Debunking the ‘schools don’t teach about empire’ myth

The idea that our education system ignores British imperialism is complete nonsense.

James Heartfield

Topics Politics UK

At the recent Labour Party deputy-leadership hustings, frontrunner Angela Rayner made a strong point about education. She said that it would be a good idea if we taught children more about democracy. ‘Our current curriculum teaches kids about colonialism and the empire and teaches them nothing about our democracy here today, and that’s what we need to be doing’, she said.

But within an hour, social media had declared that Rayner, a staunch left-winger, had gone all UKIP. Many said that British schools were actually covering up the history of the British Empire, and that they themselves were never taught anything about it when they were young. All of my family are or have been teachers, and my two daughters have just done their GCSEs and A-levels respectively. So I know that this is simply not true, and hasn’t been for some time.

The criticism that Britain does not do enough to expose the dark side of the British Empire in schools has been made for the past 50 years at least. My late mother, as a trainee teacher for the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA), was lectured by Bernard Coard, author of How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Sub-normal in the British School System (1971). The book produced evidence of the widespread mistreatment of West Indian children in the school system and challenged racism within the curriculum. One of its recommendations was that black studies should be taught in all schools.

At the time, this was of course a far more controversial argument to make than it is today. But even back then there was a clear interest in the points Coard was making. Looking back at the publication of the book three decades later, he wrote:

‘Every talk show on all the radio and TV stations covered it; usually inviting me to come and be interviewed at some length. The first six minutes of prime-time television news on the first day of publication had me debate the facts outlined in the book with the then chief education officer of the ILEA.’

I was at Kingsdale Comprehensive in the 1970s. Our well-meaning and liberal teachers worked hard to relate to what was one of the first intakes of second-generation Caribbean children. Our classes visited the Commonwealth Institute on day trips. The institute also organised a black-leadership conference for students at the school.

The issue of empire was being reckoned with in broader culture, too. In 1972, the BBC TV series, The British Empire, went to air, prompting Lord Ferrier and Lord Orr-Ewing to protest against the ‘misleading travesty’ for its anti-British slant. A few years later, Alex Haley’s famous mini-series about the history of slavery, Roots, was broadcast by ITV. It was shown on classroom VCRs for many decades afterwards.

In 1981, a report by Dawn Gill, originally commissioned by the Schools Council, concluded that many school syllabuses were racist. She said that geography syllabuses failed to discuss colonialism and its effects fully, that other countries were defined by what ‘they’ could provide for ‘us’, and that there was an undesirable ethnocentricity in much of what was studied (1). The report was published by the Institute of Education, and followed up by a conference titled, ‘Racist Society – Geography Curriculum’.

In 1987, Ansel Wong and Linda Bellos organised the first Black History Week – later Black History Month – for London schools. It was inspired by the Black History Month in the US, which was officially recognised by President Gerald Ford in 1976. Black History Month is today celebrated by thousands of British schools. There is now even a Black History Month magazine, which opens with a congratulatory message from the prime minister.

Now, over the decades, various Conservative governments have tried to reassert a more patriotic, pro-British outlook into history teaching. In 1989, the education secretary set up a working group on teaching history in schools. Concerns about the possible German domination of Europe reignited the debate over whether we needed a more patriotic British history curriculum (2). In 2010, Michael Gove also tried to reform the curriculum, saying too much teaching was ‘trashing our past’.

But these efforts to make the curriculum more ‘patriotic’ were successfully resisted by the educational establishment, which is ensconced in the Institute of Education and university history departments. As historian Sir Richard Evans, who led the opposition to Gove’s reforms, boasted after the government backed down, ‘Gove was forced to withdraw his proposed curriculum, introducing instead a far more wide-ranging, far less prescriptive programme that looked, in most respects, pretty much like the one he had tried to replace’.

Even though Evans claimed victory over Gove, that did not stop people denouncing the new curriculum as outrageously pro-imperialist. Writing in the Independent, Hasnet Lais tells us that he became a history teacher with the aim of ‘dismantling the inequalities generated by the abuse of power’, but in that ‘ambition to involve students in the struggle for freedom and equality, there is an agent constantly perverting the course of justice: the national curriculum’.

He claims the curriculum is ‘whitewashing’ the crimes of empire, citing as evidence a section of the history curriculum on ‘migration, empires and the people’. But Lais neglects to mention that under this very heading in the history curriculum, teachers are told to teach about the impact of the East India Company on India, the Indian Mutiny of 1857, and imperial propaganda. Teachers are also directed to discuss ‘nationalism and independence in India and Africa, including the role of Gandhi, Nkrumah and Kenyatta’, as well as the legacy of empire and the Windrush generation.

Under the A-level syllabus last year, my eldest daughter learned about the Cromwellian settlement of Ireland. And at GCSE both of my daughters learned about the triangular trade and slavery. The A-level literature syllabus this year includes Brian Friel’s anti-imperialist play, Translations, the works of Seamus Heaney, and Arundathi Roy’s The God of Small Things.

