Schools must face up to Britain’s colonial past

Teaching a whitewashed history excludes British students from different cultural backgrounds: it ignores the impact of their ancestors.

Rarely is the true nature of the British Empire acknowledged – or taught. It’s time to take off the tinted lenses – starting with the current school curriculum.

Our education system spares no effort to highlight the importance of Britain in helping to liberate the oppressed victims of Nazi Germany, or the ingenious methods that allowed its rise during the industrial revolution. But it fails to teach Britain’s industrialisation was reliant on a rapid deindustrialisation of its colonies. It’s most evident through the decline of India from one of the richest countries in the world, prior to British intervention, to one of the poorest afterwards. This process of education paints a very one-sided view of history, maintaining a system intentionally diminishing the influence of the colonies in our history.

A lack of proper education on Britain’s colonial history allows racism to fester, with a belief in the superiority of the British remaining prevalent. Britain ‘misses’ its empire more than other major post-colonial powers. We see the claims that people from ethnic minority backgrounds ought to be grateful for the ‘liberation’ that the British provided for them, and for their ability to even live within the country.

This fails to account for the millions of colonial soldiers who died fighting during the wars, the reliance upon colonised people to establish and build British institutions, and countless other sacrifices that enabled Britain to become the power it is today. By not including the huge debt Britain owed to colonised peoples within History lessons, we reinforce colonial ideology. Educating the next generation on can prevent racist ideologies from being internalised.

The British secondary school curriculum states that students should gain knowledge of ‘how Britain has influenced and been influenced by the wider world’ – yet enforces a curriculum that fails to account for the role of formerly colonised people in Britain’s development.

Teaching a whitewashed history excludes British students from different cultural backgrounds: it ignores the impact of their ancestors. With over a quarter of state funded primary and secondary school students coming from a BAME background, this is a scandalous omission.

It’s time to understand how the racial ‘hierarchy’ – one which sought to justify Britain’s governance of other countries – was built, and continues to be justified. The murder of George Floyd and the resonance with similar cases in the UK illustrates the necessity of understanding the origins of these ideas so that they can be combatted.

Amid the recent protests, the rapper Akala said things would remain the same until African and Caribbean countries managed to achieve economic independence. But that should not prevent Britain from tackling racism here.

Education must inform an understanding of this history: explaining how Britain was built on the backs of colonised people.  

To move forward, we have to change the curriculum.  

Amar Raja is a final year student of Philosophy, Politics and Religion at the University of Birmingham. 

Find out more: The Black Curriculum

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