The Rt Hon The Lord Paul Boateng of Akyem and Wembley PC DL

Black History Month is a good opportunity to reflect on what more needs to be done in order to ensure that our education system is fit for purpose.

The challenge is to prepare by a policy of inclusion rather than exclusion all young people to thrive in a diverse and multi polar world in which no region or race holds sway over all others.

The curriculum and how people with an African and African Diaspora heritage are reflected in it is central to progress in this area

The Royal Africa Society and the campaigning expert education group Justice for History have sponsored an Inquiry by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Africa into “Africa and its Diaspora in the U.K. School Curriculum.

This is a welcome move and it’s been a privilege to Chair its meetings.

The Inquiry has received a wide range of evidence from expert and informed sources giving evidence in writing, online, and in virtual person. I do not wish to anticipate its findings but the picture that is emerging is mixed.

There has been real progress in some areas in terms of excellent materials and innovative approaches pioneered by inspirational teachers many drawn from our community but yawning gaps in others with real obstacles to progress.

Not the least of these is a definition of what may or may not be examined in English Literature which apparently, we were told repeatedly in evidence now excludes Chinua Achebe one of the greatest of writers of all time in the English language on the grounds of nationality.

The government must surely reverse its position on this as a matter of urgency if it is not to make a mockery of its vision of “Global Britain “

Profoundly disturbing statistics

Profoundly disturbing too is the statistic that of the 59 history modules available from the three biggest exam boards Edexcel, AQA,and OCR , only 12 explicitly mention black history and only five of these mention British blacks.

No modules in the GCSE syllabus for Edexcel the most popular exam Board mention black people in Britain at all, although we were told this is to change.

Better late than never but this omission only now being rectified is indicative of the wider issue that effects the whole curriculum.

This is not limited to just English Lit and History but includes Geography too where Africa is so often portrayed solely in terms of poverty and underdevelopment.

This is I suppose a step up from the geography books of my own schooldays where the image of the Congolese Pygmy and his canoe was the prevailing one but only just.

The denial or diminution in the National Curriculum and the distortion of our place as black peoples in the world does not just diminish us but all peoples.

What a shame that the child of any colour growing up in Cornwall could do so quite unaware of the role in history and musicology of Joseph Emidy.

This virtuoso violinist was born a West African, kidnapped into slavery by the Portuguese pressed into the Navy by the British and ultimately freed in Falmouth where he founded the Falmouth Symphonic Society and became a famed musician.

He inspired the abolitionist politician James Buckingham who described his work as an “achievement of extraordinary perfection”.

I was privileged centuries later whilst in government to unveil a memorial stone in his local church, hear his story and meet his descendants living in both the US and the North of England.

Teachers are under pressure

What is clear too as we wrestle with these issues is that teachers are under pressure and resources are scarce.

By 2023 schools will still be marginally less well funded in real terms than they were in 2010 and the most disadvantaged schools we are told by the Institute of Fiscal Studies have been hit the worst.

Teachers faced with a choice between repairs and support staff or funding school trips to the local Museum, can’t be blamed for choosing the former.

Not seeing an exhibit like the recent acclaimed Roots of Dub Exhibit at the Museum of London is for my generation, who heard King Tubby in person, a missed opportunity to go down memory  lane, but for the youth it’s missing  a crucial part of their cultural education.

The pressure on resources and the lack of support for much needed innovation in the representation of the black experience in the Curriculum are not the only problems faced by teachers.

Cultural Wars

They are also fearful and not without cause of being engulfed in the flames of the culture wars being waged in some sections of the media and society.

To even raise issues of diversity and race is in some instances to step into a linguistic minefield in which the unprepared, can find themselves taken to task by protagonists on both the right and the left of politics.

This is not just deeply damaging to individuals but profoundly dangerous for society as a whole.

We need an open and inclusive debate as how best to address complex issues not least around race and the legacy of Empire.

Teachers need to feel safe, trained and resourced to address these issues in the classroom.

If it’s not done there, then ultimately these issues have a tendency to emerge in clashes on our streets.

Disadvantage and discrimination.

The wider context of education reflects continuing patterns of disadvantage and discrimination.

Just 6% of Black school leavers attend the Russell Group of leading research led Universities, compared to 12% and 11% respectively of their Asian and White counterparts.

Black Caribbean and Mixed Black Caribbean have rates of permanent exclusion from school about three times that of the pupil population as a whole.

Times such as these call for leadership at every level!

And not just politically where at one level we have never been more diversely governed.

I was the first black cabinet minister. Today there are two Asian and one Black Cabinet Ministers, and many more in the other Ministerial ranks.

And yet black peoples and indeed people of colour in general are still grossly underrepresented in the leadership of our schools, as Head Teachers and in our universities, and Teacher Training Colleges at Professorial and Vice Chancellor Rank.

First black Head Teacher

Tony O, Connor is believed to have been Britain’s first black Head Teacher at Bearwood Primary School in Smethwick 54years ago, followed shortly after in London by Yvonne Connelly the first woman black head.

If we are looking for figures to memorialise, we might start with them.

This absence of black academic professional leadership not for want of qualified candidates but as a result of continuing structural bias is an insufficiently talked of public scandal not least as these are publicly accountable bodies.

Len Garrison’s African Caribbean Education Resource Project pioneered an inclusive curriculum 40 years ago.

I drafted his founding charity deed as a young trainee lawyer and went on to Chair ACERP itself.

Mrs. Stredwick and Ambrosine Neil were pioneering black mothers, who I represented in their campaigns against school exclusions.

All of these people taught me as a young man a very special lesson. Nothing gets changed without grass roots activism.

They are all now departed. Their spirit lives on.

The same spirit informed the Supplementary School movement in the 7Os when black parents and teachers said enough is enough and took responsibility for direct action to counter the failures of the educational system.

Yes, there has been some progress but there is still so much more to do. History however isn’t about simply retracing the past but understanding how it can help shape the future.

We need new tools now to build that inclusive fit for purpose education system and a new generation to inspire and lead.

Internet savvy for a virtual world and embracing social media where appropriate certainly but inspired and informed by that same spirit.

This is the spirit of Yaa Asantewaa, after which at least one of those long-gone supplementary schools was named.

A remarkable woman she rallied the people of the Ashanti region in West Africa against oppression and injustice.

Boudicca Queen of the Iceni, who took on the Romans and Yaa Asantewaa, Queen of the Ashanti, both are worthy of study in the History of Empires and of Britain.

They have much to teach us all!

The Rt Hon The Lord Paul Boateng of Akyem and Wembley PC DL

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