Meanwhile, there are more museums and galleries dedicated to the history of slavery than ever before, including the London Docklands Museum, the National Maritime Museum’s Atlantic Gallery, and the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool. All of these are constantly visited by school groups.

The movement to include a critical examination of the empire into the curriculum has had a marked impact on teaching in Britain. The claim that colonialism is not taught about or is actually covered up in history teaching is hard to sustain. I suspect that some of the people who repeat these claims simply didn’t pay enough attention in class when they were younger.

James Heartfield is co-author of The Blood Stained Poppy, published by Zero Books. Order a copy here.

(1) Geography in British Schools 1850-2000, by Rex Walford, Routledge, 2001, p188.

(2) The History Debate, by Juliet Gardiner, Collins & Brown, 1990

Picture by: Getty.

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Phil Ford

23rd January 2020 at 2:36 pm

I didn’t find out anything (beyond the usual negativity) about the British Empire – or other colonial empires in general – until I was safely far away from school and able to select my own reading list in my own time, and follow my own route through the history. What I discovered was far more detailed, complicated, chaotic, nuanced, and sometimes downright awesome than I ever learned at school.

A good place, I think, for anyone curious about the history of the British Empire in particular, is Jan Morris’s ‘Pax Britannica’ trilogy. I’ve re-read these books several times, just for the sheer pleasure of experiencing the story of our empire (the good and the bad) retold with wit and irony. Morris doesn’t shrink from criticism where its due, but she also doesn’t hesitate to evoke the lost splendor of ‘peak Empire’ (replete with all its lunacy and self-evident contradictions). Very readable and informative.

Alan Healy

24th January 2020 at 11:45 am

Pax Britannica , itself , is the best . Read it on my second week at university . (Not yesterday). He was still James Morris when he wrote it , in case anyone goes to find it on Amazon .

christopher barnard

23rd January 2020 at 2:16 pm

We should compel teachers to attend courses about the misdeeds of other nations so they can put the UK’s misdeeds into perspective.

Too many of them seem convinced that the UK has a uniquely awful recent past and they think it is cosmopolitan and sophisticated to uncritically admire foreign nations and their cultures, Israel and the USA excepted.

Forlorn Dream

23rd January 2020 at 12:53 pm

The British had to borrow vast sums of money to fund the anti-slave trade squadrons. These squadrons were then sent far and wide to capture, sink or burn any slave ships they found almost regardless of nationality. Any slave who set foot on a British ship was automatically free and would be defended in the same way as any British citizen.

The debt accrued to fund all this good work was eventually repaid in the early 1990’s. This means if you, like me, worked and paid taxes in the UK before that date then you have financially contributed to the eradication of the North Atlantic slave trade. You’re welcome.

This along with many many other remarkable truths makes me proud to be English. Why not teach this kind of history in our schools?

steven brook

23rd January 2020 at 10:57 am

” How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Sub-normal in the British School System (1971).” He followed this up with a second book explaining why other ethnic minority groups including first-generation Africans do very well in the exact same education system. Correction seemingly he never got round to this inconvenient truth.

Gerard Barry

23rd January 2020 at 11:15 am

Good one!

Gerard Barry

23rd January 2020 at 10:50 am

Why is there a black history month in schools? This sort of divisive identity politics bullshit has to stop. Sure, “black” history can be taught – as part of the general curriculum – but a whole month dedicated to the subject? And why stop there? Why not have an Asian history month, a Polish history month and so on so that no ethnic minority feels excluded? Imagine being a white English kid with problems of your own and having to put up with this nonsense?

And I must say I find it baffling, not to mention arrogant, how people from the former British empire have voluntarily come to the UK in such large numbers in recent decades only to then whinge about the school curriculum (and everything else) in the UK being too white. Don’t they realise that Europe is, almost by definition, white?

Ed Turnbull

23rd January 2020 at 10:39 am

Do children today learn how Napier ended the practice of suttee? Probably not. But, even if this episode is mentioned, I bet the idiots (I believe their official designation is ‘teacher’) pushing woke propaganda in our schools find a way to spin it in a negative light. They’d probably cast Napier as a white supremacist bigot intent on restricting an expression of feminism.

For these clowns the British Empire is axiomatically evil, regardless of whatever it did, or did not, do.

In Negative

23rd January 2020 at 4:59 pm

I really miss Sooty… The Matheww Corbitt days. You are right to bring it up – kids today just don’t know what they are missing out on.

In Negative

23rd January 2020 at 10:42 pm

I’d never heard about the Napier episode either. Is he that shiny faced young kid that took over the franchise? He’s not a patch on Corbett tbh. He is very white though – I can see why the white supremicist thing might stick…

Must admit to being a little surprised at you bringing this up here, but I’m glad you did. I don’t think it’s been given anything like the attention it deserves.

In Negative

23rd January 2020 at 10:49 pm

There is some truth to the idea that Napier might be restricting the feminism of the original. I mean, Soo was pretty bad ass in the Corbett era. I know, she did all that baking and messin about with flowers and stuff, but she demonstrated a fierce independence and maternal femininity. She’s not really as good with this Napier lad. I don’t think so anyway. I really miss Mathew.

