliamentary government, science, and personal freedom. Nonetheless, it was despised by the media. Liz Palme, a former teacher, wrote in The Guardian (2014) that it was about “intellectual snobbery and lack of trust in the profession.” In response to his ‘socialist’ critics, Gove intensified the rhetoric against his opponents. He proclaimed these ‘new enemies of promise are a set of politically motivated individuals who have been actively trying to prevent millions of our poorest children from getting the education they need[ed]’ (Gove; 2013). Or maybe, the journalists having spent time at Gove’s house, noticed his controversial bookshelf, and they did not want him being responsible for redesigning the school curriculum.
With hindsight, one can see the parallels with the political debates around the European Union and the curriculum. Peter Yeandle (2014) wrote an analysis of media interventions at the time. He suggested that the passionate battle between both educationists and historians merely reflected Britain’s wider inability to come to terms with its imperial past. This has been personified in the current debate on whether the history curriculum should have a greater emphasis on glorifying British history or focusing on inclusion and diversity. Notice, the Tory politicians were still trying to resolve their pragmatic British compromise between the traditionalist and the realists who felt it time to adapt to changing demographics within the classroom. Gove was built up to be the heavyweight for the traditionalists but he was publicly humiliated. This created a vacuum for the far left activists to dictate what was taught in schools.
Left to right: Mary Seacole; William Wilnerforce; Amy Johnson; Olaudah Equiano; Florence Nightingale; Oliver Cromwell; Lord Nelson; Charles I; King John; Winston Churchill
Harris (2013) argued that history and identity are intimately connected. One cannot have an identity without learning history. This became problematic as one’s sense of identity also determined a person’s belief in what history ought to be taught. Consequently, the political and public discourse around the areas of diversity and social cohesion inevitably impacted history teaching and the curriculum. The Right believes that inequality is natural and history should inspire us to reach our fullest potential. Part of that means you will compete against other groups. The Left’s morality was rooted in the blank slate and that inequality is a problem that can and must be solved. For many on the political left, history in schools is vital because 'students need to know the harrowing truth' (Ferguson; 2020).
During discussions of dark moments in the past, there is an implicit purpose therein to teach the topic so that it must never be allowed to happen again. Consequently, implicit in these lessons is that there is shame and guilt for past actions that must be remembered. Whereas, uncritical hero-worship of great men would be apologetic for their past glories and would thereby dismiss their ‘crimes’. A good example here is of the England football fans who sung “Ten German Bombers.” Do you think they care about the atrocities committed against the people of Dresden or Eastern Germany? I was once one of them because my grandfather volunteered to be a pilot in war (he was stationed in Africa so took no part in the European theatre.) Once I had read about the harrowing truth, it was very easy for me to change my mind and realise it had a lot of moral ambiguity . So, I can understand why shame and guilt is a very effective weapon when an individual possesses a silver tongue to explain historical events. People should not be forced to apologise for historic sins
As a teacher it is your responsibility to create the environment for students to express their opinion. If, however, a student volunteers a ‘problematic remark’ the teacher must remain professional and judge how to appropriately address the issue. Either through a gentle reminder to the class that we must maintain an inclusive and respectful environment or through a more formal dialogue at the end. Moreover, it is crucial that the discussions avoid generalisations against a particular group and that the teacher refrains from obligating students to speak on behalf of their perceived group (University of Michigan: Center For Research on Learning & Teaching; n.d.) Teachers should focus on probing questions aimed at encouraging students to interact. It is important to avoid yes or no questions, and as the discussion develops try to include more reserve students and allow them to express their opinion (Davis; 1995). Educational theorists argue that a classroom discussion should be performed in a polar opposite way to how the politicians have historically battled over the history curriculum. In practice, the debates you see in the media can be very similar to the discussions that go on within school. A great example was after the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston. It was a discussion topic set for every Tutor group for that week’s discussion topic; whether it was appropriate to destroy it and how we should deal with controversial aspects of our past. On controversial political news stories like this, most teachers know you must avoid expressing an opinion to students because it puts into question your professionalism in the eyes of fellow teachers (you must avoid sharing it with colleagues as well.) Often the student will push you for your opinion. The best response is to make vague arguments for both sides and that you understand both points of view. Then if they keep pushing you for an answer, reluctantly side with one. During the Edward Colston debate, the students on both sides were extremely passionate. I would argue that this was because they had spent the previous days listening to the news, social media, and all the adults discussing the event outside of school. Schools are normally reactive, rather than proactive to issues that spread outside of school. More recent other cases include the popularity of Andrew Tate and Kanye West. Personally, I do not understand the appeal but these are the cultural realities for the TikTok generation.
