Reform of the National Curriculum in England

Reform of the National Curriculum in England, document 7 February 2013, Consultation

We are a group of individuals concerned about the teaching of particular figures in the history of the Nineteenth century. We wish to comment therefore on only a very limited part of your consultation i.e. that concerning the teaching on Mary Seacole and Florence Nightingale, as covered in Key Stages 1-4. We note in particular the lack of clarity on the treatment of History in Key Stage 4 and hope that it will be resolved in due course. We will make brief comments on the approach.

1.1 Introduction.

The references to “rigour” and “high standards” are welcome. The major point we wish to make concerns the extremely faulty treatment of both Nightingale and Seacole, especially the latter, when material is used that is not merely factually wrong, but reflects the massive amount of misinformation currently in circulation about her. We refer you to: http:/ for numerous examples
and ‘Nursing’s Bitter Rivalry,’ History Today, Sept 12, pp.11-16, McDonald,L.

The point about allowing teachers “greater freedom to use their professionalism and expertise” only makes sense if the teachers are well prepared, but on this subject, that is far from true. Misinformation about Seacole has been taught from the beginning in the National Curriculum, is on numerous websites, including those of apparently reputable bodies like the National Army Museum, the National Portrait Gallery and the National Archives. The BBC has produced and broadcast films with appalling factual lapses on Seacole, coupled typically with unfounded remarks about Nightingale.

It is essential therefore that the Department for Education examine the sources on both persons and ensure that accurate information is made available to teachers. BBC Radio 3 Night Waves on 2nd April 2013

2.3 Core subjects.

We join with other critics in deploring the proposed dropping of History at Key Stage 4. In the case of Nightingale, only students at this level would be able to deal with some of her core ideas and principles, on public health, the use of statistics in policy making, and the Crimean War itself (which should not be dropped from the curriculum for many reasons of relevance). Nightingale was the first woman Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society, thanks to her pioneering work charting the causes of death in war hospitals, and showing the far greater size of preventable causes of death from wounds and non-preventable disease. This could conceivably be covered in science and mathematics, but it is not clear how, given the wording of “information and computing” as opposed to conceptualizing research questions and finding data to answer them.

4.1 “equalities impact of the reforms”

We note that Nightingale was a major thinker and social reformer, a pioneer of public health care (not just nursing) and a data user. Women are badly under-represented in the curriculum, so that giving her more heed would help to redress this inequality. It is good for both girls and boys to see effective world leaders who were women, as she was.

6.3 Teacher freedom to shape own curriculum

On this point, we again note that on the subjects of Nightingale and Seacole, this would be wrong at the present time, given the level of knowledge of current teachers on both of them. It is essential that good sources be developed, which will require reference to reliable material and consultation with experts, as opposed to reliance on websites that promote a campaign, using false claims, for a person.

9.1-4. Equality

This is a valid objective of the curriculum. However the end does not justify the means, and the promotion of a person, Mary Seacole, to provide black pupils with a role model, creates great problems, given that Seacole was three quarters white, married a white man, had a white business partner and all white customers, and made disparaging remarks about people whose skin colour was markedly darker than her own, even using the ‘n’ word when describing them. It is wrong to give children false information, even if the motive is an honourable one. In the case of black role models in nursing, there are valid black role models; such women as the Nigerian pioneer nurse, Mrs K.A. Pratt. There are other persons of colour noted on the website Children need role models, but the use of fake models shows disrespect both for the pupils, and indeed for Seacole, who was an honourable and admirable person, surely deserving of respect, but not adulation for bravery or for pioneering nursing.

Examples of flawed, misleading materials.

