Courtney Pine is back on the curriculum. Last week the exam board Pearson Edexcel reversed its decision to remove the jazz musician, its only Black composer, from the set works of its A-level music syllabus.
Pearson’s U-turn followed an outcry by many people who spoke out for diversity in our teaching. However, its initial decision revealed a persistent and much wider problem within education – namely that of Black figures and experiences being systematically omitted.
For all examining boards content at GCSE and A-level across such subjects as music, English and history contains few examples of Black people’s contribution. Currently, out of 59 history GCSE modules, only 12 – and none of Pearson’s modules – refer in any way to Black history specifically. Furthermore, the teaching of Black history more widely is generally being discouraged following comments from the government, most recently by the equalities minister, Kemi Badenoch. Discussing Black History Month last October, she told the House of Commons that the government doesn’t want white children being taught about “white privilege and their inherited racial guilt”. And she added: “The recent fad to decolonise maths, decolonise engineering, decolonise the sciences that we’ve seen across our universities to make race the defining principle of what is studied is not just misguided but actively opposed to the fundamental purpose of education.”
In addition, Department for Education guidance states that schools should not “under any circumstances” work with or use material from groups that promote “victim narratives that are harmful to British society”.
But the government’s fierce opposition to “anti-white” rhetoric in schools is overshadowing the need for Black history to be taught so that young people are given a broader view of Britain’s past. Ministers’ comments have left schools worrying what material is suitable to teach, and are discouraging them from teaching about Britain’s true, complex history. For exam boards, the knock-on effect is to reduce the content young people are examined on.
What today’s schoolchildren should be taught are things such as: in geography, the cultural and economic impacts of empire across the Caribbean and Africa, including the experiences of those who were colonised; the contributions of Black thinkers, poets and musicians (English and music); and, in history, the lives of Black people in Roman times, and the Tudor and Victorian periods .
Pearson’s response shows that perhaps exam boards are listening. Yet, while reinstating Pine’s work is significant in light of five other composers being removed, the fact the original decision did not consider his role as a Black musician reveals how marginal and disposable the Black contribution to the shaping of modern-day Britain is considered to be.
Pearson’s initial justification pointed to increasing teacher workloads during the pandemic, which is a valid concern: it’s right they try to reduce the workload. But this should not come at the expense of Black stories across the syllabus, which should be fully embedded rather than a mere afterthought.
The material young people from all backgrounds are learning and being examined on is central to their education and self-development, and how they see the world they live in, so it is crucial they are taught as wide a range of stories as possible.
Exam boards can engage with their content critically and proactively. They need to show they can offer a curriculum that educates all children, in an inclusive way, about the diversity of the world, and of their national story.