MPs call for recognition of Mary Seacole in the history syllabus

Early Day Motion 919 is calling for the revised history curriculum to retain material on the Crimean war heroine, nurse Mary Seacole. You know, like Florence Nightingale, but better, braver and blacker.

If you haven’t heard of Mary Seacole, Horrible Histories, as usual, will tell you everything you need to know.

Was Mary Seacole long ignored by history because of her race? There is a backlash from some quarters suggesting that she is now being over-promoted as an exercise in multiculturalism. But you don’t have to read very much to see how important a story hers is, and the racial dimension also has a lesson for us.

Meanwhile, Florence Nightingale’s contribution to the use of statistics as a descriptive and persuasive tool, including the “invention of the pie-chart” is surely more significant than anything she did as a nurse. Why was she cast by history as a nurse rather than a statistician? Something to do with gender-appropriate roles I guess.

The EDM, at the time of writing is supported by 64 MPs including 11 Liberal Democrats.

* Joe Otten was the candidate for Sheffield Heeley in June 2017 and Doncaster North in December 2019 and is a councillor in Sheffield.

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  • Helen Tedcastle 2nd Feb '13 - 2:54pm

    @ Joe Otten

    A very pertinent issue reminding us that David Cameron and Michael Gove have both denounced multiculturalism in our society. This explains partly, Gove’s zeal for returning History to a version of ‘Our Island Story.’ Religious and ethnic diversity is anathema – probably why both Citizenship and RE have been banished to the twilight zone on the curriculum.

    The Mary Seacole exclusion is just the tip of the iceberg.

  • Julian Critchley 2nd Feb '13 - 2:59pm

    This issue is a bit of a red herring. A lot of people have got themselves worked up about nothing. Essentially, tehre is no current requirement to teach about Seacole in the KS3 curriculum, or the KS4 curriculum. The only “requirement” as such is that any student following the “Medicine Through Time” GCSE curriculum may well look at Seacole while also considering changes to nursing and hospitals in the 19th Century (just one of many units in that syllabus). But bear in mind that most students do not study “Medicine Through Time” at GCSE, and so it’s entirely possible, indeed likely, that currently the majority of students complete their school careers without any knowledge of Seacole’s existence. So the idea that the new curriculum review will rub her out of the curriculum is completely inaccurate. She isn’t actually in it in any compulsory way.

    This does rather raise the question of where does this issue come from ? The answer can be found with the ever-odious Gove. He blatantly used Seacole as a dog-whistle blast to the racist right of the Tory Party. The sort of harumphing Telegraph and Mail readers who whine about “political correctness gone mad” whenever anyone suggest that black people might have any role in history beyond being hapless slaves waiting to be rescued by generous white Victorian Englishmen. Gove instructed his political advisors to brief the Tory press that his review would eliminate certain figures from the curriculum (none of whom were compulsory figures within the curriculum). All of the figures sold to the bigoted right as up-for-the-chop were either women or black. If anyone thinks that’s a coincidence, then they really shouldn’t be in politics !

    LibDems shouldn’t be wasting their time on this. They’re basically signing an EDM demanding that the revised history curriculum should not remove the study of historical figures who are already not on the curriculum. It’s a nonsense. But it does give you – if you remained in any doubt – a very good idea of just exactly how disgusting MIchael Gove is, that whie he pretends to be saviour of “standards” in education, he’s entirely happy to invent non-existent issues in order to use racist dog-whistle politics to further his own ambitions to launch a leadership bid from the right.

  • Richard Dean 2nd Feb '13 - 3:40pm

    Only 11 LibDems? All of them should support this EDM.
    In the longer term, how is it that politicians are allowed to determine what is taught in this level of detail?

  • Surely it is well worth keeping Mary Seacole on the curriculam, not as a nurse, something she never claimed to be but as a diariest and business woman. She left a fascinating book ‘Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands’ possibly Horrible Histories might want to have read it. She certainly doesn’t claim to have nursed people on the battlefield in her book. That is something that is claimed for her in latter books. Mary Seacole went bankrupt in the Crimea she had brought a lot of stores for her Hospital for Offices which she had to sell at bellow cost when the war ended. But she didn’t die as they say ‘a penny less black woman’ the census entery shortly before her death (she had returned to Jamacia and then back to England in 1865) shows her dieing a woman of independent means. She cetainly owned shares including shares in gold mining business she had been left by her husband.

