Decolonising the Primary MFL Curriculum.

Moving beyond diversity

Back in 2012, when I was just a couple of years into my teaching career, I watched ‘Andrew Marr’s History of the World’ on the BBC. The aim of the series was to tell the story of the entirety of human history, starting with the migration of early homo sapiens out of Africa and ending in the present day. What struck me the most about the series was an episode which featured a section on the Haitian Revolution of 1791. It saw enslaved Africans rise up against their French rulers, taking on the colonial might of not just France but also Britain and Spain. By 1804 independence from France had been won (although reparations would still be made to the former colonisers for the “theft” of slaveowner “property” until as recently as 1947), making Haiti the first republic led by black people and effectively signaling the beginning of the end for the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans. I was immediately struck by one question. Why was it I that I had never even heard of the Haitian Revolution, in spite of its profound impact on world history? A little more research soon uncovered other revolts by enslaved Africans in the former British colonies of Jamaica, Grenada and Barbados. Again, I had never heard of them. Clearly, even after studying history to A-Level, and French, and Hispanic Studies as a degree, there were huge gaps is my understanding of the long and complex histories that major European powers had, and continue to have, with their former colonies.

Citadelle Laferrière in Haiti, part of the country’s defense system against possible future French incursions following the Revolution.

The fact that the British education system is very selective when it comes to the history it shares with the young people it claims to educate has been well known by black and minority ethnic (BME) communities for decades. It is the very reason that many such communities have long histories of supplementary schools, which promote an alternative to the version of history taught within the mainstream classroom. For too long, our education system has failed to tackle the thorny issues surrounding colonialism: the violence inflicted on the oppressed peoples of colonised territories, its uncomfortable views on race and the impact it still has in Britain, and many other parts of the globe, today. The murder of George Floyd and subsequent Black Lives Matter protests, seen around the world in the summer of 2020, have reignited debate about the way in which systemic racism, prejudice and lack of representation still affect the lives of minority ethnic groups living in a postcolonial world.

The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests should be making us think again about representation of BME groups within the school curriculum

Unfortunately, often tokenistic gestures of “diversity” or “multiculturalism” take the place of actual, concrete action to address the underlying issues that lead to lack of representation within the curriculum. The problem with the concept of “diversity” is that it is based on the idea that there is a neutral point from which “others” are “diverse” (with the dominant aspect of this “neutrality” being whiteness). The concept of decolonising the curriculum goes further than simply ensuring that there are more black and brown faces in text books and the resources we create. It asks us to move beyond what we think we know, to question things that we may have assumed were fact and to move away from a Eurocentric view of the world.

So what does a decolonised MFL curriculum actually look like? The honest answer is, I don’t fully know because I have never seen one and I certainly don’t have all the answers.

For me personally, one of the first steps has been to re-examine the curriculum offer for MFL in my school and consider how we could help children to explore French as a global language, not just one spoken in France. This has meant forging links with partner schools in different parts of the Francophone world, not just mainland France, and adjusting planning to create units of work which allow learners to explore the cultures of countries like Rwanda, Guadeloupe and Senegal. It has also meant liaising with SLT to set aside time for a designated Semaine de la Francophonie, during which pupils learn more about the history, art and culture of various Francophone nations, drawing on their history and geography skills, alongside language teaching, in a cross-curricular approach. An ‘Art Week’, during which each year group will learn about and recreate the art of a Francophone artist is another move away from more “obvious” European painters such as Monet and Matisse. Importantly though, these topics and themed weeks don’t just stop at the idea of French being a globally-spoken language, but encourage pupils to explore why this might have come to be. How is it that so many countries, in so many different corners of the globe all have the same official language? Does everybody in these countries speak French or are other languages present in the everyday lives of the populations and why might this be? Naturally, such discussions will draw out challenging issues. Can we talk about Carnival in Guadeloupe without addressing the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans, for example?

Guadeloupe is a beautiful island but we must also share with children troubling elements of its past

Whilst, as a primary practitioner, it can seem very difficult to address such topics with young pupils, I am in complete agreement with Lisa Panford and Melina Irvine‘s comment in their recent ALL Language World presentation on decolonising the MFL curriculum, that we need to start our discussions on racism and colonialism as early as possible with primary pupils. This must, of course, be done in an age-appropriate way but it is essential if our children are to move through the education system with an awareness of the causes and current consequences of colonialism.

A decolonised curriculum also requires us to examine seemingly well-known aspects of history from a different perspective. Throughout my high-school history education, I learned about the First and Second World Wars solely through a European lens. I heard about battles in France and Belgium, dictators in Germany and Italy and analysed pictures of white Tommies in trenches. No mention was ever made of the contribution of troops from across the British Empire – as an example, over 1 million Indian soldiers served in World War One and around 2.5 million in World War Two – who fought for Britain and were, at the time, British citizens as a direct result of imperial expansion. The involvement of men from all corners of the globe, coming to fight for the “mother country” is, of course, the reason why we call them “World Wars” but this, to my knowledge, was never made explicit. When we commemorate l’armistice in MFL sessions, can we do so without reference to les tirailleurs sénégalais (West-African soldiers who fought for France) or the contribution of Malagasy troops?

Display of ‘ID cards’ commemorating soldiers from all over the world who fought and died for Britain and France in WW1, created by my Year 3 pupils.

As part of a decolonised curriculum I think it is also important to shine a light on the cultural achievements of former colonies, in spite of the oppressions of their colonial pasts. From Léopold Senghor’s philosophy of négritude in Senegal, to the resident artists of Kigali’s Inema Arts Centre and the Simón Bolívar orchestra of Venezuela, many groups in the global south have successfully reimagined culture for a postcolonial age and this is something that, as teachers, we must help our pupils to discover. In doing so, we enable learners to challenge their own misconceptions about life in countries which they may have – consciously or unconsciously – considered “poor”, “backward”, or “lacking in culture.”

With this in mind, we must also be conscious of the images of people or places that we expose our pupils to, ensuring that we do not fall into the trap of presenting tired tropes, which do not represent the current reality of the country which they claim to depict. When we show children pictures or video clips of Côte d’Ivoire, do we show images of bustling Abidjan with its skyscrapers, alongside the beautiful beaches, rubber plantations and the national football team? The danger of a single narrative is well-documented but it is inevitable, especially when talking about places that we have never visited, that we may fall back onto unhelpful stereotypes ourselves. This is why creating links with partner schools can be so beneficial, not only for the pupils but for teachers too. I will often ask my colleagues in partner institutions questions about a particular unit of work and I hope in the future to be able to do more collaborative planning of units.

Decolonising in terms of MFL, or indeed any area of the curriculum, involves teachers and school leaders reflecting critically on what they think they already know, taking into consideration their own points of reference and bias and being prepared to admit that they do not have all the answers. Ultimately, it is a question of pluralising, creating greater equality and designing a curriculum in which all learners see themselves reflected. We should be aiming to create a curriculum which inspires all learners, enabling every pupil, no matter what their background or the colour of their skin, to achieve the best possible outcomes.

For more information around the subject of decolonising the curriculum and what it is like to grow up black and British, I have found the following really informative.

Aisha Thomas’s 2020 Ted Talk The Importance of Representation in Education

Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire by Akala.

Brit(ish) by Afua Hirsch

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