The curriculum we are introducing captures British history in all its multi-layered, omni-racial glory

In a column this week, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown castigated plans for a new national curriculum. Here a leading Minister at the Department for Education responds

Share

We live in a country with one of the most extraordinary histories of any nation. Very often it is heroic. Less often there are moments that give cause for more sober reflection.

The new National Curriculum aspires to treat triumph and tragedy fairly. And while it is full of important, fascinating personalities – like Alfred the Great, Clive of India and Winston Churchill – who sum up some of the most exciting passages in our history, it is also full of equally fascinating ordinary people who did extraordinary things.

Integral

This is not a curriculum which, in the words of social historian E P Thompson, confers “the enormous condescension of posterity” on people like the Tolpuddle Martyrs, Annie Besant or Mary Seacole. All of them are explicitly named for the first time in the statutory programme of study.

So too are popular campaigns like Ireland’s Home Rule movement, the Suffragettes and the drive for racial equality legislation. Reforms like the Factory Acts, compulsory education and the abolition of capital punishment are in black-and-white. The changes which created the omni-racial society we celebrated at last year’s Olympics and Paralympics are also now an integral part.

The new curriculum specifies that children should be taught about the Windrush generation, wider New Commonwealth immigration and the arrival of East African Asians like Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. There is a deliberate, increased focus on women running throughout as well.

Nor would a reactionary government insist on placing the abolition of capital punishment, the legalisation of abortion and homosexuality, and the Race Relations Act on the curriculum. I think it might also overlook: William Wilberforce, Olaudah Equiano, the origins of trade unionism, Britain’s retreat from Empire, and the growth of the welfare state.

This will contrast strikingly with the way I was taught at my comprehensive school in the 1980s. We were given no sense of chronology – one day we would be learning about the princes in the Tower and the next we would be reading about the Consett steelworks. I remember one lesson, at age 13 where we were told to learn about Francis Drake's voyage around the world by standing on our tables pretending to be on a ship. Many of us came away from the experience with a fragmented and disjointed understanding of our nation's past.

Uncovering truth

So it was a little surprising to read Ms Alibhai-Brown’s claim this week that the new curriculum is “narrowly nationalistic” and motivated by a desire to “control knowledge”. That is completely wrong. Instead we wish to give our children the skills to distinguish between truth and falsehood, between the trivial and the pivotally important, between maverick but well-reasoned argument and mainstream but ill-informed dogma. And such skills cannot be developed in a vacuum – they necessitate the learning of specific facts.

Ms Alibhai-Brown writes that history is “contested, much of it only partially known, waiting to reveal itself and upend assumptions”. I agree in all but one regard: history does not reveal itself; we have to uncover it for ourselves. That requires skill, background knowledge and confidence – all of which our curriculum plans will inculcate from the start.

So whilst I do not recognise Ms Alibhai-Brown’s description of our plans, I do recognise in them the very characteristics that she cites as integral to the effective teaching of history.

Our story is indeed “multi-layered” and “unpredictable”. The new curriculum reflects that, as even a cursory glance reveals. Ms Alibhai-Brown has written a typically stimulating polemic, but I am afraid that she did not engage adequately with the primary source.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month  

General Election 2015: Politics is the messy art of compromise, unpopular as it may be

David Blunkett
File: David Cameron offers a toast during a State Dinner in his honour March 14, 2012  

Vote Tory and you’re voting for the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer

Mark Steel
General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'