The Mary Seacole debate: a teacher’s view of the primary curriculum

Article first published on the Guardian website 10th january, 2013

There has been a lot of ink spilt in the last couple of days over Michael Gove’s decision to apparently ditch Mary Seacole from the primary national curriculum.

The story first emerged from a leak to the Daily Mail and then gathered momentum, spreading across the whole of the national media and the internet, causing much consternation and gnashing of teeth. However, in all the noise very little has been heard from the teaching profession. Why is this?

My hunch is that teachers do not view this argument as educationally important but rather as an empty balloon inflated by politicians and launched by journalists for reasons of politics and circulation. This is not the same, let me be clear, as saying Mary Seacole is not historically important or her story should not be taught in schools, this is a separate argument, which I’ll return to later. My point is teachers view this whole kerfuffle as a non-argument having more educationally important and pressing things to worry about when it comes to the government’s curriculum review. Let me explain.

The first thing to make clear is that studying Mary Seacole is not mandatory in the current national curriculum. She appears in the appendix section of key stage 2 history, along with Florence Nightingale, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and David Livingston (among others) as an example of a person who had significant impact on Victorian Britain. This is important because these individuals are part of the non-mandatory guide for a school’s own units of study, not a statutory required component of every child’s education.

The second thing is just how large the key stage 2 history curriculum is. In four years, from year 3 to year 6, children are required to make three studies from 2,000 years of British history, as well as a European history study and a world history study. This is in addition to developing a grounding in science, geography, art, design, technology and music; practicing physical education and becoming proficient in reading, writing, mathematics and ICT. The point is, when designing a school curriculum with all this to teach it is inevitable that some things will have to be left out.

This is well understood inside teaching and was appreciated by the original designers of the 2001 curriculum. It is why the ‘examples’ section of the history curriculum is discretionary and not statutory. And why Mary Seacole is taught in some schools and not others.

Curriculum design is a professional activity. When a teacher designs a scheme of work for a class over a year they have to take into account a complex array of different factors, including the interests and capabilities of the children, available resources, local history, and (but not exclusively) the requirements of the national curriculum. In key stage 2, because of the amount of content in history, it is more important than ever to make the subject an important priority. This is why many children study a series of history topics between year 3 and year 6.

During this whole process for many teachers the overriding concern is for their students to have a meaningful and productive experience. Since the subject is so large there is a very real danger they will study a lot and learn nothing. To counteract this teachers plan for depth as well as breadth, designing learning opportunities for students to investigate into the units of study; asking questions, interpreting events, and exploring outcomes. Many go further and plan activities for their students to share their learning with others; building exhibitions, making plays, films, books and inviting in parents for themed assemblies. In this way the statutory requirements of the history curriculum are made accessible, memorable and understandable to their students. This is what teachers are trained for and is a significant part of their professional responsibilities.

History should be a subject every child loves, if not then something has gone wrong in the teaching, and no one inside education is interested in turning it into a tedious list of kings and dates. Including, it seems, Mr Gove. The challenge, for both schools and curriculum designers, is to take the vast amount that we want children to learn and make it meaningful, memorable and useful. The danger at the moment is we could spend all our time squabbling and arguing over the details, while ignoring the really important questions.

Which brings us back to Mary Seacole. I’m a primary school teacher, currently teaching year 4. I’m teaching the Anglo-Saxons this year, but if I was teaching the Victorians I would have no problem getting Mary Seacole into the curriculum, along with Robert Owen, Charles Dickens, and Robert Stephenson. Not because she is a particularly key historical figure, in the way the Duke of Wellington, Gladstone, or Queen Victoria might be considered, but because she represents an important shift in values, morals and beliefs that happened during the 19th century and are still important to the way we see the world today.

Part of what I would want my students to study is how our country started the century kidnapping and exporting African slaves to America, hanging children for stealing loaves of bread, and imprisoning whole families for being poor. But ended it, through the courage and conviction of brave and committed individuals and organisations outlawing these practices and becoming a better and far more enlightened country because of them.

For me, Mary Seacole’s story is one too good and important to miss. But then I have the same attitude to Florence Nightingale and Elizabeth Fry. I see my job not to tell children what to think or to give them a collection of dates and names, but to create meaningful and engaging contexts to frame their learning and help them make meaning. This is the job of a teacher. If not then they might as well read a book or watch a documentary.

In my view the Mary Seacole row misses the point because it focuses on the content of the national curriculum rather than its purpose. It’s an unnecessary diversion. Good teachers will teach children about Mary Seacole when they study the Victorians not because they have to, but because she represents an important change in British culture and society.

Which brings me to my final point. What we should be having at the moment is a wide-ranging national debate, involving teachers, parents, students, academics, and others (including journalists and politicians) to agree principles and foundations for a modern effective curriculum. What we have instead is a secret cabal of chosen advisers meeting behind closed doors and a series of strategically leaked missives designed to mislead and upset. Personally, I don’t think this serves Mr Gove’s interests well or, more importantly, the interests of education. What teachers want, above all else, is to be listened to and respected for their professional expertise and knowledge.

Is it too much for us to ask to be included in the debate on changes that will shape education for a generation?

Tim Taylor is an AST working in Norwich, a visiting lecturer at Newcastle University and a teaching and learning consultant for the website mantle of the expert. He edits and writes for


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