Report from the government’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities

It would have been hard to miss publication of the recent report from the government’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities. Its claims that Britain is an exemplar for race relations, and that institutional racism does not exist, have certainly been controversial. Many of the concerns which have been widely reported in the media are well articulated in the Black Cultural Archives’ published response to the report. Whatever your views on the report as a whole (and I recommend you explore it yourself), its focus on education is relevant to the Archives for Learning and Education Section, in particular one recommendation relating to this.

The report states that ‘all pupils should be equipped with a wider understanding of the UK which encompasses the contributions made by different groups, cultures and regions.’ (p.55). The Commission’s proposed method to achieve this is described in recommendation 20:

Recommendation 20: Making of modern Britain: teaching an inclusive curriculum

Produce high-quality teaching resources, through independent experts, to tell the multiple, nuanced stories of the contributions made by different groups that have made this country the one it is today.

The Commission recommends that DfE works with an appointed panel of independent experts to produce high-quality teaching resources to tell the multiple, nuanced stories of the contributions made by different groups that have made this country the one it is today. The resources should be embedded within subjects in the statutory curriculum. These should include lesson plans, teaching methods and reading materials to complement a knowledge-rich curriculum. Using these examples, DfE, supported by the panel of experts, should design and produce a credible, high-quality, online national library that is continually updated. This online library will be available for all schools to use, complementing and enhancing the content and quality of lessons taught, so that all children can learn about the UK and the evolution of our society.

This recommendation is described in the report’s introduction as a response to ‘calls for ”decolonising” the curriculum’ (p.8)  and, indeed, the embedding of black histories within the school curriculum is precisely what many calls to decolonise the curriculum, including our own, were aiming to achieve.  It also mirrors commitments to create inclusive resources made at a recent NASUWT conference.  It seems odd, then, that the calls to which this is presented as a response are casually but dogmatically dismissed as ‘negative’ (p.8).  It should also be noted that Wales and Scotland were already embracing this change of approach while English education ministers have previously insisted that the curriculum in England was sufficiently flexible to allow teachers to incorporate a range of narratives, despite evidence which demonstrated that this was not taking place.

The government are yet to respond in full to the report, but equalities minister Kemi Badenoch has stated that the recommendations are being considered. As yet there has been no comment from DfE, so it is unclear whether work will proceed on the suggested curriculum redevelopment. The Black Cultural Archives’ response to the report notes some valid concerns about this recommendation; that it ignores the existence of teaching resources and CPD materials for educators already available, and that creation of such a resource will do little to resolve the lack of knowledge or confidence to employ them effectively. In their words ‘The teaching community’s call for support is not necessarily a call for resources’.

The recommendation also states that the resources will be created with ‘experts’, but it is not at this stage clear who these might be. Many organisations who would be well placed to advise and support such work have, understandably, spoken out against the report and its findings, and so their involvement in the implementation of its recommendations is uncertain.

To put all of these concerns aside for a moment, if this recommendation were implemented, then the resulting resource must go beyond providing a supposed ‘correct’ or ‘accurate’ historical narrative. One of the best ways to achieve this would be to employ original archival sources. Sewell’s introduction states that the commission want ‘all children to reclaim their British heritage’ (p.8). What better way to achieve this than involving students in the exploration of archive material, enabling them to become active investigators and narrators of history?

Even if this recommendation is not implemented,all archive services would benefit from exploring how representative their collections are, considering how accessible their collection is (including how it is described), and how they could support or provide more representative and inclusive interpretation, including learning experiences. The idea that a more diverse curriculum is beneficial to all students is not a new one.  ‘Developing… a more inclusive and representative school curricula’ has featured in reports on race and education since at least the 1980s (https://www.stuarthallfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/SHF-Race-Report-2021.pdf, p.12). We have a responsibility then to ensure that we are using our archives to support efforts to share stories which represent all British communities, regardless of our user base or location.

When ALES and ARA communicated with DfE and the devolved nations in August 2020, it was because the lack of diversity in the school curriculum is linked with a lack of diversity of students going on to study history in higher education. This, in turn, has an adverse effect on the diversity of the archives workforce, which still draws heavily from history graduates. The proposed resource has the potential to go some way towards addressing this, but as the BCA point out, not far enough.

Alexandra Healey ALES Chair, Twitter @ARALearning

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