Claire D

24th January 2020 at 10:30 am

The facts:

Suttee, the practice of burning the widow of a deceased man by his side at his funeral in India was made illegal in 1829
Prior to this there was concern amongst the British, both at home and in India that it was too dangerous to interfere with Indian customs. Between 1823 and 1830, 107 petitions protesting against it (by the British) were presented to the House of Commons. This was largely down to the efforts of the Reverend James Peggs, a Baptist missionary who in 1828 set up a Society for the Abolition of Human Sacrifices in India. They toured the UK urging women as well as men to petition the Government, which was successful. In 1829 the Governor General Lord William Bentinck finally made suttee illegal.

In Negative

2nd February 2020 at 6:58 pm

Additional to these facts, it is worth noting that in most cases, this was voluntary – that is, the widow elected to be burned alive. In some cases, it was only widows of royal descent that were allowed to burn themselves alive – lesser mortals had to content themselves with first being stabbed to death.

What’s my point? That human relationships can be very very strange indeed.

Sooty: a small yellow bear with a wand and speech impediment.

Alan Healy

24th January 2020 at 11:58 am

“Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs.”

Claire D

24th January 2020 at 2:06 pm

Good quote Alan but who said it ?

Claire D

24th January 2020 at 5:33 pm

It’s OK I’ve identified it – Napier.

Mike Stallard

23rd January 2020 at 9:23 am

Slavery? Yes, awful. It really was. The triangular trade, though necessary and though it paid for a lot of the industrial and agricultural revolutions, was wrong.
But it was Thomas Clarkson of Wisbech who united the voices raised against slavery. He travelled the country gaining support until slavery was brought to an end in the British Empire and beyond.
This is important. Brazil and Portugal, USA, even France kept going as long as possible right up until the 1860s.
And the victims? Sorry – black people were some of the very worst of them all. The Matabele, the Asante, the King of Dahomey? We stopped them too.
East Africa? Zanzibar? Arab traders out of Oman? Going on right up until the British Empire stopped them.
Russians were enslaving their own people right up to the 1860s as well.

We have a very proud record. We ought to teach that to everyone whatever their origins and whatever their skin colour.

Cedar Grove

26th January 2020 at 7:01 pm

Saudi Arabia didn’t abolish slavery until the late 20th century. The Arab slave trade was established centuries before Westerners joined in.

The Ottoman Turks rounded up not just Africans but Circassians as well. Giles Milton claims that in the 17th-18th centuries, a million Europeans were enslaved by the Barbary pirates who traded them in Morocco.

I’m unreservedly in favour of critical scrutiny of the slave trade, and consideration of Britain’s part in it, but I’d like the same rigour to be applied to the participation of others, and to our role in stopping it.

Ven Oods

23rd January 2020 at 7:54 am

Our educationalists should be proud: more are taught all about our disgusting past (much worse somehow than all those other imperial goings-on throughout history).
Unfortunately, they’re still turning out significant numbers of kids who need remedial courses in basic mathematics and their own written language(!) when they arrive at university.
It makes one wonder whether to laugh or cry.

Philip Davies

23rd January 2020 at 7:53 am

Perhaps the problem is that all teaching about the Empire is negative. There is no balance. And there are very few things which are entirely negative. It’s no different to any other Empire. The Roman Empire brought architecture, roads, government, administration and law, as well as domination and slavery. It would be wrong to present the bad without the good. The same is true of the British Empire. The UK was the first country in the world to ban slavery and campaign against it. Real history is complex. Looking for villains to hate and heros to cheer may satisfy emotionally but it does a disservice to kids education.

Philip Humphrey

23rd January 2020 at 8:19 am

One thing that has been largely airbrushed from history is that after the collapse of the Roman empire in the west, a number of Popes spoke out against slavery, and while the Roman empire depended on widespread slavery, the so called dark ages in Europe increasingly disapproved of it and got rid of it to a large extent. This at a time when slavery was normal in most of the known world. The later transatlantic slave trade was a sad regression by some westerners including Brits seeking to get rich quick. But the British empire should be credited with being the first to outlaw slavery outright, and to use its influence to abolish slavery in all parts of the world.

Mike Stallard

23rd January 2020 at 9:27 am

Philip, the triangular trade provided coffee, sugar and a few spices for the people of Britain. Dismissing it as people getting rich quick is not fair. In India, the Nabobs, yes.
Do you own a mobile phone? Where do you think the cobalt comes from? Do you honestly care?

John Lewis

23rd January 2020 at 7:25 am

Article penned by the co-author of “The blood stained poppy”.

That is all.

Adamsson 66

23rd January 2020 at 7:21 am

Did they learn about the anti slavery squadron and how we freed all of George Washington’s slaves many of whom fought for the British in the war of Independence. I suspect not.

Mike Stallard

23rd January 2020 at 9:29 am

I think they are programmed to listen and repeat, not think for themselves. The A level syllabus rather supports this – under a veneer of liberal verbiage, naturally.

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