issue 248 - October 1993
Lives of Love and Hope
Conservatives are reshaping the curriculum in many parts of the Western world.
But in the inner cities teachers, parents and pupils are fighting back.
Headteacher Chris Searle puts the case for resistance by looking
at a project of just the kind the New Right wishes to extinguish.
In the hearts of our inner cities are classrooms of the world, and the world beats in our classrooms. Such was the belief of a group of inner-city teachers and pupils in a school in Sheffield, UK, when they conceived the idea of a book: Lives of Love and Hope. They aimed to counter the new conservative ethos that told teachers, in the words of John Major, the Prime Minister, ‘not to waste their time on the politics of gender, race and class’, but to get on instead with the introduction of a curriculum severed from community.
In 1988, Kenneth Baker, then Secretary of State for Education, proclaimed that ‘the age of egalitarianism is over’. He was signalling the beginning of the Thatcherite conservative restoration in British education. Four years later Major was moving still further, telling teachers from the podium of the 1992 Conservative Party Conference to get on with buttressing the market system of education, preparing students for a prescribed National Curriculum, and faithfully testing it at the ages of 7, 11, 14 and 16 – while having both eyes fixed upon their schools’ progress up the examination league tables.
This British era of ‘conservative restoration’ in education is part of a general rightward political and cultural swing across Europe (with its revival of violent racism) and North America. The usual process of the UK aping the US has been reversed in educational policy, as many American state education authorities begin to study and emulate the restrictive and centralizing example of the British National Curriculum.
In Britain itself the market has begun to tighten its grip on education, as schools are enticed to opt for semi-independent status. Among the first victims of this practice are the large numbers of inner-city school-age children – as many as 66,000, according to one survey1 – who are being set aside as soiled goods and permanently excluded from school. The more schools have to sell themselves as attractive, efficient units in the marketplace the less inclined they are to take on school students with discipline (or any other) problems – and the more the principle of compulsory education for all is undermined.
A disastrous scenario, it seems, for progressive teachers and those schools genuinely determined to serve their students and communities. Yet today, many of the priorities and plans of the Conservative Government are in ruins. Teachers and headteachers throughout Britain are boycotting national tests and ignoring the command curriculum – and have just won a key battle, forcing the Government to abandon the idea of testing at 7 and 14. They reject the identity of being, as the American educationalist Michael Apple has put it, ‘the factory hands’ of the classroom, ‘whose duty it is to carry out mechanically and unquestioningly the ideas and orders of those clothed with the authority of position’ in the reconstructed marketplace of state education.
During the previous two decades many teachers had sought to reconcile what is taught in inner-city schools with the real lives of those with whom they shared their classrooms. They rejected models of streaming and constant competitive testing, developing instead more accurate, humane and motivating means of student assessment. Progressive teachers worked to use education to give authority to the life experience and intellectual strength of ordinary working people and their communities.
Although these approaches have taken a battering since 1988, they are still alive and kicking in many of Britain’s schools. Lives of Love and Hope is in itself evidence of this. The title was taken from a poem by Emteaz Hussain, a young Pakistani woman, who wrote:
‘And we were raised in the life of love
Because I was born the daughter of a
And the baby of a mother with the name
And I was raised in the light and I was
born to fight...’
They are part of an oral history and herstory campaign to tell the lives of the mothers and grandmothers of the children at Sheffield’s Earl Marshal Comprehensive School. They were translated from at least five mother tongues, transcribed and edited by the students, and they speak proudly of struggle and endurance: flight from civil war in Somalia; the blinding of a young husband in the anti-colonial war against the British in Yemen; or the life of a miner’s family in a UK pit village.
These stories affirm the school’s internationalism and that of its constituent communities. They promote its anti-racism and they exemplify the importance given to ‘story’ as a vital form of critical literacy by Brazilian educator Paulo Freire. The stories in Lives of Love and Hope are the world’s stories, part of a universal curriculum that finds identity and pride in telling about being a human in the world.
Women from so many places on earth show in the stories the unity of their experience of childcare, drudgery, enterprise, rebellion, migration; of endless work and struggle. They also speak as one in their individual voices about the importance of education for those who come after – an education which they were mostly denied.
The stories gave the students new understandings of their mothers’ lives and spurred them on into further study. But they also contributed toward their exams – they were an important factor in the powerful improvement in English examination results since the previous year. An enormous amount of effort had been put into the stories. A Bengali girl, whose father’s antipathy towards her studying made it extremely difficult for her to work at home, transcribed her story sitting in bed in a cold room in the early hours of the morning – the only time when she could work undisturbed and unprovoked. A Somali boy, who had been a refugee in an Ethiopian camp and had arrived in Britain two years before with no English at all, passed his exam despite a bout of tuberculosis that kept him away from school for two months.
The success of the herstories on so many different levels illustrates how important it is for the state to listen to the people, and allow them – alongside their teachers – to create a framework for their own education. As Marx wrote prophetically over a century ago: ‘the state has need of a very stern education by the people.’ And people in the inner cities are now demanding more resources for education. They are demanding curricula which reflect their own needs and priorities, asking for new perspectives of knowledge which affirm their own past and guide them towards the future.
