Wednesday 16 January 2013

Gove's action on Mary Seacole goes further than Thatcher

Mary Seacole's gravestone
When I first started teaching at an inner London primary school in Paddington in 1971 one of the first things I noticed was that there were very few books with any black children in them even though the school population was largely black. There were no black staff and so children had the strange experience of attending a school where curriculum and staffing did not reflect the pupils who actually attended. 

Meeting with other teachers I discovered that some schools still had copies of 'Little Black Sambo'  on their shelves amongst the Peter and Jane and Janet and John readers. Teachers, supported by parents, became proactive in trying to correct the situation, aware that if children were 'invisible' in the curriculum and materials, their motivation would be affected.  Black Bookshops began to import multi-ethnic books, mainly from the US,  Sunshine  Readers produced by Ladybird for the West Indies, became common in inner London schools. In the UK the Nippers series reflecting both black and working class life began to be published. Beryl Gilroy, the first black woman headteacher in London (and possibly  the UK) and mother of Paul Gilroy, wrote some of the Nipper series.

At the same time there was an active racist and fascist movement with the National Front targeting schools and recruiting white children at the school gates. Teachers became active in the community campaigning against the NF, particularly when they provocatively hired school halls in multi-racial areas for their meetings or marched through areas of black settlement. All Leader Teachers Against Fascism (ALTARF) and Teachers Against the Nazis (TAN) were formed and autonomous black teachers' organisations became active

However, anti-racist teachers were not in the majority at the time. When I was organising support for an anti-racist headteacher, who was a member of the Communist Party, told me, 'This school is neither for nor against racism'    His predecessor had angrily insisted, 'I do not want these black books thrust down our white children's throats'.

A moment which reinforced my determination was when an eight year old  black girl turned to me when reading about Harriet Tubman, with amazed eyes and said, 'I didn't know black people could be famous!' 

In the black community the slogan 'We are here because you were there' was used to combat the racists. Clearly colonial history and the freedom struggle were vital to an understanding of racism and teacher activists and librarians began to write materials for the classroom. Basil Davidson worked with the London Branch of the National Association for Multi-racial Education (NAME) on an exhibition about African History challenging some of the myths of the time that included attributing the Zimbabwe ruins to some ancient non-African civilisation.

When I moved  to a primary school in Fulham, an area where the NF were recruiting, I had a 10 year NF member in the class in  which black children were a minority. It became clear to me that anti-racist education was required - not just multicultural.

In Challenging Racism - ALTARF (1984) I wrote about a black child who was in what we now call Year 5. This is what she said:
Well I think there isn't enough black books in school . They've got Pete and Jane and they're white and they haven't got any books for black kids and if they have they're just silly books - they're not sensible. So what we [she and her friends] tried to do  (which we never finished) we made our own book about jobs and racism. We did a book about jobs and drew pictures and we talked about what black people hadn't been getting jobs. Was it because of their colour or is it just because they're not qualified and we got to the decision that it was because of their colour. So what we did was we got together, we had a discussion before we started making the book, and we just started writing it down and drawing pictures about it.
Schools and the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) began to tackle the political issues involved and incurred the wrath of the right-wing of the Conservative Party including Margaret Thatcher, Norman Tebbit and the recently deceased Sir Rhodes Boyson, Conservative MP for Brent North. 

There was little need for the National Front once Thatcher was in power and her government turned on 'left-wing' teachers and on local authorities such as  the ILEA and Brent who had pioneered multi-cultural and anti-racist education. Tebbit eventually abolished the ILEA along with the GLC.  Margaret Thatcher said:
You know about political indoctrination in some of the inner cities, well, I could show you examination papers, I could show you books.....I sometimes look at the Continent, where they have not only a core curriculum but a core syllabus. That would be an enormous leap for us to take, because my generation still recoils from having a system that any government could manipulate...what we are considering is whether we should take that step.
And of course they did take that step and introduced the National Curriculum and subsequent Labour governments tightened central control even more.

