The death of African American George Floyd on 25 May, has been a catalyst for Britain to scrutinise its own issues with inequality relating to ethnicity. Featuring quite prominently in this ongoing public debate, are the deficiencies of the history curriculum and the ramifications of not confronting Britain’s past regarding empire and ethnicity.
There is a belief that Britain has avoided ‘the harder questions about the economic and societal foundations of its modern state’ in its use of the English national curriculum for history, and that children in England know very little concerning its imperial past, or the significance of it for Britain and the colonised countries. While the curriculum is meant to ensure that children understand how Britain has influenced and been influenced by the wider world, there is ‘near silence’ on the teaching of empire at key stage 3, which is either relegated to a month of learning or ‘hived off’ as an ‘optional module’ (Goodfellow, 2019). Consequently, the non-compulsory status of teaching about empire has left generations of children with an impoverished understanding of their own history: a collective ‘historical amnesia’ (Turk, Dull, Cohen, & Stoll, 2014).
Perhaps of greater concern, is that the history curriculum in England (DfE, 2013) excludes a sizeable minority of students from ethnic minority backgrounds who find no place for them in the present historical narrative provided in schools. Subsequently, many ethnic minority students do not choose to study history at KS4 (14+) (Alexander & Weekes-Bernard, 2016) or at university, and there is an absence of teachers (Moncrieffe, 2020) and academics (Atkinson et al., 2018) from these backgrounds which perhaps reinforces institutional blind-spots. This is a major failing of the English KS3 history curriculum, and has ongoing consequences for all students and the study of history at every level.
‘Perhaps of greater concern, is that the history curriculum in England excludes a sizeable minority of students from ethnic minority backgrounds who find no place for them in the present historical narrative provided in schools.’
As I have previously discussed (Mansfield, 2019), fundamental issues originate in Michael Gove’s reforms of 2013. The history curriculum was used to create a ‘homogenising’ narrative of British history, which Gove deemed a ‘Beacon of liberty’ for the world. Unfortunately, the curriculum was overly contrived, made key topics optional, lacked a narrative arch, and presented a ‘self-congratulatory British history’. At a time of Eurosceptic debate about remaining in the EU, leading Conservatives pursued an old-fashioned, triumphalist British identity forged by white men and great events, largely excising Britain’s connections with Europe and the wider world. As such, the curriculum permits only small spaces to study other histories, including empire, prioritising ‘English political and religious history’ without truly interrogating British history and its interactions across the globe (Heath, 2018). This results in ethnic minority students feeling that the nation’s story does not represent them or their history. History teaching in England, therefore, inadequately addresses Britain’s history on numerous matters including ethnicity, nor frequently excites an interest in history from those students ‘who feel excluded from Britain’s current past history’ (Mansfield, 2018).
Yet it appears to me that the teaching of the British Empire offers one potential solution to the above problems. By inverting the triumphalist aspects of British history and pursuing a global history approach which seeks to decentre Eurocentrism, or ‘provincialise’ it, would mean using the Empire as a vehicle to examine the historical interactions with many people and places. By exposing the historical reality of the British Empire and its implications, students would be able to interrogate the past and better understand their nation’s story and identity from multiple perspectives. As John Darwin has argued, the history of the world is a ‘history of empires’, and the British Empire is simply one part (and not the centre) of a much bigger global history. The potential of global history has been recognised in higher education, and UK universities are endeavouring to provide a more inclusive range of history options by strategically intervening in their curriculums. This not only reflects a desire to embrace the plurality of voices found in the historical connectivity in a globalised world, but also to appeal to ethnic minority students.
By making the teaching of the British Empire compulsory and broadening the history curriculum in England at KS3 and above, it is quite possible that more students from ethnic minority backgrounds will feel invested in the subject. Moreover, the more inclusive and honest the curriculum is, the more it will potentially augment uptake in the subject which would filter up to every level and hopefully diversify representation in those teaching in schools and universities, while making our society more tolerant with its citizens more knowledgeable of the world they live in.
Alexander, C., & Weekes-Bernard, D. (2016). History lessons: Inequality, diversity and the national curriculum. Race, Ethnicity and Education, 20(4), 478–494. https://doi.org/10.1080/13613324.2017.1294571
Atkinson, H., Bardgett, S., Budd, A., Finn, M., Kissane, C., Qureshi, S., Saha, J., Siblon, J., & Sivasundaram, S. (2018). Race, ethnicity & equality in UK history: A report and resource for change. London: Royal Historical Society. Retrieved from https://royalhistsoc.org/racereport/
Chakrabarty, D. (2000). Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial thought and historical difference. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Darwin, J. (2007). After Tamerlane: The rise and fall of global empires, 1400-2000. London: Allen Lane.
Department for Education [DfE]. (2013). National curriculum in England: History programmes of study. London. Retrieved from https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-curriculum-in-england-history-programmes-of-study
Goodfellow, M. (2019, December 5). Put our colonial history on the curriculum – then we’ll understand who we really are. Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/dec/05/britain-colonial-history-curriculum-racism-migration
Heath, D. (2018, November 2). British Empire is still being whitewashed by the school curriculum – historian on why this must change. The Conversation. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/british-empire-is-still-being-whitewashed-by-the-school-curriculum-historian-on-why-this-must-change-105250
Mansfield, Andrew. (2018, November 22). Confusion, contradiction and exclusion: The promotion of British values in the teaching of history in schools [Blog]. London: British Educational Research Association. Retrieved from https://www.bera.ac.uk/blog/confusion-contradiction-and-exclusion-the-problems-of-british-values-and-the-national-curriculum-in-history-teaching
Mansfield, Andrew. (2019). Confusion, contradiction and exclusion: The promotion of British values in the teaching of history in schools. The Curriculum Journal, 30(1), 40–50. https://doi.org/10.1080/09585176.2018.1533483
Moncrieffe, M. (2020, June 11). #BlackLivesMatter in education [Blog]. London: British Educational Research Association. Retrieved from https://www.bera.ac.uk/blog/blacklivesmatter-in-education
Turk, D. B., Dull, L. J., Cohen, R., & Stoll, M. R. (2014). Teaching recent global history: Dialogues among historians, social studies teachers, and students. New York: Taylor and Francis. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203804117