A Curriculum that Reflects Reality: Decolonising the Education System in the UK
In observing the present moment, we cannot deny the relentless ways in which the past reverberates through the present. History lingers in each act of brutality, in the social relationships which lead to these actions. It lingers in statues and institutions and the messages they profess.
In Britain, white supremacy is a legacy of the past which often persists in silent and unquestioned ways. Both overtly, but perhaps more importantly covertly, this legacy infiltrates all nooks of society. It is the invisible nature of white supremacy that, to many white people, means that the persistence of histories of injustice go unnoticed by them. These histories do not result in the suspicion of most white people, nor their deaths at the hands of the authorities or the conditions of their social positioning. In fact, too often they lead to their successes.
The present moment has made visible these silenced histories. The mass mobilisation of people following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, amongst many others, has held a mirror up to a white supremacist culture, both in the US and UK, which is built out, and constitutive of, unequal relations between white people and people of colour. As people have marched, pressured governments and dismantled statues, the memories of our national history have come into question.
But, why must it take death to make injustice visible to white people? Why must it take death to incite a national reflection on a culture which has continually oppressed and murdered people of colour? And how can we collectively learn and rebuild out of this moment, to ensure that our colonial past no longer taints the present, leading to the death of people and spirit?
Education, I want to suggest, is both a catalyst of persisting injustice and a means for liberation out of it. What we learn shapes how we think and motivates how we act towards one another. Being educated about our national history determines what we know about, and how we relate to, the past. As such, through education, we learn to either celebrate and carry forth histories of oppression, or actively rewrite and resist them.
The onus of this education is threefold. It falls on us individually, on our families and peers and the education system which guides us through our formative years. Though the lessons of the former are highly subjective, those of the latter should be consistent. The lessons taught in our education system should strive for wholeness; for a raw and complete representation of our national history, not only in its successes, but its brutal failures, which continue to shape the present.
The education system in the UK is an institution which carries forth the legacies of our colonial past. Its construction is contextualised by empire, colonialism and patriarchy, amongst other dominant forces. These forces foreground education and echo through the lessons we are taught in school.
When looking to the education system as both a catalyst of, and a liberation from, present injustice, then, we must ask, what are we being taught in school? Whose voice is being sounded by these lessons? Who is being silenced? And in what ways do the lessons being taught shape the minds of young people beyond the classroom? If what we are taught shapes how we come to know ourselves and the world, then answering these questions becomes crucial in understanding the relentless persistence of injustice we are experiencing at this moment in time.
The Department for Education states that:
“The national curriculum aims to ensure that all pupils:
Know and understand the history of these islands as a coherent chronological narrative, from the earliest times to the present day: how people’s lives have shaped this nation and how Britain has influenced and been influenced by the wider world.” (1)
Yet, in a petition urging educational institutions in the UK to teach children about the realities of imperialism and colonialism, it is noted that, in spite of this statement, “there is still much omitted from Britain’s colonial history” in schools (2). That which is omitted, it seems, is the plethora of perspectives necessary to honestly represent historical experience. Indeed, scrolling through the national curriculum for history, for Key Stage 3, the options to study Britain’s colonial past are sparse. Opportunities to study this past from the perspective of the colonised are non-existent.
Even when this past is taught, then, it is done so through a singular, relentlessly Eurocentric perspective. A report published by “The Black Curriculum” initiative reflects on an ambiguous 2007 revision to the national curriculum for Key Stage 3, requiring that pupils be taught a “substantial amount of British history” (3). Problematically, it argues, “the definition of ‘British history’ and the ‘key concepts’ around Fundamental British Values” taught in history lessons, “align exclusively to a celebration of the British Empire and its oppressive and colonial past”.
It is thus often the voice of white Britain which is sounded by the education system and the voices of those it has defined as the ‘other’ which are silenced. This partial teaching of British history, through a celebration of empire and its continuation in the present, affects social relations and identities which far surpass those in the classroom.
In a report published by SOAS (University of London), it is considered that the school curriculum is both “informative and performative in its functions” (4). It is informative to the extent that it “conveys specific content related to the subject of study”. Beyond this, it’s performativity rests on the notion that the curriculum “defines the parameters of that topic and assigns some level of authoritative weight to whatever content is included within it”.
That is to say that what is taught in the classroom surpasses mere content. Instead, it instils within young people a sense of whose words are able to be voiced, and whose will be structurally silenced. By defining the parameters of British history through a celebration of empire, those silenced in the past become silenced in the present and the authority given to those who embody colonial Britishness becomes reinstated.
Integral to the resistance we are experiencing right now is an expression of the immediate need to re-evaluate the education system. To make visible and work against the injustices that selective education leads to. In short, to decolonise the lessons we are taught in school.
So, what does decolonising the education system look like and what actions are being made to do this? To paraphrase Maori academic Linda Tuhiwai Smith, decolonising education about history means overcoming the assumption that history is an innocent, all encompassing, chronological narrative, which tells a story of progress resulting from a series of national successes (5). Instead, a decolonial approach to historical education turns its lens on the narrative of history itself, critically assessing the voice it sounds and creating space for the voices it has silenced.
The Black Curriculum is an initiative which seeks to do just this. Founded in 2019, the initiative seeks to “address the lack of Black British history in the UK Curriculum”, recognising this educational deficiency as a contributing factor to the persistence of racism in the UK (6). “When young people are not taught their history within Britain”, they suggest, “their sense of identity and belonging is negatively impacted and social relations, hindered”. It is in this recognition that we see how education may be both a catalyst for, and liberation from the injustices we are experiencing at this present moment.
The curriculum is structured around the modules of Art History, Migration, Politics and the Legal System and Land and the Environment and seeks to give children a complete education on the reality and richness of Black British history. These modules are requirements; deemed necessary to children’s education, rather than mere options that can be subjectively deemed important or disposable. The initiative aims to “provide a sense of belonging and identity to young people across the UK, to “teach an accessible educational Black British history curriculum that raises attainment for young people” and “to improve social cohesion between young people in the UK”. The intended outcomes of the program thus extend far beyond the classroom, helping children to discover their voice and utilise it to create the society they want to live within; a creation which should not be a privilege granted only to people who have white skin.
The perspectival selectivity of the education system, as it currently stands, is a means through which white supremacy is upheld. One which is not the intentional action of any one educator or school but is deeply engrained into an institution which is built on, and shaped by, historical injustice. In supporting The Black Curriculum and other efforts to decolonise the education system, we collectively take a step towards overcoming the injustices people of colour have been, and continue to, experience within this country and beyond. We resist the perseverance of a national narrative centred on exploitation and oppression and actively contribute to a process of collective healing. We are all implicated in this fight, so please let us begin rewriting the narrative of history to reflect its reality for all and rebuild out of this moment of injustice.
- The National Curriculum for History, Key Stage 3
- Petition: Change.org
- The Black Curriculum Report – 2020
- Decolonising SOAS – Learning and Teaching Toolkit
- Decolonising Methodologies (1999) – Linda Tuhiwai Smith
- The Black Curriculum
Efforts to decolonise the curriculum:
Beth Simpson, Society and Community Editor
Image via Change.Org