The phrase about a system that 'any government could manipulate' is telling because Michael Gove is currently seeking to manipulate the NC history curriculum in the direction that some of the extreme rightwingers wanted to do back in the 80s and goes beyond any manipulation that Margaret Thatcher  or Kenneth Baker attempted. . He is removing certain black historical figures from  the NC but also changing the nature of the historical narrative. It is a political and cultural intervention

Does this statement by the Monday Club (Education and the Multiracial Society) 1985 not remind you of Muchael Gove's stance?
To say that British History, English literature, the civilisation of Western Europe should have pride of place in our schools is not to argue from a sense of superiority. It is to argue for relevance. Black and white children need to learn,and they can, of the nation in which they live and the forces that have shaped it. Britain has a great and inspiring heritage. Our chidlren need to be fed on it, to be encouraged to make it their own. Such an approach in education will unify, not divide, nurture shared pride and common loyalties, not cynicism and racial hatred.
So the removal of Mary Seacole and Oloudah Equiano from the National Curriculum is a political and ideological act with its roots in the Thatcher era. It seeks to push back the gains that have been made in education for a multi-ethnic society and perhaps aims to take us back to that period when that child could look at me with disbelief when she found there were black historical.

That is why Mary Seacole's grave stone, in our backyaed in the Kensal Green Cemetery, Harrow Road is currently my Facebook profile.  It is why I remind schools and teachers that the National Curriculum is not all that can be taught. Schools are free to teach beyond the National Currlcum and if Mary Seacole and Oloudah Equiano  are removed teachers should still carry on teaching about them. That will also be a political  act.

I strongly support the campaign that you can read about below:
Best selling authors such as Zadie Smith, Malorie Blackman and Andrea Levy, playwright Kwame Kwei Armah, Civil Rights icon Rev Jesse Jackson,  Trade Union leaders Christine Blower, Mark Serwotka and politicians including Diane Abbott, David Lammy and Stephen Twigg have all signed an open letter to the Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove, calling upon him to rethink his plans to scrap Mary Seacole and Olaudah Equiano from the National Curriculum.

Gove has stated that he wants children to learn ‘traditional’ figures such as Winston Churchill and Oliver Cromwell, and that Equiano and Seacole can be options.

Simon Woolley stated:

‘Dumping Mary Seacole and Olaudah Equiano, denies children of our rich diversity of key historical figures. It is also seen by some as the whitewashing of British history.’

Civil Rights Campaigner Rev Jesse Jackson stated:

'A nation’s history must be told by all its people for the benefit of everyone. Failure to do so invariably ends up talking about the exploits of white men.’

Zita Holbourne, National Co-Chair BARAC UK stated:

'The achievements of figures such as Mary Seacole and Olaudah Equiano in the face of prejudice are to be celebrated so that they inspire generations to come.  The broad range of people opposing Gove's proposal demonstrate the strength of our multicultural society at its best.

Patrick Vernon stated:

‘After launching the successful campaign in 2003 where Mary Seacole was voted the Greatest Black Briton by the public, Michael Grove, Secretary State for Education now wants to remove her from the National Curriculum along with Olaudah Equiano. This gives a clear message to all children and parents in Britain that we do no have a pluralist or multicultural society and thus equality of opportunity is only the preserved for the rich and privileged. Is this history we want to teach and shape future leaders in 21st century Britain?’

Juliet Alexander, broadcaster, lecturer and trustee of the Mary Seacole Memorial Statue Appeal, stated:

‘To exclude Mary Seacole from the national curriculum would be to remove a vital and important part of  the UK's rich heritage of Black, female activism and to condemn future generations to a poor and distorted history of the UK. The unprecedented response to the OBV petition and public eagerness to fund a statue for Mary, shows the UK's continuing fascination with the fighting spirit of historical heroines like Mary Seacole.’

Follow this link to sign the Operation Back Vote Petition to Michael Gove LINK


DON'T dis US said...

Teaching about Oliver Cromwell opens a can of historical worms. I remember going to Eire on holiday once where the guide was a Irish history postgraduate and I was surprised that his view of Cromwell was that he was little better than Hitler as far as Irish Catholics were concerned in that he supervised massacres, deportations, and land seizures which installed English colonial landlords. Is this the Cromwell that Gove wants taught or is he going to insist on imposing a sanitised version of history on Irish and Irish descended students in British schools?

Michael Pavey said...

Thanks Martin, that was an excellent read.

One small point I'd add is that it's not just black kids who are enriched by reading about great black figures in history. I would have loved to have learnt about them when I was younger.

Martin Francis said...

I think that's the whole point. It teaches black children about their history and teaches white children that black kids have a history in this country and beyond. That's why it is important that it be included in the National Curriculum so happens in all schools. It is a way of challenging racist stereotypes and misinformation but what is also important is that there should be teaching about African and Indian sub-continental history, colonialism etc. Think of the current fight of Kenyans for justice!