By Malachi McIntosh and Hannah Elias  

There’s no question the UK is experiencing a great moment of national uncertainty in this pre-Brexit environment. With a rise in hate crime, mounting evidence of persistent racial bias, and an increasing frequency of xenophobic and anti-immigrant language in our politics, it’s not surprising that a fervent conversation has been prompted on what it means to be British. There is a direct link between how Britishness is contested and defined in our public understanding, and the debate on how British history should be taught and understood in classrooms across the country. Put another way; what’s missing from our curriculum is also missing from our public debate. The voices and experiences of Black British and British Asian people are often excluded in schools or inserted as add-ons or supplements to ‘real’ history. School history programmes tending to focus on Tudor monarchs and the World Wars at the expense of the concurrent events in British history that were perhaps even more consequential: notably, the histories of empire and migration.

Since 2010, the Runnymede Trust, in conjunction with the universities of Manchester and Cambridge, has been working with school history teachers and the country’s major history-teaching and research organisations to explore how Britain’s global connections through empire and migration are taught in English schools. The results have been sobering, and have led to the creation of the Our Migration Story, Making Histories and Banglastories websites to provide much-requested support to teachers interested in presenting these topics in the classroom. It has also culminated in a further collaboration, with the Institute of Historical Research, on a public engagement event that took place on 4 December 2018, entitled ‘Where Do We Fit In? Black and Asian British History on the Curriculum.’

At this gathering in the University of London’s Beveridge Hall, a panel of writers, teachers, poets, activists, historians and sociologists discussed the ways that BME British experiences can be taught and understood as British History. The popularity of this event, which sold-out in only a matter of days, underscores the urgency of the topic. The presentations and reflections of the attendees made it very clear: history teaching in Britain is often not fit for purpose. Speakers and performers, including Afua Hirsch, Young People’s Laureate for London Momtaza Mehri, Hannah Lowe and poet and writer Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan, emphasised the importance of properly contextualising British history in the history of global migration, and moving away from introducing BME histories through the lens of cultural experience without situating them in the wider history of our shared past. The six panellists, representing a range of ages and backgrounds, each echoed a similar experience; none of them learned much about Black British and Asian history until they arrived at university. Professor Hakim Adi reflected, poignantly, that all he was taught about black Britons and Asians in school was that ‘the right word for the child of a “Negro” and “Negress” is “pickanniny.”’ Younger panellists noted that in their school-age education Asian and black Britons were treated as producers of ‘culture’ not ‘history,’ and often only present in Britain’s story for one month of the year.

Panel of speakers at ‘Where do we fit in? Black and Asian History on the Curriculum’ at Senate House, 4 December 2018.

The push for academisation and free schools has resulted in a schools system that is arguably as fragmented as the one that prompted the 1988 Education Reform Act, which launched the National Curriculum. This decentralisation and deregulation makes a broad assessment of what’s happening across English schools difficult. However, a series of face-to-face workshops, focus groups, surveys and meetings with teachers and teacher-training organisations conducted by Runnymede and Manchester University over the last two years has painted a picture of a curriculum that remains focused on ‘the Henries and Hitler’ (to borrow a phrase from Peter Mandler) at the expense of concurrent developments that were as consequential: notably, the histories of empire and migration.

While campaigns to ‘decolonise’ British universities have flourished in recent years, the UK lacks a sustained campaign to diversify national school curricula. The Royal Historical Society’s recent Race, Ethnicity and Equality Report, published in October 2018, has said there is a pressing need to widen the history taught in schools and universities in order to ‘challenge the racial foundations of the discipline and to reflect the full diversity of human histories.’ While there is a growing consensus among leading research and teaching organisations like the Royal Historical Society, the Historical Association, the Institute for Historical Research, and the Schools History Project that the history we teach in schools is often incomplete, these opinions are rarely represented in public debate.

Brexit and demographic changes have charged conversations about migration and empire with airs of outrage and defensiveness, with many commentators stepping forward to defend ‘our’ history against what are often portrayed as incursions from outside. But the stories of black and Asian Britons are Britain’s history. Colonial wealth built Britain, and throughout its long history, Britain has been a node in a global network of immigration and emigration that extended its reach and shaped its current form. To teach the story of this nation without people of African and Asian descent — and without Asia, Africa, and the Americas themselves — is to give a partial account.

Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan speaking at Beverige Hall, Senate House on 4 December.

As poet and activist Suhaiymah Manzoor Khan said at our 4 December event, history teaching is inherently political. The choices made about what appears on the curriculum directly reflect the priorities and interests of those who govern. Read through this lens, it is hard not to see a certain image of Britain emanate through a programme of instruction in schools that often forgets the brutalities of colonisation in Ireland, in the Caribbean, in Africa, and in Asia; forgets the generations of settlement, mixture and contribution of peoples from across the world in the UK; forgets Jewish, Romani and medieval migrations (and expulsions); and forgets much of the history of decolonisation. In light of these absences, it is an open question just how many of pass through compulsory education and leave with a clear sense of how contemporary Britain came to be.

Where debates about Britain’s identity and diversity are presented, the conversation is often depicted as a back and forth exercise of false equivocation between two opposing sides of an argument, one which wants to represent the history and memory of empire positively, and one that wants to explore fully its repercussions. It would be better to turn our efforts to exploring what’s often ignored in these debates: how we can present a fuller, richer picture of Britain’s past in order to equip young people to plot its future. Some important research and policy work has been done in this arena by Sir Keith Ajegbo and Dr Richard Harris, and supplemented by Runnymede, but there’s a glaring lack of detailed study of best practice in teaching empire or migration, or on the effects of learning about both topics in schools.

It should go without saying, but sadly too often needs to be said: Britain’s history is the history of all of the peoples who played a role in its development. There’s certainly a need for more time, effort, energy, and thought to be expended on how this history is rendered and constructed in the national curriculum, both before and after 29 March 2019. If we are at all interested in having informed debates about Britishness, Englishness, Blackness, Whiteness, and Europeanness, then we need to make sure our youngest citizens are equipped to participate in the conversations ahead.

Listen to a full podcast recording of ‘Where do we fit in? Black and Asian History on the Curriculum’.
Watch video of Malachi and Hannah discussing this issue on Sky News

Dr Malachi McIntosh is Project Lead of Our Migration Story at the Runnymede Trust and Research Fellow at the Institute of Modern Languages Research. Follow @MalachiMcIntosh



Dr Hannah Elias is a Researcher and Academic and Digital Engagement Officer at the Institute of Historical Research. Follow @HannahElias