An Open Letter to Michael Gove

31st January, 2013 4:46 pm

Dear Mr Gove

National Curriculum and Mary Seacole

I have added my name to the 35,000 plus signatories of the OBV online petition against your plans to remove Mary Seacole from the national curriculum.

I am deeply worried. It took over 150 years for the significance of her work to be recognised officially and it feels like we are about to take an enormous leap backwards. I am not sure whose advice you are listening to, but you seem to want to re-write her story and gently, but firmly, airbrush her from our collective history.

I, and many others, will resist this. Mary Seacole’s achievements place her in the position of one of the key figures of Victorian Britain. She went to a war zone, without any corporate support and delivered holistic care to the wounded of all nations; a sort of one-person Red Cross. Why would we not want to tell her story?; why would our children not continue to be inspired by it?; and why wouldn’t students of social history want to understand the processes that resulted in her story being ignored for so long?

he re-establishment of Mary Seacole in our history was a lengthy process and involved a range of people and organisations. The Mary Seacole Memorial Association had organised annual memorials at Mary’s grave in Kensal Green since 1981. Connie Mark MBE, who sadly died in 2005, was a key figure in sustaining this effort. In the 1990’s, from my then work at the RCN, I was able to establish an Annual RCN Mary Seacole Lecture and subsequently get support from the Department of Health for the Annual Mary Seacole Leadership Award. I was also able to secure support from the then Prime Minister, John Major.

Mary Seacole became part of the National Curriculum in 2007 and is featured at Key Stage 2 in the part relating to Victorian Britain. Mary is there alongside Lord Shaftesbury, Robert Owen, Elizabeth Fry, Queen Victoria, Florence Nightingale, Robert Stephenson, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Alexander Graham Bell. Mike People, a primary school teacher, says that Mary Seacole is there “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 [which] are still important to the way we see the world today”.

I make no special case for Mary Seacole; I just want to ensure she is treated equally. Most often, her work is contrasted with that of Florence Nightingale. They both have their place in our history. Elizabeth Anionwu, Emeritus professor of nursing and vice chair of the Mary Seacole Memorial Statue Appeal says “the upper middle class white English Florence Nightingale, and the Jamaican nurse .. Mary Seacole, although from different backgrounds, have actually left very important legacies for nurses today. What they have shown, for example, is that they both had anger … and that anger at poor nursing care drove them to do something about it. Florence – using her networks, lobbied, using the power of the pen; Mary – rolling up her sleeves and getting on with it.

In the Foreword to Mary Seacole’s autobiography 1857, Sir William Howard Russell a war Correspondent with the Times writes “I trust England will not forget one who nursed her sick, who sought out her wounded to aid and succor them, and who performed the last offices for some of her illustrious dead”.

Mary Seacole’s story is about someone who cared deeply, who was resourceful, courageous and determined. She was responsible for developing new approaches to healthcare, saved lives and risked her own life in the process. Others achieved under similarly difficult circumstances. But it seems that we take their place in history for granted.

In part, Mary’s story has been about the need to raise awareness of her achievements so they can now be celebrated by all. My message is a simple one – your job is to promote the education of our children, not impede it. Mary’s story must remain as part of our national curriculum.

Yours sincerely

Jennette Arnold OBE AM

  • jaime taurosangastre candelas

    I do not know what pressures there may be in the curriculum, and it is clear that only “so many” people of significance can be selected for teaching. But Mary Seacole is surely worthy of consideration.

    She has an unusual aspect in that while great supporters of her over-play her significance in medical terms (she actually ran a “paying rest centre”, which had some basic medical facilities – nothing to stretch the “state of the art” in palliative care even in 1857), her detractors actually under-play her social and class significance and her example of what “could” be achieved in a changing social society.

    Her achievements are not so much in changing systemic attitudes to permanent provision of nursing care, but rather in opening up a debate into care itself, to whom it was delivered and by whom.

  • postageincluded

    Like much of what Gove does there is a distinct smell about this – the stench of a rabble-rouser.

  • JoeDM

    Who is Mary Seacole?

    I’ve never heard of her

  • Candyman54

    It looks as if Gove is trying to re-establish an education system based on the 1950’s – when history was about Kings and Queens and Britannia still has pretensions to Empire. It was a remarkably complacent syllabus, and the only black people featured were either victims or villains. Mary Seacole’s story – both of her achievements and the lack of recognition of those achievements – needs to be told. It is an excellent example of what our social history should be about and we have a duty to make sure future generations have an opportunity to understand it. What is Gove afraid of?

    • djkm

      I’m starting to think that he’s not making these changes for the benefit of the children themselves, but simply to appeal to a particular section of the older generation who would be more likely to vote Conservative. No matter that it does not, and will not affect them in the slightest, but it’s something that they can get behind, and appeals to the sense of how things should be.

  • Ferney

    A ‘key figures of Victorian Britain’? I wish she was, it would make things a lot more simple. I don’t think that is a good line to take, when faced with the facts it isn’t credible. A small figure in history, but one worth remembering – and sometimes history should include those who aren’t rich and powerful.


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