Post-2020 seemed to be a watershed moment for those who advocated that history is designed to help social cohesion. There was a media campaign to decolonise the curriculum and this resulted in a petition that was signed by 268,772 individuals. They argued that it was time to decolonise the history curriculum with the aim of including more inclusive and diverse material to reflect twentieth-first century Britain. In response, the British government claimed that the history curriculum already provided teachers and schools with the flexibility and the opportunity to teach periods and themes to their students (Petitions; 2020).
However, for many critics, they argued that the freedom of choice undermines the belief that schools have the obligation to teach history as the means for social justice to help improve progress in multicultural Britain (Harris & Reynolds; 2018; Ormond; 2017). The government has placed the responsibility on classroom teachers to perform this function. By outsourcing authority they have put schools and teachers in a difficult situation. Especially, when the media loves to treat social justice issues like as a crusade. Consequently, teachers are required to approach these issues with even more care and understanding. As one student from a BBC report explained how angry he was when ‘one teacher started the lesson by proclaiming that slavery has nothing to do with race’ (BBC Bitesize; 2020). What this means in practice, is that opinions expressed on the BBC are considered as the metric for which professional teachers are meant to judge classroom debate. As many of these controversial topics are integral to many of today’s students’ identity it is often too easy to be fall foul of these expectations without realising. This creates the environment where students to express ‘their truths’ and for the rest of the class to understand these truths within contexts of the facts (Hand & Levinson; 2012). In Bruce Carrington and Geoffrey Short’s (2006) ethnographic study of 8‐11 year‐olds, it outlined how age and ethnicity can have a significant impact on how they conventionalise their sense of British identity and whether they identify with it or not. For this to be successful, educational theorists argue that teachers must understand their role is to maintain a robust commitment to impartiality and refrain from expressing their personal views on the controversy (Kelly; 2020). This can be difficult when teaching the British Empire.
One of my favourite lessons is a lesson on the film Zulu. However, we do not have time to watch the whole film so it is very hard to justify why it is considered one of the best films ever made. Even if you could, many students consider it a massacre against a primitive group. In theory it is argued that in an effort to avoid this dilemma, teachers must take the time to research and have an appreciation of the different positions of these controversial aspects of the past. Discussions of these issues must be effectively planned, with accessible material, and strong and diverse opinions. In practice, it really depends upon the people you work with in your history department. I have worked with one teacher who wanted to introduce Rudyard Kipling and another who got offended by me suggesting the suffragettes were once considered domestic terrorists. I did not have time to suggest that they only got what they wanted because they were willing to work with the British elites to mobilise the British public during the time of national crisis. They were willing to make personal sacrifices to work in munition factories even to the detriment of their own health . These debates were very professional and merely reflected different interests in history. These two instances also happened at my two favourite schools. One was in an idyllic village untouched by modernity. The other was near a military town. So a lot of local residents had military connections and everyone came out for Remembrance Day. The veterans, the Church’s choir, the Scouts and the Cadets with their musical instruments, all came out to pay their respects to past heroes. It helped that all the history teachers also grew up in the area so took great pride in the local history. It shows that underneath there is an English spirit that still lives.
Now we come to Black History and the recent controversies. For years activists have argued that the British Black Community has faced overwhelming racist prejudice within Britain and this has impacted their representation within the curriculum. Marlene Ianthe Laing (2017) analysed how institutions that made up the Schools Council for the Curriculum and Examinations in England and Wales, the Inner London Education Authority, and the Historical Association collaborated and responded to the post-1948 post-colonial Black peoples arriving in Britain. In his ethnographic study from 1976-1988, Laing (2017) argued that race is a social construct. Thus, it is possible to analyse how the policies and political power of language within each one of the organisations can help give birth to multicultural education. They argued that policy makers should use history as a policy, and to integrate new arrivals from the Empire. Thus, minimising the British public’s fears and uncertainties towards these new arrivals (Dunn; 2000). Other activists Robin Whitburn and Sharon Yemoh (2012) claimed the ‘British establishment’ has always wrestled with the best way to incorporate the African diaspora into the history curriculum. They observed that there are two problems. The first is the temptation to be too reliant on African- American history rather than emphasising the roots of the British Black Communities. Secondly, the current suggested that history education should celebrate the importance of heroic actions rather than the ‘hero worship’ of historical figures including leading African American civil rights Leaders.
