"The empire is part of British history"

When the head of a London secondary school made this response to a question about the importance of teaching British history before that of other countries, most historians would have concurred. The suggestion that British history does not include the history of its empire, was summarily dismissed as was the inference that schools were failing to teach it. And yet, when we begin to look at both the limitations of the curriculum and what is actually being taught in our schools under the guise of British history, the reply starts to look a little disingenuous.

Despite all the efforts to teach about slavery in schools and historians arguing that the curriculum is wide enough to cover all aspects of empire, the truth is that the subject is failing us because of its adherence to its “traditional” topics, mainly related to the world wars, the rise of countries defined by the cold war and the usual diet of Medieval, Tudor-Stuart, Georgian and Victorian history.

In looking at the National Curriculum and the specifications and syllabi for GCSE and A-level history, the interface between the history of the United Kingdom and the empire is actually pitifully small. Of course, it depends on the emphasis each school places on its selection of topics and how they are interpreted and taught.

"History is too open-ended, too dependent on choices made by schools."

But, taking this school as an example (and its history curriculum is quite representative) reveals that despite protestations otherwise, history is too open-ended, too dependent on choices made by schools and, at all levels, fails to address the outcomes of history so evident in our society today.

At this particular school, in Year 7, the offering is four units of work: Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and Normans; Late Medieval England; Renaissance and Reformation Europe; and Tudor England. In Year 8, the four units of work are Stuart England, Georgian Britain which includes the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the early British Empire; Enlightenment Europe and the French Revolution; and Victorian Britain and the British Empire. So there is scope in two of the four topics for the empire to be the subject of, or part of, the lessons.

Thereafter, the picture becomes a little grim. Nationally, around 44 per cent of students take GCSE history. Here, the offering was partly determined by the examination board they chose, but certainly paid little attention to Empire. The four units in Year 9 (The First World War, Weimar and Nazi Germany and the holocaust; the Second World War and post-war Britain; and the Cold War) are background for the four GCSE units studied over the next two years (Superpower relations during the Cold War, 1945 – 1990; Anglo-Saxon and Norman Britain, 1060 – 1088; Warfare and British Society 1250-2019; and Weimar and Nazi Germany, 1918 – 1939.

"How many schools make play on the contribution of troops and resources from Africa, the West Indies and India?"

Of course there are ways to integrate aspects of the empire into the topic on war, but how many schools for instance, made play on the huge contribution troops and resources from Africa, the West Indies and India, for example, made to the war effort? So for three key years, British history pays scant or no regard to the history of empire.

By the time we get to A-levels, only around 10 per cent of students study history, so already the cohort of students is severely diluted. Again, however, the pickings are slim. One of the two topics covered in Year 12, British history 1763 – 1846 of course, covers a hugely important period of European history, to be shared amongst the French revolution, Napoleon and the Industrial revolution as well as the machinations of the British Empire (the Crusades and the first Crusader States, 1095 – 1192 are the second selected topic).

In Year 13, the pickings are more variable, covering China and its rulers, 1939 – 1989; and a topic-based essay (that could be directed towards some aspect of empire).

It is not as if there are any foundations laid in KS1 and KS2 either. Apart from identifying significant individuals (which may or may not have anything to do with empire) there is nothing that is mandatory in regards understanding the countries and experiences of empire. So, ignoring (as we should) the incidental teaching of history that may happen in other subjects such as religious studies or geography, the knowledge of history our students come away with does little to explain the links between our country and countries of the old empire.

So what do I propose we should be teaching (for it is only fair to offer something in return for making such criticisms of the curriculum and examination boards)? What would help us move forward as a country and inform our children about who we are? What would help break down the barriers of ignorance that lie behind racism?

"Importantly, we need to drive home the fact that part of colonisation was the attempt to 'civilize' the colonies."

I would suggest that we need to focus on why people arrived in the United Kingdom in the first instance – the various push and pull factors. The scramble for Africa amongst European powers that resulted in 10 per cent of Africa that was under formal European control in 1870 increasing to almost 90 percent by 1914, leading to immigration from many of the former British colonies and protectorates, such as Ghana, Nigeria and Zimbabwe.

We would need to look at our role in the Middle East after World War One and the Sykes-Picot agreement that explains the historical migration from those countries that became British protectorates after World War One.

Let’s touch upon Iraq and Palestine and the creation of the state of Israel; the independence of India and the creation of Pakistan in 1947; the involvement of troops from old colonies in the world wars as well as other wars which helps explain the Windrush generation, the Gurkhas etc.

Don’t forget the Opium Wars and our acquisition of Hong Kong with its own provenance; the slave plantations which were the historic basis for immigration from the West Indies; the whole process of decolonisation and the change from Empire to Commonwealth.

Perhaps most importantly we need to acknowledge the fact that colonization rode roughshod over other societies and peoples by attempting to "civilize" them by imposing our own culture, language, religion and social mores.

History is not about pride or shame in events past, but about informing and learning lessons from the past. By not doing so where it is argubly most important, we are compounding our own national ignorance to the detriment of our children and to society as a whole.