Dem tell me wha dem want to tell me

Written by: Anjum Peerbacos | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The new guidance on political impartiality in the classroom seems designed to strike the fear of God into teachers for stating certain facts and to prevent them from saying anything deemed anti-establishment, says Anjum Peerbacos

Yesterday I was teaching the famous and fantastic poem by John Agard Checking Out Me History. And I’ve taught this poem on numerous occasions to numerous classes and students across the years.

But today, I had to stop and pause and just take a moment to think about what I was saying to the students in front of me.

The students asked me: “Miss, what’s wrong?”

I replied by asking: “Did you watch the news last week?” and they said “yeah Miss, Russia”.

“Yes, but did you see or hear about the news in education? What was happening in education?”

They had no idea what I was referring to. I told them what education secretary Nadhim Zahawi had said regarding the new guidance around impartiality in schools (DfE, 2022). I explained how he had said that as teachers it is not a good idea to state your opinion in a classroom, and that teachers need to be able to retain impartiality.

Their response? “But we don’t mind Miss, you can tell us we won’t tell anyone!”

I loved that! It was hilarious, but I responded by saying that would not be appropriate: “I have a professional duty and I have to be respectful of what I am teaching you, in this position of responsibility.”

They didn’t understand so I broke it down for them: “Imagine you are much younger and in primary school, and maybe year 1 or 2 and somebody says to me: ‘Miss which football team do you support?’ and I say I support XYZ and then they think well Miss supports XYZ so they must be good, so maybe I should support them too.”

My students responded: “I haven’t heard of team XYZ, they sound good.” Sometimes I love working with young people!

Jokes aside, I think the analogy helped them understand why I could not share my opinion on certain things.

However, the problem here is highlighted by the teaching of Checking Out Me History. It is a protest poem.

Often in history when politics and politicians do not better a situation, the arts are an avenue to exercise the various forms of protest.

Artists, poets, musicians, writers have been creating art throughout time to demonstrate their discontent, their anger and their frustration with the state of affairs. Shakespeare did it, hell even Chaucer did it. And now in the 21st century Agard is doing it.

He is stating categorically in his poem that the current curriculum, in particular the history curriculum, is not fit-for-purpose. How am I supposed to teach this poem impartially?

Dem tell me
Dem tell me
Wha dem want to tell me

Bandage up me eye with me own history
Blind me to my own identity

Dem tell me bout 1066 and all dat
dem tell me bout Dick Whittington and he cat
But Touissant L’Ouverture
no dem never tell me bout dat

He condemns the teaching of nonsense nursery rhymes and anecdotes about Dick Whittington and “he cat”, and rightly so. Students do not learn about the others mentioned in the poem: Mary Seacole and Nanny de Maroon or Toussaint L’Overture. These are iconic figures in history who fought the odds against the huge might of the colonial powers at the time.

And don’t get me started on the colonial history, or lack of, in the current history curriculum. Agard’s poem specifically states “Dem tell me” and I asked the students: “Who do you think the ‘Dem’ is that he is referring to?”

The answers I got included: teachers, school, politicians, government.

They were quite disappointed to learn that I did not determine their curriculum, even in my subject, and I had to explain that at GCSE and A level the curriculum is determined and decided by politicians and government policy advisors, not teachers or even headteachers.

As a child of migrants, I only learned of the sordid details of Britain’s colonial past when I chose to study it at university as an optional module within my English and history degree.

If my parents had not told me about their direct experiences living in India, then my knowledge of the impact Britain had would have been non-existent until the age of 20. I do not know how to teach these aspects of contextual knowledge in a manner which is “impartial”. I can and do present the facts and I let the students draw their own conclusions.

One cannot help but wonder if the government’s thinking and rationale behind this guidance is more to ensure that the next generation does not question, does not think, does not critique and criticise the movements that they are witnessing around them.

The #BlackLivesMatter movement, for example, the teaching of which, the guidance states, could risk being categorised as partisan political views. However, we don’t need to look at the USA – we have our own racist history right here in the UK. The Bristol Bus Boycott, the New Cross Fires, and the Stephen Lawrence murder to name just three.

We definitely have our own demons to deal with. It appears that our esteemed education secretary does not want our students to learn about the skeletons in our national closet, perhaps because, as it stands, the current government does not come out smelling of roses.

This is the future electorate that we are dealing with. Should we not discuss these or any other issues that arise in the news?

The recent news has involved the criminal investigation of “partygate” and the scandal surrounding prime minister Boris Johnson’s alleged breaking of lockdown rules. Indeed, the furore that seemingly led to the guidance being rushed out came after pupils in Nottingham dared criticise the prime minister’s hypocrisy.

But students are very engaged and often do not give us a choice about having these kind of discussions – so just how do we discuss these current affairs impartially?

Mr Zahawi has said that “no subject is off-limits in the classroom” but it seems that the guidance is there to strike the fear of God into teachers for stating facts and home truths and to prevent them from saying anything that may be deemed anti-establishment.

As the National Education Union’s Dr Mary Bousted said in this very magazine: “The guidance does not so much clarify existing guidance as add new layers of mystification and complexity to it. This could induce such a level of uncertainty and caution in schools about ‘political issues’ that they are less likely to engage with them.”

Or in the words of Penny Rabiger (@Penny_Ten): “The main takeaway is that the 35 pages of government guidance on impartiality is designed specifically to strike fear in the hearts of teachers, leaders, and governors of schools. To ensure they don't get caught out, they will simply avoid anything which might be seen as risky.”

In earnest, I wish the next generation knowledge, wisdom and insight before they are able to cast their future votes.

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