I think this is interesting because this is where you see the Americanisation of UK activists and how it has impacted their world view. Logically if I wanted to ‘diversify’ the curriculum I would include far more Islamic and Indian history into the curriculum because it would be far more representative of the British population. However, these groups seem to be an afterthought and are merely shoehorned into a few lessons during year 7. According to an Anna Leach, Antonio Voce and Ashley Kirk report in The Guardian (2020) ‘of the 59 GCSE history modules available from the three biggest exam boards, Edexcel, AQA and OCR, 12 explicitly mention Black History. Only five mention the history of black people in Britain, the rest are about black people in the US, other countries or the transatlantic slave trade.’ The activists argue that the perceived lack of representation translates into real-world consequences when communities feel that society does not care about them. I would agree the most effective history resonates with the individual because it has emotional connection to an individual or their extended family.
Their first attempt to implement change occurred after the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993. Linda Ali (2000) wrote that the atrocity should have aroused policymakers to redesign the history curriculum to incorporate the Black Community by demonstrating that Black History is a part of British History. She argued that the issue was personified by the 2018 Windrush Scandal whereby the British Government was forced to accept that they had been guilty of ignoring the legitimate origins of those British citizens within the Black community (BBC News; 19 March 2020). This is due to the fact, Black History has only existed in the form of droplets within the English history curriculum. Otherwise known as tokenism (Dan Lyndon; 2006). Consequently, it is very easy to dismiss their contribution to British society and to see them as the outsider. In this respect, it was argued that our approach to history where we see Africa as the dark continent needed to fundamentally change. We can only do this if the curriculum aims to teach students how to use archaeological evidence and oral history (for those non historians using interviews as sources) as a form of historical inquiry (Mohamud & Whitburn; 2020).
It seems that after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in America, the efforts to decolonise the curriculum went into overdrive. Many of these activists argued that we would not be able to make Britain a better society without educating future generations about our past. Dr Vivienne Connell-Hall (2020) proclaimed her ‘plans to mainstream Black History in history curricula, presented in historical and cultural contexts and certainly no further attempts to dilute or rebrand [Black History Month] BHM as “Diversity Month”. This time they used media and other sources to raise public awareness to back their campaign. A petition that was signed by 268,772 individuals to decolonise the history curriculum into more inclusive and diverse material that attempts to demonstrate that there was a groundswell of public support for these changes (Petitions; 2020). It encouraged members of the public to sign an open letter to then Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, so he would make Black History mandatory (Menendez; 2020). Previously this form of activism only existed in obscure university journals. I am only aware of them because part of our teacher training is writing an assignment on your subject’s curriculum.
In 2020, we saw the battle between the educationists and historians ignite again. There were several Conservative Members of Parliament who were against the toppling of the Statue but accepted that it was time to explain and teach all aspects of our ‘controversial past’ (BBC News; 25 September, 2020). Reading between the lines of these criticisms it suggested that many of those politicians on the political right felt that past actions needed to be addressed. But they were uncomfortable with what they perceived as a mob destroying the past. The centrists argued that there does not need to be a battle over which side is correct about Britain’s past. While progressives were instead, drawing up maps of the evil statues that they would tear down next. I might not agree with them but I respect their political opportunism. As Lenin said “you probe with bayonets; if you find mush, you push. If you find steel, you withdraw.” The steel was the 24 hour protection team made up of local residents who came forward to save the Robert Baden-Powell statue.