    So unfortunatly Horrible Histories most certainly doesn’t tell us everything we need to know. Mary Seacole actually did that for herself in her own words.

  • Julian Critchley 2nd Feb '13 - 6:42pm

    “Surely it is well worth keeping Mary Seacole on the curriculam”

    I see you didn’t read my earlier comment, so I’ll keep the repetition short :

    Seacole isn’t on the curriculum as a compulsory element. Therefore she cannot be “removed”. Therefore, the EDM is utterly pointless. This was always about Gove blowing the dog-whistle at the Tory right. Don’t be taken in.

  • The curriculum shouldn’t be so prescriptive as to name every figure who should be taught about in history.

  • Julian Critchley 3rd Feb '13 - 11:17am

    @Duncan Stott

    It isn’t, at present. However, I hear rumours coming from the DfE that Gove’s preferred new history curriculum is precisely that : a list of men and battles he believs to be important. Think history as taught in a private school in 1913, and you’ll probably not be far off.

    Coming next, compulsory maps of the world on every classroom wall with the ex-Empire coloured in pink.

  • Paul Holmes 3rd Feb '13 - 1:12pm

    Richard -English politicians gave themselves this power, for the first time, under Margaret Thatcher when Bakers Education Act created the incredibly detailed and prescriptive National Curriculum. Happily for me I had just moved on from being head of a subject department to being head of sixth form at that point and so did not have to personally oversee the implementation of that particular piece of political dictat from central government. This has been slimmed down subsequently but remains very lengthy compared to most Western countries. The Swedish national curriculum is for example just 6 pages long.

    Just before the 2010 General Election Gove made a speech to the Tory Conference in which he lambasted the (Labour) political control of schools and said he would slim down the national curriculum and remove the dead hand of national prescription. Without the slightest pause for breath he them moved straight into saying ‘and in History they must teach this this and this and in English literature they must teach this, this and this’. Needless to say his examples then consisted of patriotic drum and trumpet history and classic works of nineteenth literature with no room for any ‘new fangled’ stuff.

    The leaks that Julian refers to indicate that 3 years on Gove has still not recognised either the contradictions of his Conference speech or that there is a world outside the glories of the British Empire and that there is worthwhile literature in addition to the great traditional texts.

  • Michael Gove is a former journalist and knows exactly what he is doing.. In this case he is taking a none issue to pander to the hidden racism of some members of the middle and upper classes,Every one tries to deny that it exist and that the only racists in Britain are found amongst the lower orders and the like. But as soon as any changes are suggested to the curriculum or anyone tries to say institutional racism has more to to with who is running those institution s than with the mechanics of how they are run, out they pop with a litany old cobblers about the need to maintain “high standards” and to foster a sense of “British identity”,

  • Michael Parsons 4th Feb '13 - 3:50pm

    What about the 22 savagely tortured and martyred black companions of St. Charles who were done to death in Buganda for defendending the right of young men not to be compelled to submit to homosexual advances from the Bugandan paramnount chief? along with other Anglicans their suffering probably explains the roots of African religious opposition to homosexual practices. Or is it only some of the many brave people of colour who need official mention, such as those who helped white soldiers?

  • Julian Critchley 10th Feb '13 - 4:35pm


    The curriculum is now released. It is as I predicted, in fact worse than I predicted – a 4-page list of chronoligical events and names which Gove personally believes children should be taught. It is much bulkier and much more prescriptive than the previous curriculum.

    What’s also interesting is that it actually specifies that Mary Seacole should be taught in primary schools. So despite setting his briefers on to the racist tabloids to play the “end to political correctness gone mad” card, he’s actually made Seacole compulsory where she actually wasn’t ! If that doesn’t rather prove the rather nasty tricks he was up to in his pandering to the frothing right-wing, then I’m not sure what does.

    Gove himself may not be a racist, but he certainly knows how to appeal to the – many – racists in the Tory Party, and is unashamed about doing so.

    As for the diea that this curriculum is “slimmed down”, I can only put it to you that you’ve been successfully taken in by Conservative Central Office’s propaganda machine. It was never going to be slimmer, and it was always going to be more prescriptive – and so it has proved.

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