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MPs, students, and activists on getting Black history taught in schools

For too long, British history lessons have skimmed the surface of our imperial past – meet the campaigners looking to decolonise the curriculum

TextKemi AlemoruIllustrationBobby Joseph

“There is trauma in the Black British experience. In not really being sure who you are, which is reinforced by the fact that no one’s teaching you who you are,” says Kate Osamor, the Labour MP who this year founded Edmonton Black Lives Matter, a charter to radically reform education culture in her constituency. 

Britain’s current curriculum is being taught through a white lens. For starters, 93 per cent of England’s state-school head teachers are white, while non-white teachers make up just 14 per cent of the workforce. Outcomes for white students at GCSE level are generally better, with 42.6 per cent receiving a strong pass for English and Maths finals, versus 38.8 per cent for Black children. In 2014, the history curriculum was changed to state that students must be taught a broader understanding of British history, including “how Britain has influenced and been influenced by the wider world”. Yet while many kids have an in-depth knowledge about Henry VIII and the way he treated his wives, there are still huge discrepancies in how slavery, empire and industry is taught. Not only does the current curriculum skim the surface of these transformative chapters, it emphasises teaching history in chronological order so that more recent histories are only taught up to KS3 and after GCSE level, when many pupils leave school. The Runnymede Trust wrote that “the new curriculum downplays the internal diverse histories of ‘our island story’, placing them as ‘out there’ rather than ‘in here’ and of relevance ‘then’ rather than ‘now’”.

“Schools in England are racially illiterate,” says Antonia Antrobus-Higgins, a member of UK student activist group Fill in the Blanks. The organisation was set up by a group of students from south London who wanted to push for better representation in education via thorough teaching of colonial history. Their guerilla campaign, which saw them ‘hack’ 5,000 newspapers on the tube to make colonial history a front-page story of the Metro, made national headlines.

In what has been the most tumultuous summer in living memory, MPs and grassroots activists are now fighting alongside each other, forming an intergenerational alliance for a fairer and more accurate curriculum that will help future Brits better understand their country’s cultural make-up. People like Lavinya Stennett, who last year founded The Black Curriculum, a group delivering training and workshops in schools, and headteacher Allana Gay, who co-runs the education advocacy group BAMEed. Here, Antrobus-Higgins, Gay, Osamor, Stennett and Nadia Whittome – the UK’s youngest MP, representing Nottingham East – come together to consider the path forward.

How would you sum up UK modern history based on the version we teach children at school?

Nadia Whittome: If you didn’t know anything about Black history and the fact that Black history is British history, you’d be forgiven for going away and thinking that England has only white history and the UK’s only interactions with other countries were benign. Things like the Bengal famine didn’t exist and slavery only existed in the States.

Allana Gay: You would also think that the Brits brought everything developed to their (colonies) as well. That they left a legacy of positivity, not necessarily with the permission of those countries, but for the benefit and wider good of all those people who originated from these places.

Lavinya Stennett: Or that the recent arrival of Black British people was the beginning of our history here.

Antonia Antrobus-Higgins: Even when it may have done some things wrong like slavery, it’s OK because they abolished it and it was perfect from then on.

What do you think would have changed in your own personal journeys if the teaching of history had been different?

Allana Gay: I think more people around me would recognise I’m more than just a (descendent of) slaves. There is so much more substance to my heritage and more to who I am.

Kate Osamor: I was very fortunate. My parents didn’t rely on state education to teach me about my heritage. I went to supplementary school on Saturdays, and all my teachers were Black. I was taught about my culture and about the Caribbean; I travelled a lot as well. I wish I’d been able to bring all my friends and classmates into that setting so they could have been encouraged and (given) confidence. But for me it was difficult because, on one hand, I was taught that Black is beautiful, and then I would go into my school, and there was conflict there. I was encouraged to be vocal, but being vocal against your teacher doesn’t work out in a school environment. In the long run, it made me who I am. I’m Black British – I can say my family is from Nigeria, but (with) all my experiences here, this is my home.

Allana Gay: Yes, there are people who are doing this work. There’s Greek school, Chinese school, French school. Bring them in, you will see the magic that they work for these children.

