A Neo-liberal Curriculum Won’t Teach a True History of Wales

Sian Gwenllian MS writes that the new curriculum’s liberalism will mean that crucial aspects of Welsh history will be forgotten.

“I feel so sanguine that were self-government granted to Wales she would be a model to the nationalities of the earth of a people who have driven oppression from the hillsides and initiated the glorious reign of freedom, justice and truth.” David Lloyd George, in a speech to the south Wales Liberal Federation, February 1890

The words of Lloyd George serve as a direct challenge to us as Members of our Senedd in the 21st Century – a Senedd that Lloyd George played no small part in its establishment.

A challenge by a politician of radical stock on the defining issues of the day in our country’s education system. At the turn of the 20th century, Lloyd George opposed the Education Bill of 1896 and the Act of 1897. He encouraged the Welsh local authority boycott of the 1902 Education Act over the funding of voluntary schools.

It is the Education Minister who carries the mantle of liberalism in today’s Wales. It is only fair then that we hold up her own Curriculum Bill against Lloyd George’s great expectations for self-government. The importance of this piece of legislation cannot be overemphasised; it will influence the education that hundreds of thousands of our young people will receive.

So, is the Education Bill proposed by Kirsty Williams, a lone Liberal in a sea of Labour politicians, likely to succeed in ‘driving out’ oppression from our land as advocated by Lloyd George?

There is at least one element of the long-awaited Curriculum Bill which is to be warmly welcomed and which will possibly meet the bar: that is the decision to make sex and relationships education a mandatory element of the new curriculum. In outlining her rationale for that decision, the Minister said:

“Our responsibility as a government is to ensure that young people, through public education, have access to learning that supports them to understand and discuss their rights and the rights of others. It is essential that all young people are provided with access to information that keeps them safe from harm.”

However, that decision stands apart from an otherwise laissez-faire approach by the Welsh Government in relation to this legislation from what we’ve seen and heard so far. Adopting such a liberal approach means that the Minister is in danger of losing sight of the other important battles which support young people to understand their rights and to keep them safe from harm.

The dreadful murder of George Floyd at the hands of police in the United States, and the Black Lives Matter protests which have ensued, have led to searching questions being asked of every institution. The Senedd is no exception to that, and it is our duty as Wales’ main law-making body to not only take notice of these protests, but to seriously act in response. 

The bare facts of the matter are a stain on our nation’s character; a stain that must be tackled and eradicated.

Hate crime recorded in Wales increased by 17% in 2018-19, totalling 3,932 cases, which is the highest number ever recorded. The ‘Sentencing and Imprisonment in Wales’ report by the Wales Governance Centre found that black people were overrepresented five times over in our prison population in 2018.

The evidence speaks for itself – people from black and other ethnic minority backgrounds face serious discrimination in our society to this day. Prejudice which is systemic. Education and the curriculum holds one of the many keys to abolishing discrimination of this kind. 

The question of whether or not schools should teach BAME history, so as to embed anti-racism and cultural diversity in Wales’ curriculum, is not one that can be delegated to individual schools or an Estyn working group.

The Welsh Government asked an expert group to consider these questions. Here’s one of many recommendations contained in the report of the First Minister’s BAME Covid-19 Advisory Group, chaired by Professor Emmanuel Ogbonna’s:

“Include BAME and The Commonwealth history/education in the National Curriculum for Wales 2022 for primary and secondary pupils to prevent racism and to promote cultural diversity. (Immediate)”

Professor Ogbonna also said:

“Many of the issues we’ve highlighted have been identified and discussed previously, but they haven’t been addressed in any systematic and sustained way”

Clear, concise and compelling recommendations which clearly state that black and people of colour history must form a mandatory part of the curriculum. This sentiment is echoed by Race Council Wales. Judge Ray Singh, Chair of Race Council Wales, told the BBC’s Politics Wales programme recently:

“I think that [making BAME history a statutory part of the curriculum] will go a long way to helping children, future generations, understand why there should be no discrimination. We have got people living here now who have contributed so much to the well-being of Wales…Those matters are not taught in schools and children don’t know that. That will go a long way to help overcome racism.”

The 34,000 people (and counting) who have signed a petition on the Senedd’s website to the same effect over the last few weeks all agree.

