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National Curriculum

Volume 806: debated on Wednesday 21 October 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to ensure that the national curriculum reflects the diverse history of the United Kingdom.

My Lords, as part of a broad and balanced curriculum, pupils should be taught about how different groups have contributed to the development of Britain. The flexibility within the history curriculum means that there is the opportunity to teach about the United Kingdom’s diverse history across the themes and areas in the curriculum. Events such as Black History Month can support teaching all year round and help schools celebrate the contribution black Britons have made to society.

Does the Minister agree that we can have a truly inclusive 21st-century British patriotism built into our national curriculum, one that is honest about our history: the good—of which there is a lot—the bad and the very ugly? To prepare our children for the global stage and to ensure that they are comfortable with themselves, all students, including those from black, Asian, Roma, Traveller and white working-class communities need to read books with their experiences from our teeming diversity. More than half a million pupils will sit AQA GCSE English literature exams. Sadly, there are no African or Caribbean writers on the syllabus. In Black History Month, will the Minister commit to convening a series of meetings so that we can have an honest dialogue that will review and fantastically reform our national curriculum?

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that of course the history and English curricula should reflect the diversity of the population, with teachers being given flexibility in relation to how they teach the curriculum. Obviously, they should take into account the needs of all their pupils. In relation to AQA, for instance, the history curriculum currently includes an option on migration, empires and the people, so there is flexibility for teachers to include texts and periods in modules of history at their discretion.

My Lords, I suspect that the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, was offering something far more radical than the reply we have just received. However, this whole question is like peeling an onion. What plans do the Government have to ensure that those who deliver the national curriculum accurately reflect the diverse population of the land? Secondly, what plans do the Government have to ensure that the training of teachers—taking the noble Lord’s suggestions into the discussion, perhaps—equips them to deliver a properly balanced national curriculum of the kind described by the noble Lord?

My Lords, the requirement is for all schools to deliver a broad and balanced curriculum, and that is what Ofsted inspects against. In order to qualify as a teacher, the person must have satisfied the teaching standard, and the minimum requirement is, obviously, that they understand the needs of the children who they are teaching. However, the noble Lord is correct that the teaching population should reflect the population, and we are pleased that BAME staff increased from 7% to 10% within the teaching staff between 2010 and 2019, but we recognise there is further to go, as, currently, 26% of our students are from black and minority ethnic backgrounds.

For black lives to matter, they need to be reflected in our school curriculum. In the whole of our school history curriculum, there is only one mention of a black person, and that is Mary Seacole in a key stage 2, non-statutory section, where either Mary Seacole and/or Florence Nightingale can be chosen. Can the Minister give an assurance that she will look again at our school syllabus so that it can truly reflect our multicultural country?

My Lords, the suggestions made in the national curriculum are the minimum for schools, and, obviously, we expect them to go beyond that. In relation to key stage 2, it is also suggested that pupils study the experience of Rosa Parks, and, at key stage 3, it is suggested that they learn about the empire. However, of course, there is the flexibility for teachers in the classroom to include all kinds of different people within their teaching.

My Lords, I sympathise very much with what has been said so far, but I have a very specific issue that I wish to raise in the world context. I point to the failure of the national curriculum to include anything about the United Kingdom’s historic links to, and support for, the independence movements throughout South America some 200 years ago. For example and among other things, few people are aware that a British regiment followed Simón Bolívar across the Andes, and I think the name of George Canning, the then Foreign Secretary, is better known in Argentina and, indeed, the wider region, than it is over here. At the time, this led to a lot of British influence and trade and left a legacy of good will.

This becomes important today in the context of links with educational institutions in Latin America and providing a better background for new trade and investment opportunities there. Furthermore, there are now millions of people of Latin American origin living and working in this country, some working here in your Lordships’ House, whose children could benefit from at least an option for Latin American studies, apart from more teaching of the Spanish and Portuguese languages. Can my noble friend give me some hope?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for her tenacity in raising the profile of Latin America within your Lordships’ House. The flexibility that I have outlined for teachers means that they can include matters surrounding our involvement with Latin America, but, in particular, the suggestion is made at key stage 2 that, when looking at a non-European civilisation, the 10th-century Maya empire should be looked at, so it is included to some extent in the suggestions for the curriculum.

My Lords, if we really want to honour the diverse make-up of our nation, surely we should acknowledge the creative contribution to music, witness pop musicians, rap artists, the Chineke! Orchestra and the Kanneh-Mason family? Most of them could not afford private music lessons and attribute their success to music lessons in schools. Yes, the hubs have done fine work, but they are not a substitute for the ethos of everyday music in schools. Please will the Government consider putting music back on the national curriculum?

My Lords, music is indeed on the national curriculum and is compulsory in maintained schools for children between the ages of five and 14, and they should be offered one subject at GCSE beyond that. However, £500 million has been invested in hubs and other schemes to ensure that young people, particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds, have access to music.

My Lords, is the Minister as shocked as I was that research from Teach First shows that a child can still get through their entire GCSEs without studying a single book by a black author? What is she going to do to change that? Will she consider encouraging a scheme whereby schools get pupils more engaged in selecting books by black authors and topics that reflect black British history?

My Lords, as I have outlined, it is open to teachers, whether they are teaching the national curriculum in maintained schools or in academies, to include literature from a variety of authors. There are suggestions in the national curriculum that they choose authors from black and minority ethnic backgrounds.

My Lords, Black History Month was established 33 years ago, and this year there has been a real desire to find out more about our diverse British history. The year 2020 seems like the beginning of the age of enlightenment, when the shackles were broken and eyes were opened. So how do the Government plan to further that interest? Will they consider broadening exam specification choices to include a wider range of topics that cover our untold history and for exam boards to facilitate this through high-quality resources?

My Lords, yes, as I have outlined, teachers are encouraged to use their flexibility to meet the needs of all the pupils in their classroom and to choose from a diverse range of sources to educate those children in accordance with the context they are living in and the history of this country.

Does the Minister agree that it is essential to understand the genocidal and ecocidal impacts of the British Empire, from the late-Victorian famines, and many others, on the subcontinent, to the destruction of the Australian natural environment and aboriginal societies, recently set out in books such as Dark Emu, if you are to have an understanding of modern economics, ecosystems, societies, international relations—in fact, almost any subject?

My Lords, the value of history in helping us to understand today and to learn from the past is one of the purposes of educating children. The only compulsory element on the national curriculum is the study of the Holocaust but, of course, that leads to teachers being able to talk about wider discrimination and prejudice to avoid such events happening again.

My Lords, I strongly support a curriculum that reflects our diverse history and teaches children our national story, warts and all. But does my noble friend agree that it is profoundly unhistorical to teach and interpret the past entirely through the prism of today’s values, and it is wrong to demonise figures from history simply because they held views which, at the time, were the norm in society?

My Lords, history, of course, is not just events—history can be that of values, principles and mores. I agree with the noble Lord, who I am sure will be reassured that the guidance sent out by DCMS on the controversial issue of statues is to consider those figures in their context and contextualise the involvement of that person in our history.

Sitting suspended.