Amy Dwyer discusses the need for greater diversity within the history curriculum.
The recent tragic murder of George Floyd has reinvigorated calls for fundamental changes to the history curriculum taught in schools across the UK. This, much needed, movement for greater diversity in our history curriculum to include British colonialism, the civil rights movement in the UK and modern treatment of BAME communities, should be part of a much broader push for systemic change to our education system.
Whilst there have been some positive changes made, such as the eventual inclusion of financial education into the national curriculum in 2014 , there is much work to be done to change the underlying principles of our education system. We must prioritise understanding and inclusivity over patriotism and glorifying Britain’s imperial past. This part of our past is important to understanding who we are, we need to critically engage with our colonial history and the mistakes made.
It is generally assumed that we are taught history in order to learn from the past. Yet if we are not taught the whole story, how are we able to learn from this. By only focusing on the aspects of our history that make us look generous, liberal and powerful, we neglect considerable and important aspects of our history. Part of being a liberal nation is understanding all of our past and using our mistakes as lessons to learn from, not cutting them out of the conversation.
The Government states that history curriculums must cover ‘the history of these islands…from the earliest times to the present day’. Surely the fact that so many of us miss out on any meaningful education covering our long history as an invading imperial nation means that this is not being delivered. This, in itself, belittles the often abhorrent actions of the British Empire and lets us down as a nation. We need to understand the difficult parts of our past in order to learn from this and become the nation that we want to be.
Unless we engage with our imperial past in the classroom, we risk generations of Britons with little regard for this important aspect of our history and perhaps our identity as the United Kingdom. Our schooling lets us down, by portraying our imperial past as something we should be proud of, something that unites us as a nation when we know the opposite is true. Colonialism is something we condemn, so why is this not reflected in our education.
However, it is not only British colonialism that is left out of our history lessons. I have studied history at primary school, GCSE, A Level and Undergraduate level and there has been a noticeable lack of teaching surrounding Northern Ireland and The Troubles. We shouldn’t have to make an active choice at an advanced level of our education, to be given the opportunity to understand major parts of our modern history. We shouldn’t have generations of young people leaving education every year with little to no knowledge on our relationship with Ireland and Northern Ireland.
Yes, the issue may be divisive, but it would be considerably less so in England, Scotland and Wales where levels of understanding and tensions are much lower. Teaching colonialism is also likely to be divisive but just because the issue is difficult, does not mean we shouldn’t engage. If anything, we should engage more to make sure we do learn from our past and come to positive solutions to ongoing situations, like in Northern Ireland. It is a disgrace that we have adults in this country now, let down by our education system, who have no knowledge of The Troubles, which constituted a large part of our recent history.
Undoubtedly, we need to recognise the positives of our education system, such as the compulsory financial education. But fundamental changes to our national curriculum are needed to create and support a education system that instils in young people awareness, respect and understanding of historic and current issues that inform our national identity. It is difficult to understand why these changes have not been made, given the major support for this and a Windrush review that concluded greater education of our colonial past is needed. This suggests that only with greater pressure, from writing to MPs and engaging with the issue across social media can we hope to fix these omissions in our education system.
Amy Dwyer is studying for an MA in Politics and is an ambassador at 50:50 Parliament.
She tweets at @AmyDwyer23