An Open Letter to Michael Gove
JANUARY 31, 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 petitionagainst 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?
The 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.
Jennette Arnold OBE AM