However, the flesh (with a lot of help from the media) seemed to be the history curriculum. One example of an activist campaign was The Black Curriculum (2020) that aimed to provide young people with a sense of belonging and identity, improve Black British History, raise attainment, and improve social cohesion. It created 12 hours of teacher material to help schools’ response to the Covid-19 lockdowns. I cannot imagine these individuals were teachers or education professionals as the idea seemed a bit amateurish because schools and departments have very strict guidelines on what they can teach and have only a limited amount of time to fit everything in, especially during the lockdown. In strategic terms, you need to capture all the elite positions within Education to implement any effective change as there are a huge range of GCSE modules and most schools will be teaching the same material as they have for years. As teachers become experts on those topics and find that they can develop far better lessons this way. Nonetheless, I was extremely surprised to see a new GCSE textbook called Migrants in Britain c800-present. I am aware that one Academy Trust School is already teaching this new module. It would make sense to target these schools first because they act as corporations whereby policies are centrally planned and all schools under their authority are responsible for a standardised implementation of the decision. It is a bit of a tangent but for those who do not know, Academies were the brainchild of a certain former Prime Minister Tony Blair. Academies are interesting and are viewed like the marmite metaphor for teachers. For those who want to know more about them it is best to ask Toby Young of the Free Speech Union. It will be interesting to see how this textbook is handled into the future. I predict that far more controversies will arise, not just around the race of Roman soldiers (which is in this book.) Quickly flicking through this new textbook, I was shocked by the amount of 'anti-Semitic' tropes that were included, many of which would make Ken Livingstone blush. It really needs 'shutting down'.
The biggest strength of the Tory party is its capacity to reinvent itself. This led to the conservative case for multiculturalism and the right’s attempt to reinvent itself. Gove and Cummings were about as successful working at the Department of Education as they were working in government after the EU referendum i.e. they were allowed to achieve very little. If they were to push their reforms they would need a less media toxic frontman. Katharine Birbalsingh was the individual who stepped up to the role. According to the Daily Mail (2010) Birbalsingh had already made her name being one of the first individuals to be fired as a Deputy Head of her school. She described the Supreme Ruler of British politics and Dark Lord Tony Blair, as ‘the most wonderful Prime Minister in the World,’ when she spoke at the Tory conference when Gove outlined his education reforms. She spoke out publicly against the unions and her job probably became untenable when she referred to her colleagues as ‘well-meaning liberal’ teachers who do not discipline students. Personally, I believe that this is the right wing equivalent of saying if only we had more table tennis courts this would reduce youth knife crime.
Believe it or not, most teachers are not members of unions because they are communists. Most just want fair pay and protection from being accused of something that would force them out of their jobs . An extreme case that was well published was the Religious Education teacher who was forced into hiding after an incident at Batley Grammar School. I see schools as a microcosm of all the problems that exist in wider society and living in the ashes of a great civilisation . Many adults are struggling to navigate the problems, so children who are brought up in the current environment and have known nothing else have no chance. Those outside of teaching do not realise how bad and common these safeguarding issues such as poverty, abuse, neglect or children at risk of exploitation i.e. County lines or FGM. It is understandable that teachers are more sympathetic to broken homes and abuse when they encounter the impacts everyday. A person would not be human if they were hardened to it. Often unless you're the safeguarding lead for school and it's your responsibility to liaise with social services and parents would not be aware of problems at home. The only exception would be in cases when a student or a family member discloses information about their home life. A recent example that sticks in my mind is when I phoned home and a grandmother disclosed that she was the full time carer because both the parents were addicted to heroin. If you want to fix these problems then you must fix wider society and blaming ‘leftie’ teachers is not going to achieve anything.
There is a huge myth that the teaching profession is full of reds under the bed or women with strange coloured hair. Politics rarely comes up in conversations, mostly general chat is about football, home life, going to the pub and how to deal with that one student who is completely terrorising you! Occasionally one might hear the odd anti-Tory comment because they are associated with fops such as Jacobs Rees-Mogg or low status 'Gammons' who it is believed typically do not value education. Equally, there are few open conservatives who after the initial surprise are completely free to express their opinions. From my interactions between both these groups are more similar than they realise. But there needs to be a means to bridge the gap between the three classes; patriotism is only true socialism because it unifies people in their differences. All British adults have been swimming in liberalism; liberalism is hegemonic so once you reach a certain socio-economic status you have to (outwardly at least) abide by liberal values. Furthermore, it seems logical to assume that it is a prerequisite for most individuals who go into teaching to believe most problems and successes are environmental and thus, can be altered with effort. Revealed preferences i.e. who they choose to marry, where they choose to live and where they send their children suggests that they’re actually ‘small c’ conservatives at heart. They watch primarily trusted sources like the BBC and SKY. Most work 60+ hour weeks, many are responsible for their families and they have very little down time. Moreover, their current socio-economic status means they are personally sheltered from many of the problems the working class have to deal with. If I had to guess, I would say most genuinely believe in Blairism. I know this because they are the only people who still think university is a good investment and is an achievement. You cannot blame them because it worked for them.
