Annie-May Gibb examines the glaring gaps in the national history curriculum and calls for a more inclusive and diverse account of Britain’s history
In light of the murder of George Floyd in the US and the Black Lives Matter protests it sparked across the world, an overdue reckoning with history has taken place. The UK and other nations have been forced to examine their relationship with race and their racist colonial past. As protests on the streets and, in particular, the removal of public statues have been both supported and challenged, it is clear that there are varying views and opinions on race and British history within this country.
A 2019 YouGov poll revealed just how divergent opinions on Britain’s colonial past are. When 1,684 adults were asked their opinion on the legacy of the British Empire, 32% of respondents told YouGov that the empire was something to be proud of. A larger proportion, 37%, described themselves as indifferent, with only 19% feeling “ashamed” and 12% replying that they didn’t know.
To fully understand the substantial numbers of positive and “indifferent” responses to Britain’s devastating colonial legacy, and the country’s relationship with race and racism, we urgently need to review the UK education curriculum, specifically that of our national history. This particular curriculum is responsible for introducing events, ideas and the origin of issues that have shaped our society, to thousands of students across the country.
Tracking the British Empire and the messages conveyed about it in the education system over the course of the 20th century is fascinating. Once a topic taught in schools with great pride before the First World War, in more recent decades, it has been ominously absent. The historical timeline now presented appears to gloss over destructive British imperial endeavours, as well as centre a glaringly whitewashed and patriotically selective account of our history.
Depending on where you might be on the planet, the subject of the British Empire could raise a range of topics and debates. In some countries, the legacy of the British colonial penal code continues to impact on LGBTQ+ politics, persecute people from this community and criminalise same-sex relationships. Other nations have been impacted by land grabbing, resource exploitation, famine and denial of indigenous people’s rights and self-determination, leaving unequal social and political structures in some countries. The efforts that communities continue to undertake in order to protect their own language and culture and reverse the legacy of forced assimilation, illustrate how the trauma of British colonial rule crosses generations and continues to affect the lives of people across the world.
Yet, for a country whose colonial exploits once spanned nearly a quarter of the world’s land surface, at its peak a population of 412 million people, we seem to have a wall of silence and a sense of denial in the UK. This is nowhere better seen than in this country’s national history curriculum.
The lack of statutory status for the topic allows for untruths and misinformation to flourish and be co-opted into nationalistic historical negationism, (nationalist revisionism of history), distorting and glorifying the Empire. As seen in the YouGov poll responses, a lack of truthful review and comprehension of the violence, terror and devastating injustices, which form Britain’s notorious colonial legacies, has played its part in enabling a substantial positive to indifferent public perception of British colonialism.
Not only does the history curriculum lack a mandatory and unbiased introduction to the British Empire, overall it presents an alarmingly whitewashed, predominantly white male account of history. Black identities and narratives within Britain can be traced back to at least the Roman era and are yet, glaringly absent from the curriculum. People that unquestionably contributed to British commerce, arts and culture have been shamefully forgotten in the story of the country.
Among the objectives of the current national history curriculum is an aim is to ensure that “all pupils know how people’s lives have shaped this nation and how Britain has influenced and been influenced by the wider world.” Inspection of the history curriculum however reveals incredible gaps in the chronological narrative that the Department of Education intends to be delivered. Why are the Black community having to dig deeper to access knowledge of their historical presence, participation and achievements within the UK?
The Black Curriculum are a social enterprise founded by young people to address this absence. They deliver Black history programmes, provide teacher training and have relentlessly campaigned on the issue of racial bias within the curriculum, calling for its reform. In June of this year, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson responded to an open letter sent by the group, rejecting calls for such a reform.
Speaking from a press briefing at Downing Street he stated that the curriculum in fact did cover:
“the issue of the British Empire, and the incredibly rich history that this nation has, and it’s absolutely vitally important, incredibly important, that when children are learning about our nation’s history, they learn all aspects of it, both the good and the bad.”
He went on to say:
“we mustn’t forget that in this nation, we have an incredibly rich history, and 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. We should, as a nation, be proud of that history and teach our children about it.”
This whitewashing in tandem with the scarcity of women’s history on the curriculum leads to a lack of intersectional narrative, with Black and other women from ethnic minority backgrounds also missing. Unlike notorious slave traders and colonisers, such women are also absent from our streets in the form of statues; physical presences that shape the general public’s understanding of history. It has proved incredibly difficult to erect statues to honour prominent women, especially Black women.
Mary Seacole currently stands as the only statue of a named Black woman in the UK. Known for her committed medical work during the Crimean war, Seacole travelled from Jamaica to England in 1853 to ask the British War Office if she could be sent as an army nurse to the Crimea. She was refused and so steadfastly funded her own trip where she carried out her work.
