As the Black Lives Matter movement renews the spotlight on race in the UK, decolonisation of the British curriculum has once again risen as a talking point. It’s a complicated conversation that provokes strong opinions and feelings on both sides. As Britain faces major change in its international relationships, its history of empire building and place in the world are referenced constantly. It is this history and attempts to rose-tint it that make debating this issue so important.
For those unfamiliar with the term, decolonisation of the curriculum can take on a range of meanings. In the context of teaching British History, it can be seen as recognising that our history is largely written and taught in a white ethnocentric manner. Put simply, this can mean that only one perspective is being taught and what some may see as achievements, others might see as aggression or oppression. I don’t wish to imply that the British curriculum only teaches students about white historical figures, but rather that as the curriculum stands, it teaches a limited and skewed narrative of Britain’s history.
There are those who point out that the curriculum isn’t devoid of chances to study Britain’s Empiricist past. Indeed, in Key Stage 3 things look promising. Pupils are taught terms like ‘Empire’, ‘Civilisation’, ‘Parliament’ and ‘Peasantry’ to give them a ‘historically grounded understanding.’ This should give plenty of scope to involve black British history, through discussion of the ‘Empire’ we created, or the ‘Civilisations’ we took to build it.
The module choices for Key Stage 3 also give us some interesting options: First contact with India, development of the Empire, Indian independence and even the British Transatlantic Slave Trade. Teachers should therefore be able to introduce topics and historical figures that would increase black representation. Despite this, the statistics don’t back that up.
The organisation ‘Impact of Omission’ conducted a survey that provides valuable insight. With over 55 thousand respondents, their data isn’t encouraging. 36.6% of students studied transatlantic slavery, 9.9% learned about slavery in the British Industrial Revolution and just 7.6% learned about the British colonisation of Africa. With all these modules available, why is the uptake so low?
The truth is, there’s a combination of issues that cause this to be the case. The subject matter involved in Black British history can cause turbulent discussions. Like most of us, teachers don’t want to have that type of potentially awkward and divisive conversation. This is compounded by the fact that teaching any module can be expensive, if it hasn’t been taught by the school previously. Textbooks for an entire year group can amount to a large cost that can be difficult to justify, when a school has a slashed budget and materials to teach another module that fits the curriculum.
In addition, Recent DfE guidance limits the options a teacher might have in those difficult conversations. It warns against conversations which may be ‘divisive’ or portray a ‘victim narrative.’ You might find it difficult to discuss an issue like transatlantic slavery, without talking about oppression or victimisation. You don’t have to look far to see these factors at work either. OCR introduced a module in 2016 covering the history of migration to Britain. A joint report by the TIDE project and the Runnymede Trust found that the uptake for this module was just 4%. That seems exceedingly low in a country that has been shaped by immigration and continues to use it beneficially.
The curriculum seems designed to show British history in its best light. While that might inspire younger generations to think of what a small island nation could achieve, it comes at the price of omission and alienation. We should all be aware of the contributions made by those not born in the UK that have aided it. Representation is important and for black students it isn’t often present in an educational setting. Side-stepping unsavoury elements of Britain’s past often means omitting its interactions with countries that don’t have a white ethnic majority.
The picture isn’t any better in terms of the people delivering the education either. Government figures from 2018 show that 85.9% of teaching staff in UK state funded schools identify as white British. Second Highest was white other at 3.9%. Additionally, 92.9% of headteachers identified as white British, while 0.2% were black African, 0.6% were black Caribbean and 0.1% were black other. This doesn’t change at University either. The Higher Education Statistics Agency found in February 2020 that of 21,000 professorial staff, only 140 identified as black. This issue was debated in parliament during Black History Month in October. During that debate, several points were made that pertained to the teaching of black history in British schools. The government reiterated its stance on teaching elements of ‘critical race theory’ which contains terms like white privilege. They reminded the house that teachers promoting these ideas as uncontested fact were breaking the law. This is of course the truth, schools should be politically neutral and therefore a counter argument must be provided.
The statements supporting this viewpoint showed that the government does not accept the existence of white privilege or unconscious bias, and doesn’t want them to be presented to students. The idea being that it teaches white children that they are inherently bad, and black children that white people are their oppressors. That, however, is a gross oversimplification of the issue.
However, I do believe that white privilege exists, and that I have benefitted from it. I do not feel that makes me inherently evil, but that acknowledging it allows me to attempt to combat it. I believe that unconscious bias exists, because systemic racism informs us subtly through our day to day lives that it is justified. Acceptance of racism is required in order to go on and challenge it.
If we omit black British history from the curriculum, we are stranding ourselves on an island of misinformation. But if instead we choose to teach British history in both its glorious and terrible lights, then we can recognise the progress we have made. We can also recognise the work we have yet to do. If we admit to our mistakes, and observe the work we have already done to correct them, then we can reassure those who might see us as oppressors that things can change. By teaching our history in its entirety, we can recognise all who worked to make this country great, and ensure we never emulate the figures who truly divide us.
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Tom Huggins-Teasdale is a Political Correspondent for immigrationnews.co.uk, which you can find by clicking on the link above.