However, the Government’s line is that there should be some discretion when teaching about this in our new curriculum. According to the Welsh Government:

“Beyond the curriculum requirements, schools will have discretion as to how they design their curriculum.”

That must change. The question of whether or not schools should teach BAME history, so as to embed anti-racism and cultural diversity in Wales’ curriculum, is not one that can be delegated to individual schools or an Estyn working group. It is the responsibility of the government and legislature of our country to ensure that it is non-negotiable and enshrined in law.

Not one of us who enjoys white privilege is without some share of blame, but we have an opportunity, and indeed, a duty to use our privilege to tackle the structural problems faced by black people and people of colour. Our Senedd and Government must rise to that challenge.

The horrific injustices faced by black people and ethnic minorities are not the same as the challenges faced by Wales and the Welsh language, but an intersectional approach demands that we see the connections, as well as the differences, between various inequalities and injustices in our country.

And the Curriculum Bill, which seeks to set out a common framework for our future generations, is a golden opportunity to act in an intersectional way in pursuit of our shared goal of creating a Wales which is rich in its diversity – in all of its various forms – and a Wales in which we are relentless in our drive for equality in every sense.

How should we respond to the Government’s failure to see that a laissez-faire approach does not help efforts to tackle racism in our society?

In this respect, we can take inspiration from the connections and the rhythms of history which resonate through the generations.

The non-violent philosophy of Martin Luther King and Ghandi inspired minorities across the world to fight for civil rights. The non-violent tactics of these giants inspired a generation of young people in Wales in their campaign for the Welsh language and for Wales’ national cause.

In his early days, John Davies, a boy with his roots in Treorchy and Ceredigion, was a passionate advocate against colonialism and the dreadful segregation of people of colour in Cardiff during his time at university in our recently-born capital. From his lodgings in Grangetown, inspired by the tactics employed by the American civil rights movement, he co-founded Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg.

We greatly miss John Davies’ wisdom and his contribution to this debate would be invaluable. I wonder how would he respond to the argument that there is no such thing as the History of Wales? How would John Davies argue against proposals which would see English become a mandatory subject in the Foundation Phase for the first time ever, undermining the practice of immersion which has been so effective in ensuring that fluency in both of our national languages is the norm, not the exception in counties like Ceredigion and Gwynedd? And how should we respond to the Government’s failure to see that a laissez-faire approach does not help efforts to tackle racism in our society?

Unfortunately, we cannot second-guess what John would say to us today about the obvious shortcomings of the Curriculum Bill. 

Perhaps John would argue that if, as some have said, that we ought to teach about “Welsh histories”, not “Welsh history”; then we should also insist that there is not one “Welsh Government”, but many “Welsh Governments”. And, looking at their bafflingly inconsistent approach towards the curriculum, perhaps it is not even accurate to refer to one united government at all.

Syniadau uchelgeisiol, awdurdodol a mentrus.
Helpwch ni i gryfhau sffêr gyhoeddus Cymru.

I, as I’m sure do many of my generation, have fond memories of The Dragon has Two Tongues TV series. The debate between the position taken by the determinist and Marxist Gwyn Alf Williams on the one hand and the unionist view of Wynford Vaughan Thomas on the other. That is what I would consider to be a serious and substantive historical debate between academic experts.

The programme presented genuine and sincere differences in historical perspective, but nobody appeared on that programme to argue that we should refer not to “Welsh history” but to “Welsh histories”. 

This tells us that the way history is interpreted has, of course, many different perspectives. But, in rightly recognising that, it does not have to mean questioning the very validity of a History of Wales as a concept.

The current status quo has failed to give adequate focus to the History of Wales and as a result has deprived generations of our young people of having the ability to view the world through the lens of our own diverse nation. The new curriculum should enable pupils as a basic right to learn about and understand our national story, in all of its rich diversity. It is our responsibility as Members of Wales’ Senedd to realise it.

The truth is that there is, undeniably, a single narrative running through Welsh history in this respect: the history of the Curriculum Bill up to this point is one of centrist and neo-liberal Ministers and civil servants failing to act in the face of these injustices.  But that does not mean we yet cannot change course.

That means accepting that now is not the time for the Labour Welsh Government’s laissez-faire approach to the curriculum, it’s time to act.

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Sian Gwenllian is MS for Arfon and Plaid Cymru's Shadow Minister for Education, Culture and the Welsh Language.

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