Seacole’s story has been overshadowed for years and her eventual more official recognition in British history was not without debate. In 2013, then Education Secretary Michael Gove reportedly revealed plans to remove Seacole from the national history curriculum, the only Black figure featured who was not connected to civil rights or enslavement. This issue made its way into public discourse, and only after a tidal wave of support was the decision rescinded and Seacole retained her righteous if singular place.
A statue of her was eventually unveiled at St Thomas’s Hospital in 2016, another occurrence surrounded by undue criticism. The Nightingale Society campaigned against the idea, expressing reservations around the historical accuracy of her legacy as well as concerns that the statue was to be sited at the former location of Florence Nightingale’s School of Nursing and Midwifery. Lynn McDonald, co-founder of The Nightingale Society articulated these points in an article written for The Guardian, the opening paragraph of which strangely identifies that the statue would “be taller than both Nightingale’s statue at nearby Waterloo Place, and that of the first world war nurse, Edith Cavell, in front of the National Portrait Gallery.”
She goes on in the article to effectively describe Seacole as having committed a modern day criminal offence by wearing medals allegedly not awarded to her, not having been a nurse but running a “restaurant-catering service for officers” and emphasising that Seacole did not self-identify as Black. It is a bizarre article that reeks of a perceived threat to the white heroine, Florence Nightingale, lest Seacole should detract from her.
The lengthy struggles to remove the statue of slave trader Edward Colston and to instate one of Mary Seacole present just a fraction of the tiresome and unjust battle that has been required to push Black history anywhere near the peripheral vision of the white British public.
Designing a history curriculum is an inherently political act, it requires choosing which topics, events and perspectives are to be highlighted and those to be left unmentioned. Tied to it is often a vested interest of instilling and maintaining a sense of patriotism within the learner. The UK education department must select which aspects of history to include in each short school year. It is interesting to note which topics in British history have been made statutory, and which aspects and perspectives have been left out.
It is in the interest of social equality that we investigate ourselves and apply critical thought to our understanding of our country’s history, as well as the figures that we laud as national heroes. If we don’t, Black British and intersectional history remains muted and marginalised, with many British people utterly detached from the reality of our past. The lasting legacy of Empire is something we must confront.
Vergangenheitsbewältigung is a long German word and a key concept in post-1945 German culture. It is used to describe the country’s approach to openly discussing and confronting their history. Vergangenheit “past”; Bewältigung “struggle to overcome the (negatives of the) past”. This concept has always fascinated me and I have often wondered how our future might look if we were to undertake some semblance of it here in the UK. If we were forced to examine the horrors of British colonialism, how different would our understanding of who we are and the modern world be?
In Britain, our tendency towards inertia and avoiding historical topics that might evoke national ‘guilt’ needs to be recognised. Reshaping the history curriculum would offer young people the opportunity to discuss and comprehend the far from favourable aspects of our history, as well as the skills to hold honest, reflective conversations about racist and oppressive ideologies and behaviour.
It is also important not to redesign the curriculum to merely be inclusive or tack on heroic figures from Black British history in a tokenistic manner. We need an education system, which demonstrates how much our country has been and continues to be shaped by a diverse range of people, not just the white male cast we are often presented with.
There is a long road ahead in order for the UK to reconcile truthfully with its past, but it must be acknowledged. The intersectional histories, the stories of remarkable women and the voices of the Black community have to be valued and embedded in British history, if the commitments to work towards an equal future are genuine.
The featured image shows a classroom. At the centre of the image a young girl sits behind a desk, holding her hand up. She wears a light-blue top and is holding a water bottle. There are two students to her left and two students to her right, all sitting behind desks.
Photograph by Paul Hart, used under the Creative Commons License
The first image is of a young woman, wearing a black jumper with the words ‘Black Lives Matter’ printed across it, in white
Photograph by Miki Jourdan, used under the Creative Commons License
The second image is a map, showing the sheer scale of the British Empire. British colonies across the world appear in pink.
Photograph by The Red Hat of Pat Ferrick, used under the Creative Commons License
The third image is a black and white photograph of Mary Seacole. She wears a long dress, with a large, full skirt and sits in a chair. Seacole looks down at her hands and is in front of a backdrop, depicting a painting of a rural scene.
Photograph in the Public Domain, author unknown
Used under the Creative Commons License
The next image is of the statue of Mary Seacole. It depicts Seacole in front of a large stone circle, walking forwards, with one hand on her heart.
Photograph by Marc Pether-Longman, used under the Creative Commons License
The next image shows the plinth where the statue of slave trader Edward Colton stood, until it was pulled down by protesters. Around the empty plinth there are Black Lives Matter placards and protesters are gathered around.
Photograph by Caitlin Hobbs, used under the Creative Commons License