British school children must learn the truth of empire

British school children must learn the truth of empire

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On 9th January 2020, commuting Londoners might have noticed an interesting ‘Metru’ front page. The headline of the impostor newspaper screamed ‘Boris Backs Empire Education’. The sub header explained ‘New curriculum will look at the good, the bad and the ugly of Britain’s colonial past’. 

The newspaper’s distribution was a stunt, staged by youth campaign Fill in the Blanks. 5000 newspapers made their way around 20 tube stations and onto red buses, claiming that the Department of Education had changed the National Curriculum: it would now be mandatory for all Key Stage 3 students to be taught the history of the British Empire. The topic yoyos in and out of education discourse (notably popping up during the 2019 election, where Labour’s manifesto made a case for educating students in migration and colonialism), yet implementation efforts have gained small ground. Now, the change-averse may find themselves outnumbered. Recent ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests have triggered urgent discussion of systemic racism and structural inequality. The streets are emptying, but the voices of this global movement are growing louder.  

Through fourteen years of state schooling, I learned about the Tudors, about witchcraft and Tutankhamun, about the Blitz, defeating Hitler and the horrors of Stalinist Russia. I learned almost nothing about the British Empire or about the UK’s colonial past. And I was in the minority that continued to study history: over half of all students drop the subject before GCSE, according to research by Cambridge Assessment. My understanding of Britain’s place in the world came entirely from my university studies; even then because I chose modern African and Middle Eastern history modules. That our education was monolithic, selective and heavily Eurocentric has not escaped many alumni of my old school. In light of recent events a petition has been set up, calling on our old headteacher to diversify the curriculum and improve the teaching of colonialism. Similar localised campaigns are gaining traction across the country. Currently, all mention of Empire is hived off from the core curriculum in the form of optional modules. While the government states that: ‘There are opportunities within the themes and eras of the history curriculum for teachers and schools to teach about Britain’s role in colonisation and the transatlantic slave trade’, exploring the subject is not compulsory. This lack of mandatory allocation tends to result, as with my own experience, in students completing formal schooling with little to no knowledge of Britain’s colonial legacy. 

A global ‘YouGov’ survey published this March showed that Britain is more nostalgic for Empire than the other major colonial powers, with a third of people in the UK believing that Britain’s colonies were better off for being part of an empire. But are we really nostalgic for the mass concentration camps of the Boer War? For the violence of partition or the famine in India? For a system that valued European lives infinitely more than African or Asian ones? More likely, Britons are nostalgic for a glorified version of a sanitised past, for ideals of patriotism and national strength, for the romanticism of an empire so expansive that the sun never set.  

The Windrush Lessons Learned Review (2020), found that the Home Office showed “ignorance and thoughtlessness” on the issue of race. Wendy Williams, who authored the report, wrote of the hostile environment that “it failed to adequately consider the past… It failed to adequately consider the impact on people… It also failed to adequately mitigate equalities issues including the potential for discrimination, particularly in housing.” Williams’ conclusions demonstrated what many already knew to be the case: that there existed institutional ignorance and thoughtlessness towards the issue of race and the history of the Windrush generation. One of the review’s primary recommendations? “The Home Office should ensure that all its existing and new staff learn about the history of the UK and its relationship with the rest of the world including Britain’s colonial history…” 

Without learning the whole truth of how our small country accumulated such wealth and stature, we are ill-equipped to understand the blatant injustices of today. But it is equally important that we learn the history of people of colour as agents of change; as participants in, contributors to, and citizens of the British nation-state; rather than simply as enslaved victims of it. It is a point that was also recognised in Labour’s 2019 manifesto: Black history is British history. It is not a separate entity, worthy only of a single month of the academic year. Diversity across both school and university curriculums is limited not just in History but across the Arts and Humanities, where the dominant discourse favours Eurocentric or Anglocentric perspectives.  

Reading lists across the humanities can be reformed to include more books written by people of colour. Subjects such as philosophy can include a greater focus on non-Western belief systems. Inviting a range of perspectives into the classroom will not only broaden horizons and facilitate cultural understanding, but also offer vital representation for Black students, many of whom become predictably disillusioned upon realising they are not represented: be that within texts or in academia itself. There remains a troubling large gap in academic attainment for Black students in Higher Education. In 2017 just 57% of Black students were awarded a first- or second-class degree: compared to 81% of White students. Statistics collated by Advance HE showed in 2016/17 there were just 25 black women and 90 black men among 19,000 professors across British universities.  

We are taught to associate Britain with liberalism, tolerance and democracy, with the rule of law and with world class education. But when we limit our mindset, whitewash our curriculum and gloss over the atrocities of the past, we can never truly understand or evaluate the present. Nor can we hope to improve the future.  

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