I have seen a lot of online conspiracy theories that schools are trying to indoctrinate their children and the Horrible History episode was one example of this. I think we need a little more measured response than what is currently seen within politics. Have you ever told a teenager not to do something? Every time there is a Diversity, Inclusion and Equity (DIE) assembly or lesson, you can guarantee that the Senior Leadership Team will spend the rest of the day dealing with hate instances. Those who are guilty of acting up will either spend the next day off timetable in a separate classroom or if they are lucky sent home for a few days to play Xbox. When they return, they are forgiven and allowed to return to normal. These children do not have to worry about losing their jobs, bank account or having to worry about the Stasi. I think you can explain what is happening as the banality of individuals following incentives. All teachers and schools set targets that they complete; many of these are legitimate performance related questions such as, these students are underperforming, what are you doing to resolve it? To prove that you have completed the task you have to provide evidence of achieving this target. A lot of your time is spent documenting how you are meeting these targets. This is why teachers are constantly complaining about how bureaucratic their jobs have become. Most of their time is spent filling out useless paperwork and going to meetings. In recent years new targets have included DIE issues. Some schools might have a staff member act as a paid representative to organise [propaganda] posters or conduct staff meetings as an additional responsibility to their job. For those who have never been to one of these meetings, it is basically like the scene on Thick of it where they go for a team building exercise in the country house. Like other meetings, those old staff members who have been at the school so long that they are part of the furniture, can do a Peter Mannion which is always fun to watch. Most mouth a few words when asked, roll their eyes and look at their watch until it’s time to leave. Newspeak is meant to keep the party functionaries and state bureaucrats in line.
In recent years, most people within this professional setting have been forced to sit through the humiliation ritual of Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity Training. On one occasion, the Political Commissar was particularly incompetent. She had everyone do an unconscious bias test. One of the science teacher’s tests suggested that science was sexist which did not please her to say the least. If you are wondering, my result accused me of fatphobia. This is lucky because currently it is still legal to hate this group and I can use my hate to encourage myself to lose the few pounds I have gained over the summer in the beer gardens. Then she moved on to a Maths teacher and asked him how we could include diversity in Maths. By now everyone was mocking it. Fortunately for her, she had back up from a member of the local council who does outreach with a minority group. I want to keep this group anonymous because my own personal interactions with this group have always been respectful so, I do not want to stigmatise them. She explained how when she first met the family, the husband would not talk to her or shake her hand. She then explained how the father felt there was no point in his daughter going to school because she would be married soon. She also explained how the mother kept the house spotless because the people outside were seen as impure (no, it is not the group you are assuming it is.) As you can imagine the reactions of the audience was complete horror. Personally, I found it interesting learning about this group and was enjoying watching the reactions. She later explained that it is to be expected that they will take days out of school for cultural reasons. I saw the opportunity, and asked, “if they are out of school for so long, who is responsible for their grades?” She replied “well, as you are their teachers, you are.” Uproar; it was brilliant; it is the small pleasures in life as they say.