Lavinya Stennett: Interestingly, supplementary schools came out of a report which said that Black students were being put in separate schools called ‘schools for the educationally subnormal’, and a lot of what I know about colonialism was taught to me outside of my curriculum. So I don’t have much faith for change to be driven by (the) schools (themselves).

“Constituents wrote to me after the murder of George Floyd and said, ‘What can we do?’ They said we need to make sure we are educating our young people, giving them purpose, making them recognise that Blackness is beautiful” – Kate Osamor

Looking at our current political context with Brexit and the hostile environment the government is creating for immigrants, what impact does British exceptionalism have on young people?

Allana Gay: I think everyone in Britain is very well aware of the atrocities that took place earlier on, but there has been a selective focus that allows them to say ‘that was a long time ago, this is now’. Since we only look at snapshots, you get comments to go back to where you came from. You want to say to those people that, when the Windrush generation came here, as far as they were concerned they were coming home. There is a lack of understanding that the Windrush generation were British subjects when they arrived, and that they were invited to come here and work.

Kate Osamor: They thought the streets were paved with gold, but when they came here what they found was cold weather and racism. They were given poor housing, and, when it came to jobs, their education didn’t mean anything, even (if) they were overqualified. Is it selective memory to erase this, or just racism?

Antonia Antrobus-Higgins: So I was just looking at a recent YouGov poll which said that 50 per cent of leave voters feel that the empire was something to be proud of. And also 50 per cent of those voters think that the (former) colonies are better off (for the experience), whereas only 20 per cent of remain voters say that. Brexit is rooted in misinformation and the blinkered half-truths we teach in school.

Nadia Whittome: Tory MP Danny Kruger, who was Eton-educated, said that ‘the salient fact about slavery is not that we practised it, so did every civilisation in history, but that we abolished it’. And that’s the salient point, as he calls it. Imagine spending that money on your education and coming out and not knowing about the atrocities of the British empire. But then, on the other hand, that is what institutions like Eton (are) set up to serve. Of course, the British government spent the equivalent of £20bn compensating slave owners – some of these people were Tory MPs’ ancestors – for their loss of property. It was only in 2015 that these loans were paid back. And the fact that there isn’t really any condemnation of that! On the contrary, there’s outright denial, and that’s a really worrying backdrop to politics now.

It’s like saying, ‘Me and my friends punched you in the face, but we stopped, didn’t we?’ Meanwhile you give the attackers a plaster for their knuckles afterwards and leave your victim wounded. And they’re not allowed to ever talk about it.

Kate Osamor: Loads of constituents started writing to me after the murder of George Floyd and said, ‘What can we do?’ These were young people that wouldn’t normally write to me about anything. They said we need to make sure we are educating our young people in Edmonton, giving them purpose, making them recognise that Blackness is beautiful. It was a very emotional interaction. I decided to meet with them and talk – Lavinya (from The Black Curriculum) was part of that discussion. I wrote to local schools with the concerns of the people in Edmonton. It was very local. I called it the Black Lives Matter Charter because it’s a charter for change. We need these children to know that there were people living a life before white people turned up and enslaved them, and this is how they lived. When I put the charter up on my website we spoke about race in a way that we’ve never done before.

There are tens of thousands of signatures on a petition to include Black British history in the curriculum. What are the barriers stopping this from happening?

Lavinya Stennett: We started a campaign in June called #TBH365 to teach Black history, and that was targeted at (education secretary) Gavin Williamson MP. We’ve seen for years the lack of action from petitions, so we got people to email him directly. We had more than 200,000 people email him requesting a meeting. He didn’t respond. The problem is that the government has adopted a laissez-faire approach where schools and education are quite decentralised. Yes, there is flexibility in what you can teach, but some schools just don’t have the resources or training.

Kate Osamor: Critical mass will help if there are barriers, because what we’ve seen is that, when this government is put under pressure, they will respond. Right now, with their majority, they can do whatever they want. We have to remember that Michael Gove made it his job, in 2014, to remove mandatory teaching of race and diversity in our curriculum. He’s still there, in a senior position. We’re trying to ask for change from the people who made this problem possible. If more MPs start doing what’s been done in my patch, for example, you show it can be done elsewhere. You’ve got power in your voice, use it.

