Michelle Codrington-Rogers is a teacher of citizenship and PSHE at a large secondary school in Oxford. Her family originate from St Vincent and the Grenadines and have firm roots in Oxford. Michelle is a proud trade unionist and represents teachers for NASUWT-The teachers union, the only UK-wide union exclusively for teachers. It is for this union that Michelle was elected to be National President for 2020-21, making her the first Black President in the union's 101 year history. She also is a co-founder of Decolonising the Curriculum for Educators-UK and Mothers 4 Justice-Ubuntu.
The term of ‘decolonising curriculum’ is a very common phrase now. Heard and used both within the educational sector and outside. It feels as if this was a phrase 10 months that was always followed by an explanation. However due to the recent ‘awakening’ after a summer of protests following the murder of an unarmed Black man and woman at the hands of police in the US, this phrase is turning into action. Well, almost.
In a truly globalised world, we have seen how quickly social justice campaigns cross national borders, and seed activism miles away from where they originate. Just on this basis, there is no question as to why a global city like Oxford would consider itself immune. Rhodes Must Fall started in South Africa and following the journey of Rhodes’ ideals in reverse, the energy of Rhodes Must Fall arrived in Oxford in 2015/2016. Inspiring students, Black and non-Black to demand more from the university. Whether this was in the education they received, the people delivering this education or the space they were being educated in, the consumers of a service demanded more. Their call for visibility, accountability and recognition was firmly grounded in their current experiences. These ‘snowflakes’ in the higher education sector were enacting exactly what we in the primary and secondary school sector had been teaching them for their whole school careers: learn from your past to understand the present whilst preparing for the future.
British young people are taught from a very early age (at nursery when taught about the significance of the ‘Poppy’ and why we need to stand silent during the 11th hour of the 11th day) that their history is best centred on WW1 and WW2 as not just reference points, but also as a collective emotional wound that invokes pride in those who went before. In many ways, the opposite to Vergangenheitsbewältigung (‘coping with the past’). Yet this point in British history is often presented as devoid of global and historical context as it fails to acknowledge an empire created from equal pain and emotional wounds to many of those descended from Britain’s so called “golden age”.
The key is seeing the education sector as a whole, from Early Years to Postgraduate, that we are all part of the same mission to mould and shape minds ready to shepherd our society to its next manifestation, hopefully an improvement on the last. All of us in the education sector are working to the same goal, to open minds to possibilities. We are investing in all of our futures. Yet the way that the British education system is fragmented - with us each working in silos based on our sectors, our subjects, our pedagogies. Yet our children and young people are the constant moving through the system like a boat floating along a stream picking up and dropping off passengers as it goes.
Why are we surprised that students start to put the pieces together to see the whole stream and start to demand a better boat, or an opportunity to improve the journey? Decolonising the curriculum is the tool needed to improve their journey through education. Our students both in the post 16 and school levels are demanding that we do better and as educators we should welcome the challenge to do better, not to become defensive. As the passengers in the boat, we need to feel a satisfaction that the students holding the oars have realised we are on the journey with them.
This is why creating a space for educators to do this work together is so crucial. It appears that when the University establishes short term relationships with schools, it is often presented as an act of charity and is not always an equal partnership. It can become a tick list activity to demonstrate ‘working with the community’, it is also often self-selective - ‘disadvantaged’ communities needing saving from itself or an Aladdin quest ‘to find the gifted and talented diamonds in the rough’.
Yet when these relationships and partnerships are established and developed by academics and subject specialists or teachers sharing a space where commonality of intent and development are built together grounded in trust and mutuality that has the potential for sustainability. A professional dialogue that can practically translate into action that supersedes the tokenality of the traditional approach, centering the needs of the pupils and students through the curriculum. But this can’t happen if our children and young people don’t see themselves reflected in their education.
How can Black children build their aspiration if they have to depend on their imagination to add themselves to the narrative? Bearing in mind, it is this imagination that slowly gets converted into practicality so they are able to pass exams that in turn power national league tables. Our children need to be a part of an education where they see themselves in what they are taught, who is doing the teaching and those who embody possibility. They need to not see the Black contribution reduced to two points in history that involves boats (the Maafa and Windrush). We need to see ourselves as 3D, humans interacting intra-culturally and that communities contributed much to the fabric of modern day Britain. Britain is as it is, because of the sacrifices many made. And the world looks the way it does, because of the fabric of Britain’s inherent entitlement to what others have.
As educators we need to allow ourselves to recognise the fallacy of the system we are within and continue to find ways to improve it so we can work to achieve these goals. From my perspective as a mere citizenship teacher, the solution is in partnership. School experts and academic experts coming together to navigate our way through.
Our young people are inviting us to join them on this journey, they are offering to share the oars with us as educators - we mustn’t be afraid or too proud to take an oar and put our backs into it.