Back to the Past? A brief discussion on social diversity and school curricula since the 1950s

As mentioned in a previous blog, my school is setting up a working group of pupils and teachers to explore whether our curriculum reflects their diversity in terms of ethnicity, culture and religious beliefs (as well as gender, sexuality and disability). This blog, however, briefly charts the historical toing and froing of arguments for and against culturally inclusive/diverse curricula in the UK. It essentially sets the scene for a third blog where I will attempt a defense of multicultural education. 

Historical background: from monocultural to multicultural

If we are to consider the pros and cons of an inclusive/diversified curriculum, it may be worth briefly sketching the historical development of curricula in English schools, especially in terms of cultural diversification. In her article Race, Nation and Education, Farzana Shain suggests that since the 1950s, government policies for the management of ethnic diversity, which includes educational curricula, have been based on a range of ideologies including: 

  • assimilation – the expectation that immigrants and minorities will abandon their languages, cultural norms and practices in favour of those of the host society; 
  • integration – acceptance of the majority culture’s customs and values through partial assimilation; 
  • multiculturalism – the recognition of a plurality of ethnicities, cultures and faiths within society. 

Similarly, in his book Education and Racism (1994), Barry Troyna saw education policy as moving from the monocultural assimilationist policies of the 1950s and 1960s – where pupils from ethnic minority backgrounds were just expected to engage and accept the largely white British view of the world (via the curriculum) – to a misplaced multiculturalism in the 1980s. 

In the early years of “modern schooling”, school curricula in the UK embodied a one-sided view of the world; an ethnocentric outlook where maps of the world in classrooms still had plenty of red all over then – marking the Queen’s colonies and dominions. Nonetheless, education policy and curricula changed as society did, which is exemplified by speech in 1966 by the then Home Secretary Roy Jenkins. In the speech, Jenkins says, “I do not think that we need in this country a ‘melting pot’, which will turn everybody out in a common mould, as one of a series of carbon copies of someone’s misplaced vision of the stereotyped Englishman…” (Muchowiecka, 2012, part 2.2, para. 7). This change of direction led to a number of policies advocating integration and, eventually, an acceptance of multiculturalism, which – in parts of the country – arguably better reflected the communities our schools served.

However, Troyna’s concern with 1980s multiculturalism, when local education authorities (LEAs) dictated policy in regard to race relations, was that it was often superficial and patronising. This is exemplified by the “3 Ss”, which included references to “saris, samosas and steel bands” as add-ons to the curriculum that did not constitute a genuine attempt to include black and ethnic minority history, scientists, mathematicians, politicians and role models (Troyna, 1994; Modood & May, 2001, p. 306). In essence these were tokenistic attempts at diversifying the curriculum. Despite being well-intentioned, LEA approaches were often whimsical and unsubstantial in terms of reflecting – seriously – the increasing diversity within areas of England and Wales (as well as elsewhere in the UK). Furthermore, they could only go so far in terms of wider diversity, with the Thatcher government’s explicitly homophobic Section 28 literally outlawing the teaching of sexual diversity. 

Deracialised to racialised curricula 

Troyna (1986; 1994) also argued that education policy in the 1980s had gone from being “deracialised” to mildly “racialised” in terms of challenging racism and monoculturalism. He points out that references to “different cultures” are intertwined with ethnicity and that there is a racial dynamic at play. Consequently, a deracialised curriculum is one which pays little or no attention to ethnic and cultural diversity whereas a racialised curriculum does; of course the latter could be positive or negative in its handling of diversity. 

Troyna suggests that an anti-racist racialised view of the curriculum – where racism and racial inequality is taught and discussed openly – is preferable to a deracialised “there is no problem here” view. This would include contextualising issues involving race relations, particularly racial inequality, in the humanities, social sciences and English literature, for example. Although it might sound counterintuitive to raise sensitive issues of racial inequality in the classroom in order to create community cohesion, unless these differences are part of the curriculum, pupils will be ignorant of the stresses and strains they might have for minority groups and be ignorant of the consequences this may have for society as a whole. Of course, Troyna – like many other writers and researchers (such as Mullard, 1984) – felt that anti-racism, whilst emerging, didn’t go far enough and was largely ineffective. Furthermore, many felt that 1980s multiculturalism did not seek to address racial inequality and, therefore, was limited in preventing prejudice and discrimination. 

1988 Education Reform Act: deracialised reforms?

The 1988 Education Reform Act (ERA) introduced many policies that massively impacted schools. These included league tables, Ofsted, funding formulas and the National Curriculum amongst others. Although these policies continue to divide opinion, most are – by and large – an accepted part of school life. In relation to social diversity, Kenneth Baker, the then Secretary of State for Education, argued at the Conservative Party conference in 1987 that the reforms would ‘open the doors of opportunity’ and claimed in The Guardian that the new National Curriculum was likely to be ‘very useful in holding together a multi-racial and multicultural society’ (Baker, 1988; cited in Drury 1992, p. 6). Indeed, policy documents issued by the Department of Education and Science in the following year seemingly confirmed a commitment to multicultural education (ibid).

