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Challenging, decolonising and transforming primary school history curriculum knowledge

Written by: Marlon Lee Moncrieffe
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Marlon Lee Moncrieffe
School of Education, University of Brighton, UK

What and who should be included in the narrative of primary school curriculum teaching and learning of British history was raised to greater public attention during and in the aftermath of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ anti-racism protests of 2020 (Leach et al., 2020; Moncrieffe, 2020a, 2020b, 2021). A challenge to the government’s national history curriculum agenda emerged most fervently when over a quarter of a million members of the British public signed one of many petitions calling for the teaching and learning of Britain’s colonial past to be made more explicit, particularly Black-led accounts of history (House of Commons Library, 2021). However, despite ministers being held to account in Parliament (UK Parliament, 2020a), the public call for curriculum change was rebuffed (Weale, 2021). The government position remains fixed to the view (albeit without providing any empirical evidence) that the National Curriculum for history is ‘broad, balanced and flexible’ enough to enable Black British lives and experiences to be included and taught (UK Parliament, 2020b; TheyWorkForYou, 2020).

What every single government response hides from discussing under public scrutiny and challenge on this issue is the fact that mandatory National Curriculum knowledge is dominated by Eurocentric (White British people) historical starting points (Moncrieffe, 2020). These statutory directives instruct teachers to ensure that ‘all pupils know and understand…how people’s lives have shaped this nation’, with a focus on ‘Britain’s settlement by Anglo-Saxons and Scots’ and ‘the Viking and Anglo-Saxon struggle for the Kingdom of England’ (DfE, 2013, p. 5).

I am a Black (of African Caribbean origin) British man, born in London in the early 1970s. I have in lived in England for all of my life. I taught in primary schools for 14 years and I am currently a teacher-educator and researcher. I am interested in sharing ways in which 20th-century Black British lives and experiences can be used in transforming opportunities for all in research, history curriculum teaching and learning in the primary school. I see that this must begin with decolonising the current history curriculum. This means taking action to arrest the danger of unchallenged curriculum knowledge being inflicted as ‘epistemic violence’ (Spivak, 1999) and as total truth on all pupils – Black and minority-ethnic educators and pupils in particular. There is much research evidence over the years taken from primary and secondary school settings (Chantiluke, 2018; Charles, 2019; Hawkey and Prior, 2011; Grever et al., 2008; Maylor et al., 2007; Traille, 2007) that speaks of this oppression occurring to Black and minority-ethnic educators and students in their engagement with dominant Eurocentric history curricula.

My evidenced-based research, presented in the book Decolonising the Curriculum: Euro-centrism and Primary Schooling (Moncrieffe, 2020a), offers an examination of why and how primary school curriculum direction and guidance continue to be dominated by Anglocentric (White people’s) historical starting points. In my conclusion, I see that this supports the cultural reproduction and communication of an Anglocentric national master narrative as the total truth of national identity, cementing a fixed Anglocentric view of the nation in perpetuity. I share the position of Evans (2013, p. 16), where he says, ‘National Identity isn’t something that can be manufactured and imposed on a people by a government.’ My vision for decolonising and transforming curriculum knowledge in teaching and learning the formation of national identity and nation stands with Aronksky’s (2013) discussion on opportunities for curriculum diversification, i.e. by conceptualising teaching and learning opportunities through the diverse and intertwined histories of all peoples of Britain, past and present.

In my research, I worked with 21 White British trainee primary school teachers. One significant question that I asked them was: ‘What does British history mean to you?’ My diagnostic assessments uncovered the stark impact of their education, socialisation and families as being heavily influential in framing their thinking about starting points for teaching about British history in the primary school classroom. These responses were generally a regurgitation of past and present national history curriculum episodes, i.e. Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, the Tudors, the Victorians and World War II (Moncrieffe, 2020a). The reproduction of these ideas is, then, perhaps more than likely to occur in their classroom history teaching and learning, particularly given that the School’s Minister Nick Gibb said (UK Parliament, 2020a):

The Department believes teachers should be able to use their own knowledge and expertise to determine how they teach their pupils, and to make choices about what they teach.

I provided the trainees with a range of oral testimonies that were written first-hand by African-Caribbean (Black British) people concerning their lived experiences of episodes from British history, including migration to the British Isles from Jamaica as part of the Windrush Generation and cross-cultural encounters through the Brixton uprisings in 1981. An aim of my research was to centre the Black British voice, allowing these to lead the telling of British history. Another aim of the research was to see whether these oral testimonies could support the trainees in transforming their embedded and unchallenged thoughts about the narrative of British history. Here is a small sample of the trainee’s responses (Moncrieffe, 2020, pp.79–80.:

Diana: … the Viking raids and invasions. They are quite… and then Anglo-Saxon laws and justice and invasions, death and resistance and all of those sorts of words might be associated with… with riots and change and stuff like that and so you have got this chance to contrast.

Catherine: It’s all migration, I suppose, isn’t it?

Diana: Yeah.

Catherine: Well. Like the settlement of Anglo Saxons, you can… Like when they [parent and child] are talking about… Brixton, erm… being the ethnic minority… settlement. They settled there. And you could almost say like where Anglo-Saxons settled…

Diana: Settled [in synchrony with Catherine].

Catherine: And you can kind of make relations that way.

Primary school teachers and trainees must engage in questions and debate the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ of curriculum implementation in their teaching and learning (Moncrieffe and Harris, 2020) – not to become simply performative ‘curriculum makers’ but to become ‘critical curriculum thinkers’ in actively challenging the educational worth of the current statutory content directives and guidance of the national history curriculum.

What is clear to me from my research is that there are starting point areas of the current primary school history curriculum where seeds representative of inequality can be planted in children’s minds in terms of knowing about national identity and the idea of nation. The primary school history curriculum is totally absent in giving any teaching and learning starting points on the migration and settlement to the British Isles by non-White British ethnic groups or their cross-cultural engagements with the inhabitants.

A decolonised primary school national history curriculum for teaching and learning would improve on the current version by incorporating mandatory teaching and learning directives and guidance – for example, through a study on the lives and experiences of Black British people over the ages. This approach, when fused with White British historical narratives, will present and make more coherent for children a truer knowledge of our eclectic national identity and the fluidity of this over time, and serve to revise and reforge the idea of nation as an interdependent community in the 21st century.

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