IT was working in Malaysia that persuaded Jen Foster that the English primary school where she’d taught wasn’t quite as progressive as she had thought.
‘I was working as a newly qualified teacher (NQT) in an inner London school where the majority of children were from a BAME background. It was an amazing school. All the core texts we used had BAME protagonists. The culture of the school was very much about embracing all religions and cultures.’
But working in a Malaysian school for two years made her wonder if the London primary she so admired was quite as progressive as she had thought. She says the way in which Asia celebrates itself and its peoples made her reflect on British practice.
‘Every religion, every culture, gets equal weighting. Eid, Christmas, Diwali, Chinese New Year were regarded as of equal importance. It was an East v West moment for me which made me reflect on education in Britain.’
Jen says there is a common assumption that the UK is ahead of the times in its cultural attitudes. ‘But we’re actually stuck in Victorian times, when the roots of today’s curriculum were formed’ she says. ‘We should be looking at other models, other cultures to see how they deal with these issues.’
Coming back to the UK, Jen joined a Church of England primary school, now acutely aware of the importance of the promotion of diversity and inclusion. She was surprised to find that the school only taught Christianity – but not its legacy.
‘Many white educators find it difficult to engage in conversations about race. It is important to me to create a dialogue to achieve ripple of change. We really do need to work together.’
One issue for schools is budgets. Jen says: ‘We look at our book corners and it should be an expectation that there are high-quality texts that promote diversity and equality. Some schools argue they do not have the budget for this. I would tell schools this is a priority. Allowing all children to be represented in stories is a baseline expectation. Sharing different realities is essential. We have a duty to teach cultural literacy and a great tool for that is books.’
The Black Lives Matter movement accelerated my drive to decolonise the curriculum. Jen says it led to a realisation of how far behind we are in Britain on matters of race and inclusion.
Jen says: We have an extremely colonised curriculum. However many updates it undergoes, we have a curriculum with its routes in Victorian times. We see things through a white lens.
We do teach the Victorians, but where do we say colonisation? We say empire.
What about those who claim that young children can’t understand the nuances of history – for example, how to distinguish between empire and colonisation?
Jen has no truck with this point of view: ‘We teach them about Nazis and concentration camps. We have to expect more from our children and our teachers. Where did we get sugar from in our tea? All teachers know how to make concepts child friendly. We need the backing from the curriculum as well as training and subject knowledge to do it properly.
By December 2000, Jen wanted to do practical work on decolonising; the time for debating was over. She was contacted by PlanBee, the education resources experts run by a group of primary school teachers.
‘What I loved was that PlanBee is a small company with a white workforce. When I met with them, they said that they were aware that they may have unconscious bias and wanted to challenge their thinking. That was brilliant.’
The scheme of work they decided to work on together was a programme of work about the Zulu Kingdom, which was formed in 1816.
The Zulus were very feared and powerful and the Victorians tried to colonise them. The first time, at the Battle of Isandlwana in 1879, the Zulus saw off the British troops, but this is seldom mentioned. The Zulus were defeated at the second battle, Rorke’s Drift, which is widely celebrated by the British, not least through the famous 1964 film Zulu.
‘What was great about this was its direct correlation with the Victorian Empire,’ says Jen. ‘They were at exactly the same time. It’s such a beautiful link.’
When Jen began her research, she was amazed by what she found. ‘There was a scarcity of information and so much of it was biased. We were told that the Zulus were ‘cruel and tortured boys’. But there was no evidence for the claim. We found we could only get sound information from South African sources.
‘The Zulu people are still very much around today. They go to university, they live in cities. Their story is a great way to challenge stereotypes.
‘There is currently no sense of belonging or identity for a child who is not White British within the history curriculum.’
It’s time for change, and that time is now, says Jen.
PlanBee founder Becky Cranham said they were delighted to be working with Jen: ‘Change happens a little at a time, and we’re proud of our latest step in the right direction: decolonising the curriculum. We’re planning for better representation of children of all races in our new resources, and identifying areas where children can be better represented in our existing resources (as part of our ongoing revision programme).
‘Our collaboration with Jen on Zulu Kingdom to produce a brand new scheme of work that directly addresses these aspirations is just the start.’