I believe this is a natural consequence of turning the country into an economic zone and trying to manage it. If you believe that there is no such thing as a society, then you can have no guilt when you destroy it. If your highest ideal is the “Line must go up!” then there is no limit to what you will do to smash targets. This is fine but what happens when those targets need to be altered and there is no self-correcting mechanism? Everyone knows that the NHS is our equivalent of the Soviet’s military spending (at least anyone who is financially literate or has spoken to anyone who works within the NHS.) However, politicians must continue to pump money into it because we have an ageing population and they require their votes to maintain power. However very few people realise that as of 2023, the Education sector employs 1.5 million people which is more than the NHS does (Statista; 2023). To understand why this is a problem for politicians, you have to understand two major realities that schools face. The first is that schools get funding based upon the number of pupils they have. The second is that Britain, like all industrial countries, is facing a collapse of the birth rate. From a politicians’ perspective, this is bad because it puts all those jobs at risk. A long term solution would be to encourage people to have families but this would require having a high time preference by sacrificing the present for a better future. However, this is easier said than done. It could mean many universities and schools will be forced to close because their funding will dry up. For example, if a school has a few years of bad results, gains a bad reputation or worse goes into special measures, many parents will decide to send their children to another school. This can easily create a death spiral as the funding dries up and the best teachers leave. One of the quickest ways to stabilise funding for that school and stop it closing is for the council to bus in children from another part of the city. Another example would be when an Academy Trust or another organisation takes over a smaller school, and realises it needs to replace crumbling post WWII school facilities. It does this with the expectation that it will increase the number of pupils so it can get a return on its investment. This can only be done by absorbing students from other local schools (which eventually becomes a problem for them) or immigration. Ultimately, the current model of education requires large scale immigration to sustain itself.
The Conservative Party clearly realised this and decided to adapt to this reality. They needed a new figurehead to introduce the conservative case for multiculturalism. Up stepped Katharine Birbalsingh to present the case. She has everything Gove and Boris lacked. Gove is a theorycell, while Boris is an extremely likeable showman which makes it easy to forgive his professional persona of being the BTEC Churchill. She is not only an effective operator like Mr Blair but shares his charisma and his will to succeed. She founded her own school called Michaela Community School in Wembley London. She also became a media personality known as Britain’s Strictest Headmistress. Born to Indo-Guyanese and Jamaican parents, she was raised in Canada until she was 15 when her father became a lecturer at the University of Warwick. She personified Blair's vision of an Empire success story. The British elites decided to give up the Empire decades ago but that does not mean we should give up on England as well. I first watched her on the show Triggernometry and as a trainee teacher I was inspired to buy the book she edited, The Power of Culture. According to the book The Power of Culture (2020) she has a framed quote from C.S. Lewis in her school Michaela:
‘We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning then to go forward does not get you nearer. If you are on the wrong road progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.’
One of the school’s most controversial visitors was Jordan Peterson, his visit sparking a media backlash. The school's results speak for itself. ‘In 2017, Ofsted graded the school as ‘Outstanding’ in every category. In 2022, almost 75% of all GCSEs were graded 9 to 7 (A*-A), 98% of all pupils achieved a 4+ (C or above) in both English and Maths, with 99% of all pupils achieving grade 9 to 4 (A* to C) in at least 5l subjects.’ (Gov; n.d.)
The ratchet always moves leftwards as they always say. Most of the book is written as a defence against the efforts to ‘decolonise’ the curriculum for a new twenty first century Britain. In the chapter ‘Schools Should Teach Death White Men,’ Katie Ashford writes a response to ‘decolonise the curriculum.’ She argues that ‘we must ensure the curriculum is honest, and does not ‘whitewash’ important thinkers away.’ Nonetheless, she proclaims that it is important that a ‘traditional curriculum’ should be taught for several reasons. Firstly, it allows ethnic minorities to feel a sense of belonging to Britain. She argues that ‘if we fail to give our pupils somewhere to belong, they’ll find somewhere else to go. In the inner city, they are surrounded by gangs, drugs and crime. The temptation of the street is enormous.’ Secondly, it expands their horizons. ‘Rather than locking our young in a prison of their own horizons,’ we resolve to show them the great breadth of the human experience.’ Finally, Ashford argues that individuals should be chosen on the basis of their ideas, as opposed to their identity. Michaela believes that it is ‘important we empower our pupils to believe [our beliefs, hobbies, likes and dislikes are among the many things that make us who we are], not just their cultural, religious or racial identity defines them, or that is should hold them back…Why apply for Oxford if you’ve been told time and time again that it is a racist institution?
