A censorship row has broken out after the English department at one of Scotland’s top state secondary schools signalled its intention to scrap lessons on classic texts because of their “dated” approach to race.
Allan Crosbie, curriculum leader for the subject at James Gillespie’s High in Edinburgh, said he and his colleagues had decided they no longer want to teach John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird to third year pupils.
Instead, classes are likely to focus on works such as Angie Thomas’ award-winning novel The Hate U Give, which grew out of a short story written in response to the 2009 police shooting of Oscar Grant.
The move is aimed at supporting efforts to “decolonise” the curriculum, with greater emphasis placed on material and learning strategies that challenge white or Western-centric influences and better represent the full range of human experience.
It has also sparked alarm among critics, who are concerned about the apparent sidelining of what are generally considered to be seminal texts. The Scottish Conservatives said schools had the responsibility to “educate, not dictate”.
However, Mr Crosbie told the EIS union’s online AGM that there was a strong rationale for the move. He said: “Probably like every English department in the country, we still have Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird [on] the shelves.
“They are now taught less frequently because those novels are dated and problematical in terms of decolonising the curriculum… Their lead characters are not people of colour.
“The representation of people of colour is dated, and the use of the N-word and the use of the… white saviour motif in Mockingbird – these have led us as a department to decide that these really are not texts we want to be teaching third year anymore.”
The remarks come amid a growing debate about how to tackle prejudice and racism in education.
Stephen Kelly, headteacher at Liberton High and secondary headteacher representative on Edinburgh Council’s Equalities Board, told The Herald that curricular decolonisation would help address key issues around inclusion and equality.
“Our school has become much more diverse, which I think is a good thing,” he said. “And when we present our curriculum, and if I’m a young black person in my school… and I’m looking at the curriculum, be it English, be it history, be it modern studies, be it whatever, do I see myself represented?
“So, Laurence Fox went on a rant about the film 1917, and how it was woke-ism gone mad because they had included loads of Asian actors. And the fact is that, actually, when you look at the First World War, more Indians fought on the Allied side than Canada, Australia and New Zealand put together. Now I didn’t know that. That’s certainly not represented in any sort of media… There’s lots of things celebrating the contribution of the Empire in the First World War, but it tends to be mostly white. And you go, ‘right ok – why is that?’”
He added: “Decolonising the curriculum – I’m not sure it’s such a great name because I think it refers directly to Britain’s role in Empire and colonies, and the, I suppose, big cultural messages around how we see ourselves. I think that’s what it means and that’s what it comes from – but I think it’s wider than that.
“So, for us, it’s about developing an anti-racist culture that recognises… notions of stereotyping, notions of white-centric attitudes, notions of white people being more important, notions of representation.”
Mr Kelly also rejected suggestions that the approach involves or amounts to censorship. However, he stressed that using certain texts would require a “critical lens”.
“I’m not saying that we’d ban To Kill a Mockingbird or Of Mice and Men,” he added. “But if you were going to teach something around what white saviourism actually is, you might use these books as an example.”
Others have voiced disquiet at Mr Crosbie’s comments. Oliver Mundell, of the Scottish Conservatives, said: “I believe that completely removing certain works from the syllabus would be a mistake. Before imposing any form of censorship, we should have a meaningful debate about what the policy for excluding specific books should be. Rather than denying children access to specific works of literature, perhaps we should introduce them with a subtext highlighting how times have changed and what we can learn from them. Schools have the responsibility to educate, not dictate.”
Jo Bisset, organiser for campaign group UsForThem Scotland, said: “If we want Scottish pupils to be the best, then they have to [have the] very best materials from which to learn. Censorship or book-banning is not going to help a single child in Scotland fulfil their potential.”
Lindsay Paterson, Professor of Education Policy at Edinburgh University, said: “I have no comment on an individual school or teacher.
“On the general principle, the key point here is the skill of the teacher in setting texts in context. The best way for students to understand that attitudes were different in the past is to read the great works of literature of the past, just as students of the future will read the great works of today to understand our times.
“Unless students are exposed to attitudes that are now morally repugnant, they will not truly understand that we have made important moral progress.”
Professor Rowena Arshad – one of Scotland’s top experts on education, race and equality – told The Herald that Scotland was at the start of its journey towards a decolonised curriculum. “It probably is in the embryonic stages,” she said. “It has to move beyond the inclusion and diversity discourse to actually grappling with decolonising. So initial teacher education providers – the places where teachers should be training and educated on these approaches – that work, I think, still needs to be developed.”
Eileen Prior, executive director of parents’ organisation Connect, said it was important that texts in English lessons are “relevant, meaningful and engaging”.
She added: “Ideally, teachers and young people should have a wide range of texts from which to choose. Whilst difficult texts can be useful in raising important issues, this requires in-depth study and enough time to look into historical and social contexts.
“Curriculum for Excellence promised some opportunities for young people to choose their set texts. In the same way that young people may turn away from texts they can’t engage with, it doubles the challenge if teachers don’t wish to teach a text for legitimate reasons.
“Only teachers know if they have enough time to cover context adequately, to look at issues such as slavery, colonisation, violence against women, racism, class, discrimination and so on.”
Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville said: “We have committed to the development of education resources and support on Scotland and the UK’s colonial history throughout the world that can be delivered to schools, and we are creating a new programme of anti-racist education in schools, including support for teachers’ professional development, allowing every school to access high quality, anti-racist education.
“Curriculum Reform will be a key aspect of the programme… to ensure that our education systems and our curriculum are embedding and promoting anti-racism at every opportunity.”