Why no topic should be taboo in our schools

When state schools were established in the Victorian era, the curriculum was designed to avoid discussion of contentious topics – to keep the public in line, says Mick Waters. Now, 150 years later, teachers are still shackled by the curriculum – so let’s set them free to explore the full scope and intrigue of their subjects
1st January 2021, 12:05am
Why No Topic Should Be Taboo In Our Schools
Mick Waters


Why no topic should be taboo in our schools


The Black Lives Matter movement has called for the decolonisation of the curriculum, leading to discomfort in many schools.

This discomfort arises because the education system has never been good at dealing with contentious issues. While the spotlight is currently on black history, it could equally be on the Holocaust or the legacy of the Japanese involvement in the Second World War or the impact of nuclear testing in the 1960s. The discomfort is not confined to history - it exists around issues of gender, ethics in science and the portrayal of contentious issues in art. 

Our national curriculum was developed in part to rein in the growing tendency in some schools to debate with pupils some issues that might be troubling if society at large started to think about them too much.

I remember when I was at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and we published the initial draft of the structure for the revision of the key stage 3 curriculum. We had said that some aims for the curriculum might be useful (seen as a novel idea), and included one that was something like: "Young people will be able to explore moral dilemmas and understand aspects of different moral codes, appreciating varying viewpoints on the difference between right and wrong and justifying their actions."

This was met with questions in Parliament, and demands that children should be taught precisely what is right and what is wrong. 

I remember once being attacked on a radio programme by an MP who insisted that there are no grey areas: actions are right or wrong, and children should be told which was which. Two months later, he was arguing that his apparent misclaiming of expenses took place because of grey areas in the rules.

When state schools were established in 1870, the curriculum of the day reflected the current and popular aspects of society, along with some things that had been the diet of public schools - though the classics were deemed not particularly appropriate for the masses, and there was concern that we were going to lag behind other countries in developing science in schools. 

History was the British Empire in all its grandeur. Today, we tell young people about the Second World War in part to recognise those who fought in it. In 1870, about the same time span had passed since Trafalgar, and we were just out of the Crimean War. While we moved towards mass education to fuel industrial growth, we still needed volunteers to fill mass graves of war, so schooling could not risk anything other than to preach allegiance.

Geography, meanwhile, was of our explorers. Livingstone had recently crossed Africa, and it was exactly 100 years since Cook had popped into Botany Bay and claimed Australia. It was only 40 years since Wilberforce and others had persuaded Parliament to abolish slavery and, while the inhumanity was acknowledged, there was
no teaching of the wealth generated through the trade for some of the prominent British food producers, for example. Teaching about exploitation might have made Victorians realise just how much they were being exploited by the mill owners and mine developers.

A model nation?

From the outset, it was the view that children should be taught that Britain was a model nation. The same unregulated curriculum continued largely untroubled until the 1970s.

In the 1960s, university exam boards, which ran GCE O levels and A levels, began to bring in strange new subjects. One such was the British Commonwealth history O level, which encouraged consideration of the East India Company and the triangular trade, with students invited to discuss issues of power, wealth, heritage and equality.

One of the reasons for the establishment of the private exam boards (and their replacement with awarding bodies) in the 1980s was the need to stop the universities from encouraging thinking that would upset the balance of society. 

Indeed, one of the drivers for the national curriculum was to rein in the discourse that was growing about the extent to which pupils might be allowed to meet and discuss controversial matters. The raising of the school leaving age in 1971 had meant that all 16-year-olds were now at school. In effect, students who had been previously seen as grown men and women were debating right and wrong in aspects of government - and, by implication, their rulers. 

As a result, Margaret Thatcher decreed that teachers could only be registered if their degrees were in national curriculum subjects. Psychology, sociology and philosophy graduates could not become teachers. Was it because they were considered dangerous?

In 1988, the national curriculum tightened everything. There was a sop to "cross-curriculum issues", which included such things as civics, health, technology and careers. But these were quietly dropped, because teachers were genuinely promoting cross-curriculum thinking, and ministers wanted certainty, in history in particular. 

So vast swathes of life pass schools by: the Cold War, the Troubles in Northern Ireland, governments' battles with trade unions, the poll tax, the migration crisis, the #MeToo movement all received barely a mention - except perhaps, after a decent interval had passed, in history. 

