Pressure mounts to decolonise the curriculum

Role models: The role of black Britons in British history is not widely taught in schools.

Should decolonising the curriculum be compulsory? In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and global protests against racism, calls to transform education are growing louder than ever.

It was a watershed moment in Britain’s relationship with its colonial past. Black Lives Matter protestors in Bristol tore down the statue of slave owner Edward Colston that had stood in the city centre for over a century, and threw it in the harbour.

In the wake of this, thousands have signed petitions calling for schools to decolonise their curriculums: to teach the history of British imperialism and slavery, but also to do better at centring the achievements of Black Britons in history and English lessons more widely.

Now, a cross-party group of over 30 politicians has written to the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, demanding a review of the history syllabus led by black and ethnic minority leaders and historians.

At present, there is no statutory requirement in the National Curriculum that schools teach British imperial or Black British history.

Many schools focus on the Tudors and the World Wars, for example. Even then, they may sideline the many Black people in Tudor England or the massive contribution made by Commonwealth citizens to the wars.

Examples include the people in our main photo above: John Blanke, a musician in the court of Catherine of Aragon in the 16th Century; Kathleen Wrasama, a community organiser who helped found the Stepney Coloured Peoples’ Association, and Connie Mark, who served as a medical secretary in the Auxiliary Territorial Service in World War II.

Many believe a lack of teaching on Black British history and Britain’s colonial past is responsible for perpetuating racism across the country.

Rapper and podcaster George the Poet has suggested that, as a society, “we are starting from a place of mass unawareness” about race and racism – and the way in which the British Empire shaped both.

And Wendy Williams, who wrote the report on the Windrush scandal, came to this sobering conclusion: “The Windrush scandal was, in part, able to happen because of the public’s and officials’ poor understanding of Britain’s colonial history, the history of inward and outward migration, and the history of black Britons.”

In Germany, it is mandatory for all school children to learn about the holocaust. Many feel that Britain’s enslavement of millions in the transatlantic slave trade, and its exploitation of millions more in Africa, India, the Caribbean, and elsewhere are historical injustices that demand a similar approach.

So, should decolonising the curriculum be compulsory?

Rip it up and start again

No, say some. The National Curriculum already has non-statutory suggestions for teaching British colonial history. Exam boards OCR and AQA already offer GCSE History modules on Migration and Empire. The real problem is that very few schools choose them. The most urgent issue is to make sure that this changes, and to train teachers to tackle these topics confidently.

That’s not enough, argue others. This history is too important to be left to individual school decisions. We must educate a nation of young people aware – and unafraid – of the legacy of the British Empire and how it perpetuates structural racism. Without a statutory requirement in the National Curriculum, we can never hope to create the mass awareness needed to change society for the better.

You Decide

  1. Do you think statues of disgraced figures from the past should be torn down or left standing?
  2. Which is more important: the history of the powerful or the history of the oppressed?

Activities

  1. Using the Expert Links and your own research, pick one black Briton whom you think everyone should study in school. Create a one-page profile of their story, including an image and five reasons why you admire them or find them interesting, and why they should be included.
  2. Imagine you are designing your own curriculum – for English or History. Pick one topic you would want to study. What historical moments or literary texts would you need to include? Create a syllabus and share it with your household, classmates or teacher

Some People Say...

“Learning is a place where paradise can be created. The classroom with all its limitations remains the location of possibility.”

bell hooks (the pen name of Gloria Jean Watkins), US author, feminist, and social activist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Nearly 17% of children under 15 in England and Wales are from black and minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds. BME young people make up around 27% of state-funded primary and secondary school pupils. However, only about 4% of students in the UK taking GCSE history are studying either the AQA or OCR Migration to Britain module. A recent survey found that 78% of teachers want additional training on teaching migration and 71% want additional training on teaching empire.
What do we not know?
An exact picture of what is taught in schools is actually very hard to establish. Runnymede’s 2019 report Teaching Migration, Belonging, and Empire in Secondary Schools states that “the number of schools teaching migration, belonging, and empire is unknown. Academies, which have increased in number, do not have to follow the National Curriculum. Flexibility within the curriculum makes it hard to gauge what is being taught.”

Word Watch

Watershed moment
A turning point, the exact moment that changes the direction of an activity or situation, after which things will never be the same.
Colonial
A colony is a country or area fully under the control of another country. The British Empire was colonial because it had many colonies from which it profited through slave labour and the exploitation of natural wealth.
Decolonise
To confront and challenge the way in which colonial power relations have shaped knowledge and influenced education, often in racist ways.
Imperialism
The terms “imperial” and “colonial” are often used interchangeably. Imperialism is the practice of one country taking control of other countries, often by force, to make an empire. The creation of colonies – colonialism – is one way in which this is done.
Cross-party
Made up of politicians from different political parties.
Statutory
Not optional – required by the government.
Commonwealth
The Commonwealth countries are countries which were once “territories” of – in other words, belonged to – the British Empire.
Perpetuating
Making something last longer.
Windrush scandal
In 2018, it was uncovered that many Commonwealth citizens (who had legally come to the UK before 1973, mainly from Caribbean countries) had been wrongly arrested, detained and, in many cases, actually deported. Empire Windrush was the name of a ship that brought one of the earliest groups of Caribbean migrants to the UK in 1948.
Mandatory
Not optional; another word for compulsory.
Structural
Structural racism is a system in which policies, institutions (including schools), culture, and other social norms privilege ‘whiteness’. It is separate from individual beliefs, although it plays a big part in influencing individuals and shaping their beliefs.

Subjects

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