Response to Amy Dwyer: The Curriculum is the Tip of the Iceberg

Chris Smith writes a response to Amy Dwyers article on revising the school curriculum to include BAME history as British history. 

Amy's article can be read here:

Amy Dwyer’s recent piece on the need for reform to the National Curriculum is an excellent diagnosis of the failings of education policy and her argument an irrefutable one. However, the curriculum itself is not the main barrier to the education system she demands, and creating one that fully meets the needs of students as democratic citizens requires far deeper change to the English educations system.

The systemic nature of the issue can most clearly be demonstrated in the imposition of academies and free schools in England, the neoliberal free market inspired reforms synonymous with the tenure of Michael Gove as education secretary during the 2010 – 2015 coalition government. Although it should be noted a policy started under New Labour at the very worst ebb of its continuity with the marketisation of public services started under the Thatcher and Major governments.

This is of great significance to the issue of decolonising the curriculum for two reasons I want to address here. The first and simplest is that academies and free schools are not bound by a national curriculum and as over 50% of England’s secondary schools are now academies simply changing the curriculum won’t solve the issue. In addition to this teachers across the county are constantly finding ways to circumvent the curriculum to deliver an education appropriate to their students, especially those who find themselves in diverse areas. Even myself, in less diverse than average Norfolk, I am able to teach lessons on the Windrush generation, and the crimes of colonialism in India and Africa which resonate with mostly white students. As a newly qualified teacher in 2015 when Gove’s national curriculum was introduced I remember being at that years Schools History Project Conference (the annual trade fair for history teachers) hearing from a colleague who knew Gove personally and was a Conservative supporter, such a rarity within the history teaching community being why he was given a platform to lead discussion on how the profession should engage with the curriculum. He shared a telling anecdote of how he asked the then Education Secretary:

“are you purposefully making this curriculum so terrible schools will convert to academy status to escape it?"

The curriculum is a straw man, every teacher will tell you it is flawed and they take pride in using their professionalism to make up for its short comings. my next point is the far more significant reason for why too many students are receiving an education below the standards we would like, both over this issue and in general as it is teacher professionalism which has truly been under assault in recent years ignoring the wisdom that teacher working conditions are children’s learning conditions.

Recent reforms to education are part of a far wider political direction of travel that the left needs to roll back to meet its societal goals. When Rebecca Long Bailey and others on the left of the Labour party speak of 40 years of Thatcherism unbroken by the New Labour years, in education they have a strong case. Yes New Labour massively increased funding for education but it did nothing to reveres what has been termed the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM fittingly)[1]. The GERM sits within the era of neoliberalism ushered into western societies by the Thatcher and Regan governments which after first dominating economic thinking seeped into wider society through governments adopting the orthodoxies of privatisation / outsourcing of services, marginalisation of trade unions and centralised managerialism over democratic involvement of citizens[2]. In education this has given rise to performance league tables, standardised testing, Ofsted inspections and performance related pay for teachers to facilitate competition at the price of cooperation and allow “consumers” to compare schools like products in the market place[3]. All to the detriment of any view of teachers as skilled professionals who are best placed to decide what is most appropriate for the students in their class room[4].

“The market only values what it is priced and only delivers to those who can pay. Like fire it is extremely efficient at what it does, but dangerous if it gets out of control.”

It is this marketed approach to education as competitive business rather than public service that is squeezing out the space for the education demanded by those who want to see a more diverse set of knowledge and values taught. One that truly reflects modern England covering the role not just of ethnic minorities but women, working class peoples, LQBT groups, disabled people and anyone else who isn’t a member of the traditional “Great man of history view” championed by conservative politicians[5]. Help teachers regain their professional agency and we can reclaim the education our children deserve

Chris Smith teaches politics and history in Norwich in Norfolk largest comprehensive school where he is also Labour party city council candidate and divisional executive member of  the National Education Union.


[1] Sahlberg, S. 2012. How GERM is infecting schools around the world. Sahlberg was Finland’s last every chief inspector of schools, before he abolished the body and system of invasive inspection, the England retains its deeply flawed Ofsted and Finland regularly outperforms England in the measures politicians point to support their arguments that they are raising standards.
[2] The National Education Union, and its fore runner the NUT have published extensive research on this working with education unions around the world particularly in Chicago the subject of the excellent Strike for America by Micah Uetricht published by Verso (2014)
[3] Stevenson H & Wood P. 2013, Markets, managerialism and teachers’ work: the invisible hand of high stakes testing in England. From the International Education Journal: Comparative Perspectives. 12 (2) pages 46- 47. “the intimate connection between high stakes testing, inspection and the goal of securing incremental privatisation across the school sector becomes transparent”.
[4] Berry, J. 2016. Teachers Undefeated: How Global Education Reform has failed to crush the spirit of educators. UCL Institute of Education press. Pages 33 - 35
[5] Nial Ferguson the empiricist historian was both a government advisor for the national curriculum for history and outspoken defender of empire in his historical works. Cambridge academic Priyamvda Gopal details a heated exchange she had with him on Radio 4 in 2006 over how to remember the British Empire in the introduction to her book Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent. 2019. Verso. Meeting her at a literary event in Norwich last summer launching the book she said she hoped history teachers would use it in the classroom. I have since and would recommend it to anyone interested in anti-colonial history.
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