This is not surprising; teachers are under such pressure to ensure exam success that their capacity to build interest, excitement or intrigue in their subject discipline is
limited as they teach "an exam course". The changing of the clocks twice a year is hardly mentioned; children study phases of the Moon in a one-hour lesson without being asked to look at the Moon itself. The wonder of ancient science and mathematics is lost. 

Since schools began, they have been seen in part as a haven for children, away from the realities of life. One of the explicit reasons for compulsory state schooling was to protect children from the exploitation of child labour. Schools have always been places where kindly people protect children from the travails that adults in society are facing: wars, bombing and, more recently, dealing with
a pandemic. There has always been an effort to preserve children's innocence, to shelter them from the harsh world outside and to leave to their families the embarrassing or the difficult to explain. 

As a result, sex education was a quicksand that teachers were better off avoiding, until media let the previously hidden birds and bees escape. Steering clear of religious issues was seen as fine when church and Sunday school were prominent. But, with the new complexity of belief systems, schools usually fail to fulfil legal obligations in terms of worship - condoned by inspectors who themselves turn a blind eye to contentious issues.

Inconvenient truths

Contentious issues, though, have always vexed, and governments avoid them in the knowledge that the teaching profession is unlikely to object to being required not to enter a minefield. So contentious issues tend to be addressed tentatively: black history gets a month (in some schools), LGBT+ issues get a fortnight and consciences are assuaged or issues dodged. Texts such as To Kill a Mockingbird elbow their way in, but students add to the pressure on teachers to pass the exam through extracts, rather than exploring thoroughly the social issues the book exposes. 

Our teaching of the Second World War encourages understanding of the blitzkrieg and British fortitude, with little mention of Allied bombing of Dresden. The opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games in London portrayed a history of the nation that we could celebrate, naturally avoiding the aspects over which we might be embarrassed. We celebrate British success in sport, and schools are implored to mirror the quest to seek marginal gains. Yet the level of bullying and abuse that has become apparent in cycling, gymnastics and swimming creates an awkward discomfort. 

Of course, environmental concerns and the battle for the planet are allowed. This is now a global issue and it would be hard for us to be out of step on it. But the daily sticking of printed sheets into exercise books means that the destruction of trees to fill photocopiers' paper drawers goes unremarked upon.

A few years ago, the government introduced British values to the curriculum. This was relatively easy for many schools. A display near the entrance with images of the Queen, prime minister, Union Flag, a telephone box and a bag of chips. A quick assembly. Job done. (Incidentally, I saw a school display in February that had David Cameron's picture as PM.)

Too much of curriculum design perceives learning as a linear process, both in coverage of content and in the building of knowledge, skills and understanding. True geographers, scientists, mathematicians and historians make connections between spheres of learning. They see the potential tangents in science, the patterns in mathematics, the roots in languages, the influences in art and the cause and effect in geography; and they see each in the others. True historians do not see a linear progression of events, but a corkscrew effect, with history repeating aspects of itself again and again.

Everything we do in school is - or should be - about personal development. Teaching history, geography, science, art, maths and other disciplines is all about working with pupils to open their eyes through the subject discipline. In short, to educate them. 

This was at the heart of the Crick report in 1998, which asserted that: "We should not attempt to shelter our nation's children from even the harsher controversies of adult life, but should prepare them to deal with such controversies knowledgeably, sensibly, tolerantly and morally." Citizenship, along with PSHE, took a battering during Michael Gove's tenure as education secretary. 

I still have the view that, if children are taught well, the syllabus for the exam can be used to prepare for the exam in the recommended guided learning hours. If children didn't, for example, spend an hour a day doing starters in lessons, and writing lesson objectives that are rarely mentioned thereafter, they could spend the time discussing contentious matters. That would be five hours a week: the equivalent of about seven school weeks a year, or nearly a year over their secondary school career.

But that would require teachers who are at ease with discussing contentious issues, and many are not. Partly because of the fear of parents' reaction. And also because, as a result of the curriculum of their own schooling, many do not understand the impact that their subject discipline could have on society, beyond its exam status. 

Communicating the joy of the subject discipline, the intrigue of those who have practised the discipline as specialists, the effect of the discipline on civilisation for
good or ill, the application of the discipline in the real world, and the relationship it has with others - these are the true roles of the teacher. And it is where leadership has to step beyond the compliance of a results regime and engineer true education. 

Mick Waters was a teacher and headteacher before becoming director of curriculum at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. He has written and contributed to many books on the curriculum, leadership and teaching and learning

This article originally appeared in the 1 January 2021 issue under the headline "No topic should be taboo in our schools"

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