Political education should be embedded in the FE curriculum

21 Mar 2022, 6:00

Without a counter-narrative from educators, students can believe inaccurate versions of the world, writes Maxine Looby

One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learnt as a teacher is never to assume what I think my students know.

With the internet at their disposal, students have the world at their fingertips, and at the very least we would assume they have a basic understanding of significant world events. It’s a very easy assumption to make.

I was teaching my students about the Holocaust when it soon became clear that out of about 15 students, only two had heard about this horrendous, globally significant event. My students speak English as a second language, and come from all over the world.

They were very moved and shocked. Sadly, as with the Holocaust, significant numbers of my students have had to flee war and persecution. But outside of my ESOL class, I think you’d also find this across the board, with many students.

There needs to be a real commitment to teach students about socio-political and historical events and contexts. Students often don’t have a clear understanding of what’s happening in the wider world, or their local history. 

One takeaway for me from these lessons is the genuine interest and gratitude students show when given the opportunity to learn. 

I also taught a class recently about the local history of Oldham, in our programme of study in ESOL called Skills for Life. Learning about past history and how this links to the local economy and current unemployment rates should be integral to learning.

Oldham was once the world’s manufacturing centre for spinning cotton. Being able to physically reference some of the cotton mills from the classroom window brings that history alive, and it also directly pays respect to the Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities who came to Oldham and worked long hours in those same mills to help to build the economy.

It’s especially important that all students from Oldham understand the history and context, because it’s a very multicultural town but division and racist attitudes still exist. Local history gives all of our students a sense of pride and purpose.

One student from South America came up to me after the lesson and said, “Thank you.” When I asked her why, she said, “I would never know this, and I appreciate all the work Asian people did when they came to this country to help me have a better life now.” 

For International Women’s Day, I focused on two extraordinary but little-known women. 

Amy Garvey was a feminist from the Caribbean, and one of only two women to chair the Pan African Congress, in 1945. She was also an author, educator, theatre producer, restaurant and club owner and executive of the Black Star Line ship. She edited the first newspaper for African Caribbean communities in the UK and campaigned tirelessly for equality for girls and women.

It shouldn’t be up to an individual teacher to be interested enough

Jayaben Desai was a factory worker who led a two-year strike in the 1970s against the way Asian women were being treated unfairly in the workplace, including being paid less than their white counterparts and having to request to use the toilet. At one point, 20,000 demonstrators joined in her protest. No one in any of my classes had heard of her. One my male students said, “Wow, that’s a strong woman!”

This kind of learning challenges sexist attitudes, and it’s also important for my women students. Some of them have faced very difficult or similar struggles coming to this country.

The real problem is that socio-political education is not embedded in the FE curriculum, or in the school curriculum. There’s no requirement to teach students a rounded understanding of the world, or why things are like they are now. 

It shouldn’t be up to an individual teacher to be interested enough or understand the importance to bother to teach it. Without a counter-narrative from educators, they can believe versions that are inaccurate and which fuel tensions between communities.

Otherwise, too many of our students are only hearing one side of the story about their local area or wider global events.

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