Nadia Whittome: The way things currently are is exactly how this government wants them to be; they don’t want to change things. We’ve got to force it to happen.

Allana Gay: I disagree, all governments do what’s easiest. Schools have to be held accountable for how they educate. If we’re talking about resources, we have to give credit to the work that’s been done already. There are resources through the Runnymede Trust on migration; the Historical Association, who (focus on) African kingdoms; there’s The Black Curriculum. There’s a lot of work being done and a lot of resources available. Let’s not forget academies, private schools, independent schools – we don’t have to follow the national curriculum. If anything, I would also be a bit wary about having too deep an association with Black Lives Matter, because that’s divisive.

Is Black Lives Matter inherently divisive? Or is it seen as divisive because people are woefully uneducated on how structural racism works and white privilege manifests?

Allana Gay: We need to find a way for a rural school in Yorkshire with only white students and staff to understand that representation in the curriculum is as important (there) as it is for a multicultural school in London. That’s when we’ll know that we’ve been successful in changing what education is about. How do we engage everyone?

Kate Osamor: But if you’re saying that the majority of teachers are white and we need to bear in mind that they may be sensitive or fragile – I’m stretching your words here, I’m not saying that’s what you said – what has that got to do with teaching us all who we are? Why haven’t we got Black teachers? There’s room for discussion and I think we shouldn’t be scared.

“We never learned about things like the Grunwick strike or the Bristol bus boycott. They make you think the last Black man who made a difference was Martin Luther King, or the only Indian liberation figure was Gandhi” – Nadia Whittome

Polite people don’t often change history – the people who are a nuisance do.

Nadia Whittome: Yes, we also need to resist any attempts to sanitise history. None of the rights that we’ve ever won have been handed to us, they’ve been fought for and seized – this is going to be exactly the same. It’s not a surprise that BLM is viewed as controversial, but that is reflective of why the movement itself is so important. Saying that Black people should have equal rights and that we shouldn’t have a system of structural racism shouldn’t be controversial. It’s controversial because it upsets the world order.

In 1971, teacher Bernard Coard attempted to highlight how schools omit and distort histories and how this impacts the identity and self-esteem of children who aren’t white.

Lavinya Stennett: Knowledge is power, really and truly. When I was doing African studies at Soas last year, I came across things I’d never heard before. While I felt really empowered, I just thought, ‘What about other people who lived on my road and have similar backgrounds but don’t know anything about their history?’ We founded The Black Curriculum for young people who don’t always get to go to university and don’t have the money (to). It gives people a space to talk about their race in the education system and be open and free. One Black boy, who was 15 years old, set up his own Black British book club straight after a session.

How important is POC solidarity in making the British curriculum more representative for all children?

Antonia Antrobus-Higgins: Our focus is on colonial history, because we want to decolonise the curriculum. The natural first step is that everyone needs to learn about colonialism and what happened – to understand how some people were enriched by this endeavour and others were damaged (by it) and you can still see the legacy of that today. I just realised I felt so blank, and that’s where the name (Fill in the Blanks) came from. How can a good knowledge of history fill that void?

Nadia Whittome: Black, Asian and POC solidarity and allyship is really important here. The Black and Asian history that we learn about is so superficial. We never learned about things like the Grunwick strike or the Bristol bus boycott. They make you think the last Black man who made a difference was Martin Luther King, or the only Indian liberation figure was Gandhi. There are many others.

It’s important for Asian people to amplify the voices of Black people in particular. When I was in school, I had one teacher who wasn’t white; I was in year ten and she was Jamaican. I’m Indian, but seeing someone who was a woman of colour, who understood my life experiences, was liberating. It’s not a popular thing to talk about, but a lot of people’s first real experiences of racism come from teachers. We’ve come a long way as a generation but, sadly, it’s been through educating ourselves and each other through alternative media like gal-dem, rather than through our schooling. My role as an MP is to amplify these voices and pass the mic.