  1. The BBC. Famous People. See Lesson Plan Mary Seacole. Objectives are to produce an account of her life and make comparisons between her and Florence Nightingale. But the BBC’s own films and online resources are flagrantly wrong. In Activities, children are to write picture and word sentences about Seacole. Examples are available online that show that she is credited with medals (a typical error), pioneering nursing, etc. Seacole called herself a “doctress,” not a nurse, and ran a restaurant/bar/takeaway, and did catering for officers, as opposed to running a hospital, at her own expense, for ordinary soldiers.
  2. BBC Learning Zone Broadband Class Clips. The work of Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole, drama. This has Charles Dickens doing a chat show about changes to healthcare and medical science (did you know he sent Nightingale a drying machine to the Crimean War to assist in her laundry? which is not mentioned). The misinformation states: “We learn about new methods in nursing from Mary Seacole and Florence Nightingale, who nursed soldiers wounded in the Crimean War.” Neither pioneered nursing methods there, and Seacole did not nurse at all. She is then described as being “equipped with healing knowledge from her Jamaican mother,” although she herself acknowledged that she used acetate of lead and mercury chloride in her remedies, substances which would be deleterious to the cholera patient, and which are not “herbal”. She is said to have “travelled alone to nurse soldiers on the battlefield and set up a rest home for soldiers in the Crimea.” She probably travelled with her two black employees, and she missed the three major battles of the war, as she was busy in London tending to her gold stocks when the war started. She set up a store/restaurant/bar and takeaway, not a rest home, and her meals, etc., were available for purchase, at a high price; her customers were officers. On three occasions she described going on to the battlefield to sell food and drink, when she also took bandages and gave first aid. She was kind and generous, not charging for those who could not pay, but it is a gross exaggeration to call this running a rest home for soldiers. A minor point, FN did not set up the hospital in Scutari; it was established by the Army Medical Department before she arrived, and was woefully defective.
  3. The National Archives has agreed to amend its website, which has numerous errors on it. Claire Horrie at can provide further examples

Other material showing errors can be found in a 2012 History Today article: and a newspaper story:

Concluding comments

In the Department for Education Response (case reference 2013/0011463) Pauline Shaw, of the Ministerial and Public Communications Division states that “essential knowledge” will include the teaching of British history and significant individuals who have helped shape that history. Florence Nightingale qualifies mightily here, not only as the founder of nursing (who influenced nursing throughout the world and is still actively taught in many countries, but sadly not in the nursing curriculum in the UK!), but also the principles of health care and health promotion, evidence-based health care, graphic presentation of data, hospital reform (again, her work changed hospitals throughout the world) and public administration. She contributed also on status of women issues, suffrage, property rights, access to education and occupations. She was a force on reform in India for 40-years plus, arguing for better health care, sanitation, famine prevention and relief, and the status of women (e.g. child marriage and widowhood). Nightingale was a leading thinker, greatly respected by male political, health care and social reform leaders.

Mary Seacole simply does not qualify as a person who had a significant impact on British history. She gave of her time and energy to give comfort and alleviate suffering during the Crimean War, but her main occupation there was as a businesswoman, running a restaurant/bar/takeaway for officers.

The Crimean War should not be dropped from the curriculum. It was a significant war in British history, one with a high death rate, amazingly enough which was brought down in the second year of the war thanks to the effective use of a sanitary commission. Government in Britain was greatly reformed after the war, and Nightingale played a significant role in this. A royal commission was established, excellent research conducted, recommendations formulated, new departments established, including a statistical department, which then monitored mortality and morbidity data. The Crimean War was distinctive in having war correspondents, who got material back quickly to the population. The government that declared the war and mismanaged its first months was forced to resign. Nursing itself and hospital reform, as well as better public administration, were direct products of that war. In Russia, it is believed that serfdom was abolished as a result of its defeat. The French did not make the reforms the British did, and they were then badly defeated in their next substantial war, the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 (Britain stayed out of it). Nightingale also advised on the Geneva Convention and the establishment of what became the British Red Cross, in the post-Crimean period.

This material would be of great interest at Key Stage 4. Its teaching should not be limited to the earlier school years, when these points could not be adequately taught or understood.

When focussing on social history, the fact that Nightingale was instrumental in getting nursing into the dreaded workhouse infirmaries should be taught. She had a vision of the virtual abolition of the old Poor Law, in favour of agencies to care for the sick, aged, children, and people with chronic disabilities. She started the move to making the old workhouse infirmaries into regular hospitals, without which the establishment of the NHS in 1948 would hardly have been possible.

Again we note, as per the statement that “we trust that teachers know what is best for their pupils,” is not justifiable given the current level of misinformation. Teachers themselves have been taught little about Nightingale, and some of that teaching has been distorted to make room for Seacole, and even to compare her unfavourably with Seacole. To teach the full scope of Nightingale’s achievements would require equipping teachers with knowledge of what she did, and the historical context, especially the constraints of gender she had to overcome. This could be very exciting, and would give pupils, male and female, a worthy example of a woman leader far ahead of her time, who yet got things done.

We trust that these comments will facilitate decisions on the reform of the history curriculum and are willing to add to any of the comments if that would be helpful.