Is the government opposed to a diverse curriculum?

Should we be surprised that the government has rejected a review of the curriculum in the wake of Black Lives Matter? Megan Mansworth is not

Megan Mansworth

Colourful pawns confront a mass of unpainted pawns

It is extremely disappointing that schools minister Nick Gibb has rejected plans to review the syllabus in response to recommendations from 30 cross-party politicians. But it is also wholly unsurprising, given that the Conservative government is largely responsible for the curriculum being less diverse in many areas than it was prior to their reforms. 

The Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran has called it a “tone-deaf” move by Gibb, and it is true that the decision demonstrates complete insensitivity to the importance of discussions around decolonising the curriculum in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests. 

Those who have defended the decision have pointed to the fact that the curriculum already has an element of diversity. Pupils can be taught about Mary Seacole or Rosa Parks at key stage 1, for example, or the transatlantic slave trade in key stage 3.

However, these options come as part of a long list of non-statutory alternatives. This means that, while some pupils will study these elements of history, others will not come into contact with them. It is therefore disingenuous for those defending this decision to imply that all pupils are already experiencing a diverse curriculum. 

A curriculum less diverse

Yet this unwillingness even to consider potential areas for improvement within the curriculum in terms of diversity is in keeping with the record of a government that has attempted to impose a curriculum less diverse than its predecessor at every turn.

The first draft of Michael Gove’s history curriculum focused on national victories, with a vision of creating a patriotic national identity. It contained almost no opportunity at all for considering history from any perspective other than an imperialistic one

Following widespread opposition from historians and teachers, the curriculum was adapted, but the conditions of its formation still reflect a Conservative desire to promote a monocultural view of Britain through the teaching of a particular version of history.

Because all history, after all, reflects the perspective and worldview of the culture in which it is told and documented. And a curriculum, likewise, is shaped by the ideology of the policymakers who create it.

A narrow vision of the subject

Remember that this is also a government who removed the existence of “seminal world literature” from the GCSE English literature curriculum, meaning that every single text that can be studied must be located within the British Isles, transmitting a narrow vision of the subject. 

Contrast this to the approach taken by universities such as Warwick, in which English students may choose to follow an entire world literature pathway, including a wide range of non-British literature. Even Oxford conceptualises literature in its undergraduate study programme as “Literature in English”, rather than “English literature”.

The decision to remove world literature was clearly not educational, therefore, but political. It was not an accident, and deliberately conveys a narrow and imperialistic vision of English as a subject by refusing to acknowledge the validity of literature from previously colonised countries.

Paying lip service to diversity 

It was a decision depressingly in keeping with the government’s refusal now to reflect on the diversity of its curriculum. 

The government might now be paying lip service to diversity in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests. But they have chosen to reject a truly diverse curriculum from the beginning of their reforms. Engaging with proposals to review it, therefore, would require a process of genuine critical reflection of their ideology, which they are predictably unwilling to partake in. 

It indicates utter contempt for a commitment to diversity that Gibb has refused even to engage in critical reflection of the curriculum in the form of a review. The BAME review of the curriculum would have provided an opportunity for a conscientious government to ask questions such as “What can we do better?” and “How can we improve?” 

Instead, by refusing to reflect or to ask questions, and stating only that he believes the curriculum is diverse enough already, Gibb has demonstrated that we are still depressingly far away from any meaningful reflection on our curriculum and the ideologies it transmits.

And so we remain a long way from being able to enrich and broaden the educational experience of our young people. 

Megan Mansworth is an English teacher, former leader of English and research, and a PhD student. She tweets @meganmansworth

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