However, others suggest that the reforms were actually counter-productive in terms of widening the curriculum. The key argument here hinges on the National Curriculum being overwhelmingly Anglocentric and monocultural (Drury, 1992; David, 1993; Troyna, 1993; Ball, 1994; Gillborn & Youdell, 2000). For example, European languages such as French and German were given precedence over Indic and other non-European ethnic minority languages; Asian and Afro-Caribbean forms of music were ignored in favour of Western classical composers and there were few references to popular music; an ethnocentric bias was evident in most subjects, including history, geography, mathematics and English (Drury, 1992). Verma (1992) suggests that the ERA saw a return to monoculturalism and an Anglocentric curriculum. 

Other researchers have also pointed out how “parentocracy”, or rather parental-choice, led some schools to dampen down diversity in their curriculum to appease white parents (Vincent, 1992; Drury, 1992; Troyna, 1993; Loveland, 1993). Moreover, increased power to “colour blind” governors, which in addition to centralisation and the bypassing of LEAs, led to further etnocentrisation of the curriculum (Drury, 1992). 

Diversity and citizenship: The new assimilation? 

Initially, New Labour seemed intent on bringing in some form of challenge to racial and cultural narrow mindedness with their emphasis on “community cohesion”. For instance, Tony Blair stated in 1995 that the party wanted to “… build a new and young country that can lay aside the old prejudices that dominated our land for a generation. A nation for all the people, built by the people, where old divisions are cast out. A new spirit in the nation based on working together, unity, solidarity, partnership” (cited in Curran-Vigier, 2008, p. 66). This was furthered by the introduction of a new subject, citizenship, which sought to teach pupils the importance of community cohesion as well as an acceptance, respect and tolerance of social diversity. 

However, Tony Blair’s speech on “Our Nation’s Future” in December 2006 cited the London bombings of 2005 as a reason for adopting a new, critical attitude towards multiculturalism that abandoned his earlier aims (ibid). This speech was interpreted in the press as a “turnaround” on policies that celebrated social diversity and signaled the coming of “Britishness” as a concept of individual identity to be prioritised and championed within schools (ibid, p. 65). Following this, Keith Ajegbo – a former inner city headteacher who wrote a review into diversity and citizenship in 2007 – has suggested that Gordon Brown started to reshape the citizenship agenda into a much more conservative form – one more concerned with promoting Britishness than celebrating social diversity (Gillborn et al., 2013). This has led some to argue that the Blair and Brown governments eventually promoted a “new assimilationism” as well as a “naïve multiculturalism” (see Back et al. 2002, p. 452; Gillborn, 2001, p. 19; Gillborn & Mirza, 2001).

Coalition to present: back to the past?

Ajegbo accused the 2010 Coalition government of completely severing the relationship between citizenship, community cohesion and issues of racial equality. Significantly, Ofsted’s focus on race equality was removed from inspections and government ministers actively championed “our island story” as a limited and wholly Anglicised enterprise (see Gillborn et al., 2013; Shain, 2013, for example). Like Ajegbo, Ted Cantle – who completed a study into community cohesion for the Home Office in 2001 – suggests that the Coalition were not overly bothered about the wider social context of schooling, which includes multiculturalism and the social diversity of pupils. Cantle names Michael Gove, the then Secretary of State of Education, as “the principal agent of this narrowing of focus, and reshaping of Ofsted’s inspection criteria” (Gillborn et al. 2013, p. 40). Couple this with claims that the 2014 National Curriculum reforms made the curriculum even more Anglocentric (Gillborn, 2015; Richardson, 2015), then it could be argued that we have seen a return to our monocultural past. 


I think it is worth acknowledging that schools have become more proactive in dealing with racist incidents and bigoted attitudes in the last 20 years or so, especially as school’s take account of the 2010 Equality Act. This is one where racism, xenophobia and, in addition, things like misogyny and homophobia are challenged both in curriculum content and via school policies. Moreover, most schools that I have worked in continue to promote a sense of social diversity in assemblies, religious education and PSHE as well as in English lessons, where feasible, and in some aspects of history; even if this is limited. The question is, does this go far enough or, if you believe some politicians, too far? 

Brief conclusion

Therefore, arguments over whether we should be committed to an assimilationist/deracialised or multicultural/racialised curriculum still persist; some suggest that teaching and championing Britishness and British history can give a sense of shared values and collective pride in “our past” whereas others suggest that this bypasses the lived experience of minority groups as well historical injustices and inaccuracies that stem from an ethnocentric worldview. Additionally, it would also be unfair and disingenuous to assume people promoting more assimilationist views of curriculum do so out of any racist or xenophobic intent (although a minority probably do). Nonetheless, as discussed in my previous blog, evidence  suggests that pupils from all social groups, cultures and backgrounds benefit when curricula are diversified and inclusive. Lastly, any attempt at creating a genuine culturally inclusive/diverse curriculum must take cultural diversity seriously and look for serious, academic and pedagogically relevant contributions to the curriculum as opposed to superficial references to “saris, samosas and steel bands”.  


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Photo credit: Jonund via Wikicommons (Used under a Creative Commons Licence)

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