The narrative of Victimhood makes young people defeated and powerless, they feel that there’s nothing to be done except feel angry about the status quo. I would argue that for a lot of young boys, school is just like a prison. The current system does not know how to deal with these hyperactive students who do not fit into a White Collar Mindset, they are much more suited to a Bronze Age Mindset. We have not really updated our school system from the Prussian style system that was created in the eighteenth century . Maybe we should be looking to develop a new system for the twenty-first century. Another contributor to the book is Michael Taylor. He argues that conservatives should make the case for multiculturalism. English and British national identity is not side-lined, but should form a central part of an English child’s education in this country…we celebrate every identity under the sun, yet we constantly fret and worry about our own. He recommends the follow:
- Flying the Union flag
- Singing patriotic songs such as the national anthem, Jerusalem and I Vow to Thee My Country
- Prioritising English and British history, Geography, music, art & literature
- Taking students to visit important historical sites such Westminster Abbey, the Palace of Westminster, St Paul’s Cathedral and the battlefield of WWI
- Using the word ‘We’ whenever you mention England and Britain
- Commemorate remembrance day
- Make regular efforts to talk about how fortunate we are to live in a democracy and tolerant nation and the importance of respecting British institutions and values.
I agree with Taylor’s pragmatism that this is the best case scenario at this current time because the reality is most schools are now multicultural. His school is an extreme case according to the most recent government census. The percentage of people who identified with a UK and non-UK national identity in Brent increased from 2.6% to 4.7%, while the percentage of people who identified as "British only" increased from 40.5% to 56.8% (Office for National Statistics; 2023) Schools merely reflect this demographic reality and ultimately teachers need to be practical and find a way to make school a functional place for students. Part of that includes incorporating new history that is relatable to the students.
GLA Ethnic projections for 2019; ONS, Annual Population Survey (2019); ONS, 2011 Census; Brent Pupil Census (January 2020); Home Office (EUSS data to June 2020).
In conclusion, I do not agree with some of the conspiratorial ideas spreading online that teachers are trying to brainwash children. I think a lot of what is occurring can be explained once you understand the systemic incentives and the longer term debates around the curriculum. Historically the Conservatives have attempted to use the curriculum to form a national identity. However, over time the left have been far more successful in using institutions like the media and academia to gradually redesign it in their own image. I am not sure if it was emergent behaviour or the final and logical conclusion to Blarism. I ultimately do not think it matters because it would require Herculean efforts to reform the system. No politician in their right mind will attempt the task. Gove and Cummings were the last individuals to attempt it and they were utterly humiliated.
Just like we are beginning to see with the NHS, towards a gradual and slow collapse, until the government can no longer afford the cost of running it. In the meantime, teachers will try their best to provide the best opportunities and maintain their duty of care to their students. In terms of the history curriculum, liberals believe that everyone can live happily together as a multicultural and multi-identity melting pot as long as everyone's identity is broken down and their rough edges are sanded down to avoid conflicts and misunderstanding. Yet, one only has to look across the pond to America to realise what a disaster it is when there are different groups competing for their share of the pie. This can be done practically by giving each group a module in the curriculum for themselves. Or it can be done shamelessly like the episode of Horrible Histories. I do not believe you can teach identity in a classroom like you can teach Calculus. I do not believe I could ever be a Welshman looking across the Gower; I could ever be a Scotsman manning the battlements of Stirling Castle nor someone who could possibly appreciate the beauty of Gaelic languages. The Conservatives have failed and I expect the critical theorists will fail as well. Evil cannot create anything new, it can only corrupt and ruin what good forces have invented or made. Identity is an emotional calling or belonging that overrides the rational part of the brain. A recent example of this is Rishi Sunak, a man brought up with the finest English education. In theory, he is responsible for representing Britain on the world stage at the G20 and this should be his proudest moment of his career, and yet, his visit looked more like a personal pilgrimage than a leader representing the interests of the British people. Equally, think of the countless middle class liberals who spend all year belittling the white man van with his English flag and yet on the annual Last Night of Proms they are singing like a choir to Jerusalem. This contradiction is not their fault. You are what you are. You cannot change who you are or what resonates deep in your soul. Whether it is in St Paul‘s Cathedral or the Akshardham Temple
O that we now had here But one ten thousand of those men in England That do no work to-day!
What's he that wishes so?
My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin;
If we are mark'd to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God's will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.
God's peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more methinks would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man's company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is call'd the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam'd,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian.'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispian's day.'
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember, with advantages
, What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb'red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.
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