The earliest use of the word “curriculum” dates back to medieval times and derives from the Latin currere – the course of a race. It was in the 1300s that many high-born children began to follow a curriculum that blended Latin, French, chess, archery, falconry and song-writing.
Latterly, from the “triumph of progressive reform” of the 1944 Butler Act, which captured the post-war consensus for a new educational dawn, through to the 1988 Education Reform Act, which formalised subjects and standards into a National Curriculum, change has been unstinting.
Recent reforms have adapted, modified, expanded, overhauled or restructured the school curriculum. There has been more prolonged scrutiny of the school curriculum than almost any other area of public life, with experts reflecting, exploring and recommending changes to literacy and numeracy, to key stages and to foundation subjects and, most recently (and in some cases wreckfully) to public examination courses.
“Online callouts stand to bypass the time-consuming checks and balances of more legitimate means of reform.”
Lately though, another mechanism for fast-tracking major curriculum change has come into play – one that stands to bypass the time-consuming checks and balances of more legitimate means of reform, and the expertise and measured reflection that are invariably the hallmarks of it. It takes the form of an online “callout” to “decolonise” the curriculum.
Before separating aim from method, two inescapable realities remain. First, that too many curriculum experiences propagate the nation’s imperial legacy. Rather than positive and affirming narratives of black British culture and migration, black history is too often framed around slavery and colonialism and black literature around suffering and victimhood.
Second, the continuing corrosive presence of racism in society remains abhorrent, with multiple indicators revealing entrenched disparities along racial lines. Needless to say, all educational initiatives to highlight and eradicate racism are to be supported. However, some methods associated with the anti-racism movement have drawn criticism. Chief among these are tactics that frequently run counter to a campaign that seeks to challenge injustice, intimidation and fear.
Familiar to many schools, colleges and universities are callouts, often in the shape of open letters demanding institutional change, or public petitions seeking to shame into reform.
“When confronted with an alarming online wave, there is the danger of a panicked response.”
The tactic of the callout is roundly condemned by the likes of former US president Barack Obama, who highlights the self-indulgence of young activists who rush to judge others amid “the illusion that you’re effecting change, even if that is not true”. Others, such as celebrated African American academic, feminist Loretta Ross, argue that public shaming callouts are too often characterised “by those who believe they have greater integrity or more sophisticated analyses… the self-appointed guardians of political purity” operating in “a courtroom composed of clicks”.
Our school curriculums are precious, ideally fully embodying our values and principles. But that does not make them perfect, nor free from favouritism, misplaced preference or bias. Reasoned and respectful public challenge provides an opportunity to enhance what we teach, not diminish it. However, when confronted with an alarming online wave, the danger of a panicked response or of “curriculum capture” by a mobilised faction lurks.