For Black History to be more than a bullet point, teachers need government support and proper training
"“I find it difficult to understand how the Empire and Industrial Revolution can be taught and understood fully without teaching slavery” | Adobe Stock
8 min read
The subject of Black History in the curriculum has been much discussed over recent months – and yet the principles still appear abstract to some. Micha Frazer-Carroll talks to educators and race equality experts about what could be done differently
I remember when I first learned about Black History in school: it was in year six, when we studied Floella Benjamin’s Coming to England. As a mixed-race Caribbean girl in a majority white school, I so vividly remember the joy and fascination I felt reading Benjamin’s story of migration. It was the first time the Caribbean had even been mentioned in the classroom (as a result, I remember having to correct my classmates on the pronunciation of my family’s native ‘Antigua’).
Although this was part of our English or ‘Literacy’ lessons, it was historically enlightening too: I came to learn what my nanny had experienced, when she boarded a ship to Britain, and realised that it was something other British people’s parents and grandparents had done too. What I didn’t realise was that for the remaining seven years of my compulsory education, the histories of Black British people would scarcely come up in the classroom again – and that I should consider myself one of the lucky ones for having learnt any Black History at all.
When I talk to a number of other Black British people about their experiences, dozens tell me that they barely touched on Black History when they were at school. Even more worryingly, more than one person tells me teachers went so far as to reprimand them in school for raising questions about Black History.
Anne Percival*, who says she barely learned any Black History in school, confesses: “When I was 13, I got thrown out of history class for asking where all the Black people were when we were studying WWII. The teacher told me there weren’t any, and that if they had been there, it would be in our school books.” Anne continued to challenge the teacher and ended up with a write-up and detention.
Although people like Anne and I left school a number of years ago, most anti-racist researchers and campaigners feel that the situation in England has not improved in recent decades – with 2014’s new national curriculum for history making teaching Black History optional. In the current curriculum in England, no Black History is suggested at all at primary age level, although schools can teach it if they wish.
Then, between the ages of 11 and 14, students must cover compulsory topics like medieval Britain, the development of church, state and society, industry and empire – but again Black History is not a requirement. Indeed, of the 38 non-statutory examples listed on the Department for Education (DfE) website as topics for the Key Stage 3 curriculum, the only mention of Black History is: “Britain’s transatlantic slave trade: its effects and its eventual abolition.” As students progress, schools can offer optional modules such as Migration to Britain at GCSE – but only 4% of students actually do.
The DfE admitted in 2014 that it didn’t know how many schools were teaching about enslavement and the slave trade
Kim McIntosh, former senior policy officer at race equality think tank the Runnymede Trust (which I recently joined as acting online editor), tells me that this puts a lot of power in the hands of teachers to decide whether students learn Black History or not. “The optional nature makes it difficult to know what is currently being taught – and many important historical developments are not even suggested. The DfE admitted in 2014 that it didn’t know how many schools were teaching about enslavement and the slave trade.”
Funmilola Stewart, head of history at Dixons Trinity Academy in Bradford, agrees that slavery should not be an optional topic. “The transatlantic slave trade merely features as a bullet point in a list of other ‘non-statutory examples’. I find it difficult to understand how the Empire and Industrial Revolution can be taught and understood fully without teaching slavery.”
Stewart adds that the effect of this on students’ historical comprehension can be “incredibly severe”. “I find it concerning that, currently, we are in a position in which some school leaders may choose solely to glorify the British Empire, without also educating students on the impact that the Empire had on the indigenous people of its colonies,” she tells me.
“Not only would this result in students leaving school with ‘half’ an education, it could also have catastrophic consequences when students later learn details that had been omitted from their schooling.”
Sofia Akel, a race equality specialist who focuses on institutional racism, says that, for her, it is equally troubling that more recent Black British History never comes up. “One of the most glaring historical omissions is that of the civil rights movements that happened on UK soil throughout the 20th century,” she says. “You are likely to finish compulsory education believing that only Black Americans fought for their human rights against oppressive governments and institutions.
“But in Britain, we had our own political organisations such as the Black Panther Party, we had our own leaders such as Darcus Howe, and we had our own organisations such as the League of Coloured Peoples – none of which is taught in the school curriculum.”
Despite the criticisms of the current system, the government has not heeded repeated calls for change. Over the summer, public support for a more diverse history curriculum grew rapidly, with social enterprise The Black Curriculum sent an open letter to the secretary of state for education, Gavin Williamson, asking to meet to discuss reforms. Its request was rejected. In July, Layla Moran, the Liberal Democrats’ education spokesperson, also led an appeal to review the curriculum with a view to more Black, Asian and ethnic minority (BAME) history being taught. Schools minister Nick Gibb responded that there were no plans to hold a review, but that the DfE was discussing BAME history with different organisations.
The subjects, voices, and historical figures that are given prominence are not a matter of happenstance. Nor is it an objective decision to omit particular narratives and persons from our curricula
McIntosh tells me that what makes this all the more is frustrating is that there is more demand than ever from teachers wanting to cover Black History properly. In research conducted by the Runnymede Trust, it was found that 78% of teachers wanted training on teaching migration, and 71% on teaching the Empire.
But under the current system, where so much remains optional, many don’t feel equipped to do so. Teachers report that because most schools don’t cover these topics, there are fewer textbooks and resources on them; and as teachers are already so strapped for time and money (and also usually have not learned about Black History in their own education) it then becomes less likely that they will take a risk to teach something new.
“What they don’t know, they don’t teach,” McIntosh says. “And there are few training opportunities to assist teachers who might want to teach migration and Empire but do not feel confident teaching what can be fraught and difficult topics.”
As they await reform, McIntosh, Stewart and Akel unanimously tell me that teachers, researchers and campaigners have picked up the slack on the ground. Akel says: “Many teachers and academics may find themselves working independently or in very small groups, lobbying for wholesale changes within their institutions or school, with little or no support from the institution itself.” McIntosh also mentions that in response to growing demands for classroom-ready Black History materials, The Runnymede Trust has created Our Migration Story, a website documenting the untold stories of migration to Britain.
All this work is crucially important but, for some, only the government can facilitate the structural change that will ensure that all students get a well-rounded education. “There are still many people that don’t understand, or outright disagree with, the necessity to teach anti-racism,” Stewart tells me. “As teachers, working with students from all backgrounds, I feel that this is a worrying stance.”
Stewart says that, ultimately, this can affect students’ very sense of self – I think of my younger self, reading Floella Benjamin, aged 11. “It must be difficult for Black students to be taught histories in which Black figures are entirely absent, and to have to sit through countless lessons in which there is not a single person that looks like them,” she says. “It can also be really damaging to a person’s identity to realise that someone decided that Black History was not worthy of being taught.”
Akel says that if the government wants to improve its current track record on race, the curriculum is just as important an issue as any – and is intrinsically intertwined with the current inequality that is so rife across Britain. “The subjects, voices, and historical figures that are given prominence are not a matter of happenstance. Nor is it an objective decision to omit particular narratives and persons from our curricula.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Schools play a crucial role in helping young people understand the world around them and their place within it.
“The knowledge-rich curriculum in our schools already offers pupils the opportunity to learn about significant figures from black and ethnic minority backgrounds and the contributions they have made to the country’s history, as well as helping them learn about our shared history with countries from across the world.”
From the experts, it feels conclusive – a curriculum that both incorporates Black Histories, and challenges dangerous colonial narratives, is crucial to enhancing our very understanding of the world. As Akel puts it: “Education is inherently political.”
*Name changed for anonymity
Micha Frazer-Carroll is a columnist for The Independent, and acting online editor for the Runnymede Trust
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