Skip to content

BERA in the news

Press Release – British Empire study “prevalent in most schools”

The death of teaching of the British Empire in English schools has been greatly exaggerated. And, contrary to occasional assertions by politicians, children are not being given a negative account of the subject.

However, teaching of the topic often stops short of covering the decline of the empire in the twentieth century, and time constraints mean that limited attention is given to the role of empires in history more generally.

These are the main findings of a review of curriculum specifications, text books, history education websites and a small survey of heads of history departments being presented to BERA today.

The paper, by Professor Terry Haydn of the University of East Anglia, cites a media report last year which quoted the historian William Dalrymple stating that: “At the moment our imperial history is not taught in schools – our children go from Henry VIII to the Nazis, omitting that very interesting period in-between when we had the greatest empire the world had ever known.”

The paper adds that other historians had called for pupils to spend more time on the British Empire during the debate on the most recent update of the national curriculum, which launched in 2014.

Meanwhile, the former Education Secretary, Michael Gove, was one of several politicians and historians to have claimed that teachers were “painting an anti-national and inaccurately damning picture of the British Empire”, with Mr Gove having argued that “too much history teaching is informed by post-colonial guilt”.

Yet Professor Haydn’s study found that the study of the British Empire had been an integral part of the national curriculum in England since its inception in 1991.The current version stipulates that pupils should be taught about “ideas, political power, industry and empire: Britain, 1745-1901”.

Commonly-used textbooks for the last year of compulsory history study in English classrooms – when pupils are 13 and 14 – also tend to cover the British Empire, Professor Haydn found.

The paper also argues that neither these textbooks nor the main history education websites used by schools suggest an “anti-British” slant to the teaching of empire. “A not uncommon approach is for textbooks to examine both positive and negative historical sources, opinion and commentary,” says the paper, with the websites said to follow a similar approach.

Professor Haydn also surveyed 15 heads of history. He found that all reported that the British Empire was taught to the 11- to 14-year-olds they educated, although there were substantial differences in the amount of time allocated to the topic. Two respondees said it was only taught in a single lesson while, at the other extreme, two mentioned spending six to eight weeks of history lessons on it.

Those surveyed were also asked whether they taught Empire as a “good thing or a bad thing”. Only one respondent said his or her school taught empire as a “bad thing”, with this teacher saying “we treat it as a study of exploitation”, while 13 of the 15 said the question was one to be explored with pupils.

Several responses said the topic needed to be treated in a “balanced” way, with one head of department stating: “It is not to be taught in a manner of triumphalism…It deserves to be balanced, though, and not [ with the Empire] as some fantasy villain in black mightily oppressing the ‘good guys’.”

Professor Haydn said: “The data emerging from the study does not support the claim that students in English schools are not taught about the British Empire.

“Neither does the testimony from teachers, text books and history education websites support the idea…that the British Empire is taught in a negative and anti-British way.”

Professor Haydn points out that history teachers face hard choices in terms of what to include in teaching about empire, given the limited time given to history in the English school system. He suggested that the survey raised three possible concerns about the way empire was currently being taught.

First, few schools were teaching about the latter stages of the British Empire (for example, The Suez Crisis of 1956 was not commonly taught within the departments surveyed). “Not only does this seem to be a slightly dishonest portrayal of the national story, it also elides the important point that empires are usually susceptible to decline and fall,” the paper argues.

Second, the limited mention of other empires might lead pupils to believe that the British were the main or only exponents of empire. Third, the tendency not to trace the concept of empire up to the present, and the development of different types of empire, meant that pupils might consider empire to be primarily a nineteenth century phenomenon, and fail to understand that empires are still an important part of shaping the world that they live in.  

Professor Haydn added, ‘The draft national curriculum for history formulated in 2013 stated that school history should provide pupils with knowledge of Britain’s past, an understanding of our place in the world, and of the challenges of our own time. Critics of school history should pay more heed to the challenges of achieving all three of these aims when teaching about empire, with often only one lesson a week, and with pupils able to drop history at the age of 13. Particular challenges are finding an appropriate balance between the national and the human past, and connecting the past to the present in a meaningful and coherent way.”

“How is ‘Empire’ taught in English schools? An exploratory study” is being presented to BERA by Professor Terry Haydn of the University of East Anglia on Tuesday, September 13th.

Further information from:

Warwick Mansell

BERA annual conference press officer

07813 204245


Notes for editors:

1 The reference for the William Dalrymple quote is an article in the Guardian newspaper on March 19th, 2015. See:

2 The reference for the Michael Gove quote is an interview with The Times newspaper on March 6th, 2010. See: “Pupils to learn poetry by heart in Tory return to ‘traditional’ school lessons”

 3 The annual conference of the British Educational Research Association is being held at the University of Leeds from Tuesday, September 13th to Thursday, September 15th. More than 500 research papers will be presented during the course of the conference.


About BERA

The British Educational Research Association (BERA) is a member-led charity which exists to encourage educational research and its application for the improvement of practice and public benefit.

We strive to ensure the best quality evidence from educational research informs policy makers, practitioners and the general public and contributes to economic prosperity, cultural understanding, social cohesion and personal flourishing.