Through projects like Lives of Love and Hope, they are making pathways of curriculum and process around such life-affecting issues as racism, unemployment, attacks on health and on the environment, sexism, and the social desperation that leads directly to increased crime and drug abuse. They are struggling against the contempt for cultures and languages that are seen as ‘un-British’, with its Churchillian and Thatcherite contentions about ‘halting the relentless flow of immigrants... if we are to preserve the British way of life’.
We should be developing a critical and life-opening form of education and literacy, where each new word or number signals a hope for greater understanding, choice and involvement in the betterment of community life and individual fulfilment. Such a curriculum and its active implementation is not an ideal: it is a practical aim, a real strategy. But it needs inner-city schools to show leadership by actively resisting the narrow confines of the National Curriculum. This means involving parents, teachers and students – the people and the professionals – in a constant process of co-operatively building new curriculum projects and consolidating within the school new knowledges of language, history and culture.
It will be a curriculum where campaigning is education. And the campaign must be against the state agencies who want to tell communities what their children should learn – who seek to rubber-stamp ‘official knowledge’ on the hearts of inner cities and outlaw the ideas, democratic processes and truths which are expressed in their culture and history. We must hold up our alternative so that it exposes this form of dictatorship; we must develop and present our own examples of liberation and achievement in education forged by ordinary people all over the world.
Chris Searle is headteacher of the Earl Marshal Comprehensive School in Sheffield, UK.
1 On Out of Class, a BBC Panorama programme.
Why did the chicken cross the computer?
The image on the computer screen flickers. A chicken squawks in protest and flutters out from behind the machine. The school has been sent modern equipment and its only electric point is old-fashioned, designed for a chunkier plug; a flustered chicken can easily cut off the power. Luckily the computer has its own batteries; the teacher using it can save the letter he is writing before carefully rebalancing the plug and carrying on.
The computer is the latest addition to the school link set up in 1984 between Katumba II school in Tanzania and Peers School in the UK. Children from both schools have been visiting each other now for nearly 10 years. The new computer at Katumba can be connected to another at Peers by using electronic mail, or E-mail.
Staff at both schools value the link, whether it uses E-mail or sticks to old-fashioned letters. A deputy head at Peers commented: ‘It changes the lives of the kids who go. It makes them completely re-think their values. They give away their jeans and their watches, and come back saying they are going to stop buying things they don’t need. Of course, once they are back old habits gradually take over, but some things stick. They will always be more prepared to question what they see happening around them.’
A visit to the UK is just as much of an eye-opener for Katumba students. Many are struck by the way people rush around, by all the gear they need even to enjoy themselves, by the fact that there is still countryside.
Staff at Katumba had seen what computers could do for Peers and were asking for training before the British Telecom grant which funded this project came up. Being new, Katumba’s machine is more powerful than most of the equipment at Peers, and already seems to be making the link more equal. This year the Tanzanians are hosting the visit. As always, the programme was negotiated with Peers staff; for the first time the plans were word-processed and printed at Katumba.
‘Is that Peers’ computer?’ asked a Tanzanian student watching the machine print something out. Told it belonged to her school she was delighted: for once they had a piece of equipment they could be proud of.
Realizing the full potential of the new technology will take time. This is a pilot project, aiming to give a clearer idea of the problems as well as the benefits. So far it has taken a year of frustrating effort to get the kit to Tanzania and set it up. Once the E-mail is working smoothly the first exchanges will be between individual students, sharing likes and dislikes, their daily routine and what their neighbourhood is like. This fits in to a Social Studies course at Peers; it is also part of finding out whether talking via the computer can provide the sort of challenges and insights that are such a valued part of the visits.
Already Peers students have started to wonder if they should let on how materially well-off they are. A debate on whether to mention the number of rooms in your house was settled by talking to a Tanzanian visitor. He explained that in Tanzania only fools built extra rooms unless they had people to fill them. Having a large tree in your courtyard was much more likely to be seen as a status symbol: people do most of their socializing outside and congregate where there is a lot of shade. In the future E-mail should ensure this sort of chance to learn about another culture is available every week and is open to students who would never have dreamed of taking part in a visit.
Once the introductory work is over students will be swapping information about their local environment and how well it is or is not cared for. At Katumba this will be turned into a billboard display which any interested students can use for reference. At Peers it will become a magazine supporting the Geography course.
The long-term effects of introducing E-mail are harder to predict. Katumba’s mail will be sent through a newly established health-workers’ network in Dar-es-Salaam. The school may decide to use the set-up to improve communications with Dar and, as the network grows, with the rest of Tanzania. News, research and resources from all over Africa, from all over the world, could be automatically left on the Katumba computer at their request. The Katumba-Peers E-mail link is an attempt to give one rural Tanzanian primary school a say – and to make it easier for others to follow.
Alison Norris is a worker at the Oxford Development Education Centre.