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As a former headteacher, this is why we must decolonise our curriculums

Our children deserve classes that are fit for the 21st century. We can't play politics with their education.

As a former headteacher, this is why we must decolonise our curriculums
two gray pencils on yellow surface
Leon Hady is a former headteacher, and founder of Guide Education

For as long as there has been politics, there have been fights over the politicisation of curriculums - or rather, what goes into our children's minds and shapes the kinds of adults, and voters they will become.

Currently, pupils and teachers are caught between two impossible positions: the reactionary view that our curriculums are perfect despite often being mostly unchanged for years or longer; and the militantly progressive view that we must completely restart our curriculums (as well as tearing down statues and renaming streets).

We must globalise, internationalise and modernise our curriculum without making its reshaping part of a 'cultural revolution.' This middle-ground may ultimately disappoint both camps - but it is what we owe our children.

Even before the Black Lives Matter movement went mainstream, the drive to 'decolonise the curriculum' was picking up steam in educational circles. Many Western nations' school curriculums want a more global and inclusive emphasis. But we must be careful; much of our curriculum is there for a reason.

Many teachers - and students - want to shine more light on the subjugation of races and peoples, whether it was through the genocides of the Native Americans or the crimes of the British Empire. We need to ensure that our children are aware of the past so that those crimes cannot be repeated - and if Germany can do this, anyone can.

But that doesn't mean removing any trace of national identity from our teaching or that we must stop celebrating the achievements of what came after those crimes by leading nations on both sides of the Atlantic.

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We must trust pupils to understand the complexity of subjects like history and draw their own conclusions. Winston Churchill, for example, was not exclusively a war hero who fought fascism, nor someone who expressed racist views. He was both. He was also bad at peacetime governance and a gifted campaigner. Why not teach pupils all of this in an interdisciplinary way?

Bringing different subjects together to create a complete understanding of the world is key - and something we are not doing nearly enough of. It's not just about history; it's about maths and science too: Briton Charles Babbage did invent the first computer in the 1820s, but he couldn't have done that without the Persian Al-Khwarizmi inventing Algebra a millennium earlier.

Even though American schools celebrate Columbus Day, most American schoolchildren would not be able to tell you who Leif Ericsonn is, even though the Viking explorer set foot in North America 500 years before Columbus.

The world is complex, interconnected and global - and what we teach our children should be the same.

Yes, we must 'decolonise' our curriculums - but we must also depoliticise and contextualise them. That isn't the same as trying to rewrite history, or only share one version of our world's knowledge with the next generation.

That has been tried before - and it has always been destructive, not progressive. Cambodia under Pol Pot, for example, with visions of an agrarian utopia, was reset to 'year zero' in an attempt to reprogramme children with the officially endorsed version of the truth.

We can teach children about white privilege without turning Black pupils against their white peers. We can talk about American or British history achievements without overwriting what came earlier or in different parts of the world.

Countless studies show that above all, children need stability in their education. Bringing the culture wars into the classroom is no way to provide that.

As well as making impossible demands of children's developing minds, this would do the same to teachers.

In the UK, at the last general election, 85 per cent of teachers voted for left-of-centre parties. In the US, teachers are mostly liberal.

But most teachers leave their politics at the classroom door and focus on one thing: equipping their pupils for an unpredictable, changing and exciting future. We should all do the same and trust kids to understand the world in a representative, interdisciplinary way.

At a time when more and more adults are behaving like children, maybe it's time we start treating pupils like adults.

Leon Hady is a former headteacher and founder of Guide Education.

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