- The government have ignored requests made by BLM campaigners to decolonise the National Curriculum.
- Michael Gove removed colonisation and slavery as compulsory topics in 2014, black history became optional to be taught in history lessons.
- There has been a move back towards teaching ‘Traditional History’; a version of history that is Anglocentric and uncritical of the nation’s past.
- Survey finds that just 9.9% of participants learnt about the role of slavery in the British Industrial Revolution, and merely 7.6% learned about the British colonisation of Africa- in contrast, 86.2% learned about the Tudors.
- Fewer than 1 in 10 GCSE students study modules that include the history of the British Empire.
- BAME students must feel represented and connected with the history that they learn at school, as otherwise history will continue to be a discipline dominated by white academics- only 11% of history students at university come from BAME backgrounds.
What is taught in history lessons is one of the most discussed aspects of the National Curriculum- whenever it is rumoured to change, a media frenzy usually commences; will the right wing ideal of historical education ‘in defence of the state’ be enforced, or will the liberal approach be taken, teaching history to defend citizens against misinformation from the government and to learn to criticise unjust actions of the state in the past- particularly those taken during the days of the British Empire. The purpose of this paper is to highlight the dangers in the former, as seeing our nation’s history through rose-tinted glasses will not provide children with an accurate understanding of the world around them.
These issues were brought back into public consciousness during the Black Lives Matter Movement, with campaigners advocating to ‘decolonise the curriculum’, however absolutely nothing has been done by the government in response to these requests. Gavin Williamson, the Secretary of State for Education, has rejected appeals to revise the curriculum, responding by saying, “we should be incredibly proud of our history because time and time and time again, this country has made a difference and changed things for the better, right around the world”. Michael Gove, who was responsible for removing colonisation and slavery as compulsory topics in 2014, had a similar response to critics, claiming schools should not teach “post-colonial guilt”. In contrast, Germany teaches children of the atrocities of the Holocaust, not to be made to feel guilty, but to be aware of the atrocities of the past in order to recognise red flags for xenophobia and nationalism- and let’s not forget that concentration camps were first used by the British in Africa- a fact very few children are made of aware of during their education at school.
Even before the BLM movement, governments have ignored pressures to change their stance on this issue. The report for The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry (1999) and the Windrush Lessons Learned Review (2020) highlighted the need for the public to be educated on the true history of the empire, yet today these topics are still just an option, which only a very small proportion of schools take.
It is very telling which voices are prioritised to be heard in history. As well as not learning of colonialism, the contribution of non-white people to British society is side-lined. One of the key purposes of history is to enable an understanding of one’s identity- what portrait is painted of who is part of British society through the current curriculum? What it this tell non-white, male, upper class students on their value in society? Although not the topic of this paper, the fact that LGBT+ and women’s history has also been largely excluded is acknowledged; all children must feel part of the nation’s history that they are taught int schools.
The History of the National Curriculum
Using the history taught in schools to promote a nationalist agenda is a long-term issue. Education has been compulsory since 1881, and until the 1970s history lessons were used to bring a sense of loyalty to the state. An Anglocentric version of history was presented to pupils, with a very positive and uncritical narrative. This system failed to teach children one of the most important skills that the historical discipline has to offer: the ability to identify positives and negatives of historical events, in order to develop a balanced, evidence-based and fair perspective of the past.
There has never been a ‘golden age’ of teaching history in schools; it has always been an unpopular subject with students. The Newson Report, titled Half Our Future, of 1963 reported that history was the second most unpopular subject taught in schools. Due to the lack of critical analysis, children became disengaged with history. To tackle this, what has been termed ‘New History’ was introduced into schools. However, the root of the issue was not really delt with, instead the ‘mysteries’ of history became included, which provoked some interest in the topic but was not insightful history to learn about. It was not until the 1991 National Curriculum that the subject received some of the much-needed revision it required; British, European and World History were included in the new syllabus. In addition, analytical thought was endorsed, teaching students how the past can be interpreted in different ways and the ability to assess how reliable sources of information are: a vital skill for children to have to defend themselves from being misled by press and politicians in later life.
Despite these improvements, reports still found high-politics agendas to be promoted in the 1991 curriculum. Stephen Ball’s Policymaking in Education identified the influence of ‘New Right’ ideology in its creation, with an ‘emphasis upon authority, discipline, hierarchy, the nation and strong government’. However, in criticising the new curriculum, many media outlets focused instead on the move away from Anglocentric portrayals of history, fearing that the next generation of British citizens would know nothing of their own history. Many high-profile historians echoed these concerns, including David Starkey and Niall Ferguson, demonstrating how the idea that history should be taught through a British-centric lens existed at every level. The movement against teaching ‘New History’ gained further ground in 2010, when the Conservative government came to power.
In 2014, steps backwards were taken when Michael Gove made changes to the National Curriculum. Once again, history taught in schools went by the narrative of ‘Our Island Story’. Gove created committees of historians, that conveniently supported his political agenda, to advise changes to the curriculum. The original draft that was purposed was so nationalistic that it had to be revised due to the overwhelming amount of backlash that it faced. Nevertheless, although the final curriculum draft provided history teachers with more autonomy over what they taught, in doing so, made the history of ethnic minorities an option. Supposedly, Gove’s white-washed curriculum promotes social cohesion- in the increasingly multicultural Britain that has been shaped by globalisation and migration.
BAME history should be made compulsory in schools, it is the government’s responsibility to ensure this. At present, it is external organisations that are taking on the responsibility to endorse BAME history- and as incredible as these institutions are, we should not have to be dependent on them. There have been reports that exam boards are in the process of diversifying GCSE modules, which is positive, but ultimately pointless if the majority of schools choose not to teach these courses. However, it is important to draw attention to the fact that organisations are providing learning resources that can be used to teach BAME history, to answer demands from teachers to expand their knowledge; one survey of teachers revealed that 78% wanted training on the histories of migration, and 71% wanted training on empire. Politicians, academics and policymakers that shape the curriculum should take note of such requests, and carefully consider some of the programs these institutions have to offer as exemplars for how BAME history should be taught.
Furthermore, it is vital to understand that BAME history should be fully assimilated into the history curriculum, giving equal focus to topics such as slavery and Empire, as well as BAME contributions to British and international culture. BAME students must feel represented and connected with the history that they learn at school, as otherwise history will continue to be a discipline dominated by white academics; the Royal Historical Society reported that only 11% of history students at university come from BAME backgrounds.
The current government have shown little interest in making any changes to their stance on the curriculum. Black Lives Still Matter, and we must keep the history curriculum in public discussion and continue to pressure the government to make the necessary changes. Politicians and policymakers must understand the many benefits that would come with diversifying history taught in schools. Ironically, their aims for social cohesion and understanding of one’s national identity would be achieved by revising the National Curriculum that they have conducted, as currently it achieves the absolute opposite of their claimed goals. We cannot continue to have historical amnesia and must understand that requests made by this paper are not just driven by -as Gove calls it- “post-colonial guilt”, but the desire to acknowledge and respect the victims of atrocities committed by the Empire, and develop our ability as a nation to reflect, learn and prosper.
Terry Haydn, ‘History in Schools and the Problem of “The Nation”’, Education Sciences 2, (2012), 276-289.
Matthew Smith, ‘How Unique are British Attitudes to Empire’, YouGov, March 2020, https://yougov.co.uk/topics/international/articles-reports/2020/03/11/how-unique-are-british-attitudes-empire.