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, which 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 the British imperialism and slavery, but also to do better at highlighting the achievements of Black Britons in history and English lessons more widely.

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 ignore 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.

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. The real problem is that very few schools choose them.

That’s not enough, argue others. Without a statutory requirement in the National Curriculum, we can never hope to create the mass awareness needed to change society.

You Decide

  1. Do you think statues of disgraced figures from the past should be torn down or left standing?

Activities

  1. Using the Expert Links below 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.

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 [work out] what is being taught”.

Word Watch

Watershed moment
A turning point, the exact moment that changes the direction of a 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, such as gold.
Harbour
A body of water where ships, boats, and barges can be docked.
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 to mean the same thing. 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.
Statutory
Required by government.
Commonwealth
The Commonwealth countries are countries which were once part of – in other words, belonged to – the British Empire.
Perpetuating
Making something last longer.
Mandatory
Compulsory.

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