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Teaching about the British Empire: Cutting through the noise

  • 7 February 2024
  • By Dr Alice Pettigrew
  • This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Dr Alice Pettigrew, a researcher at the Institute of Education, University of London.

Researchers from University College London and the University of Oxford have recently launched an ambitious new project aiming to provide an empirical portrait of current teaching and learning around the interconnected themes of the British Empire, migration and belonging in England’s secondary schools. 

On the 13th June 2020, a letter was published in The Times newspaper signed by more than 50 UK-based academics, educators, campaigners, novelists and historians underscoring the timely ‘need to teach colonial history’ in Britain’s schools.  

The letter’s signatories were far from alone in making such an appeal. That same month, 47 separate petitions directly related to teaching about empire were submitted via the UK Government and Parliament website; 268,882 people lent their support to the most successful of these. While such themes have in fact long been of concern to historians, educators and politicians, the killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter activism that followed on both sides of the Atlantic appeared to propel a striking new interest in the positioning of British imperial history within the nations’ classrooms and curriculum amongst the wider British public too. Competing petitioners simultaneously urged government to, ‘make teaching about colonialism and its impact on society mandatory’, while others advocated schools ‘embrace our colonial history with pride [in] how we saved the free world countless times’. Inflamed further by both burgeoning column inches and party-political attention, three years later and on first impression, this appears to be a public interest that continues to polarise.  

Indeed, as research by Kings College London reports, throughout 2020 and beyond, wider concern over representation of Britain’s colonial past became one of the key battlegrounds within national so-called ‘culture wars’. And by 2022, when both Kemi Badenoch, in her role as Minister for Equalities, and Nadhim Zahawi, as then Secretary of State for Education, publicly advocated that schools ‘teach the benefits of empire’, their comments were framed as interventions towards ‘improving impartiality in schools’ following the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report’s recommendation that the history of the making of modern Britain be approached in ‘a balanced way’

Of course, this is a deeply contentious issue. What is, irrefutably clear, however, is that there is a great deal of politically freighted, emotively laden ‘noise’ out there, noise which in its own right has the potential to further impact the everyday experiences and decisions made by teachers in schools.  

As principal investigators working together to design a research project in exactly this arena, myself and Dr Jason Todd are especially cognisant of this noise. We recognise too that, in conceiving of and conducting this work from the base of two universities, as a previous blog post by HEPI President Bahram Bekhradnia has warned, our project itself might immediately and irredeemably be positioned by some as reflecting only the ‘excessively liberal’, dogmatically leftist orthodoxy of British Higher Education, a second key frontline in those same culture wars. Yet precisely as both academics and as educators, our shared, fundamental commitment is to listen – and to learn – beyond the sound and fury and to hear from – and better understand – the voices and perspectives of those actually teaching and learning in England’s secondary schools. 

For there is a shared acknowledgement at the heart not only of recent campaigns from organisations such as the Runnymede Trust and the Black Curriculum Project, but also emphasised within the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report, that there is currently no credible, comprehensive evidence base from which to reliably judge the extent to which today’s secondary students are being taught about the history and legacies of the British Empire at all, let alone what they are being taught, in what manner or why. There is however evidence that teachers themselves have identified the need for targeted professional development support and training in this area

It is precisely in response to this demand that Jason, as lead author of the 2020 Times letter, reiterated the TIDE-Runnymede recommendation that government invest in better supporting teachers to confidently tackle these complex and potentially contentious themes. Both the Times letter and TIDE-Runnymede campaign made explicit reference to my own earlier work with colleagues as part of the UCL Centre for Holocaust Education’s (CfHE) internationally renowned and distinctively research-led approach to transformative teacher professional development. Our research project A portrait of the teaching of the British Empire, migration and belonging in English secondary schools was thus conceived as a crucially important intervention towards ultimately supporting teachers by first providing a much needed, robust and comprehensive, empirical evidence base.  

Building on the CfHE model as one of its blueprints, over the next two years, our project team intends to complete an ambitious programme of consultation, data collection and analyses. This will include: document analysis of both archival and contemporary textbook materials, classroom observations and focus groups with teachers as well as participatory and ethnographic data collection with young people both inside and outside of schools. On the 13th December, we also launched an extensive national survey of secondary school teachers, the first of its kind undertaken in this country and a vital intervention to move discussion beyond instinct, anecdote or conjecture. Open to all secondary school teachers across England, irrespective of subject background, this survey will help us begin to empirically address a series of as yet unanswered but fundamental questions: to what extent is history of the British Empire and/or its legacies currently being taught about in English classrooms and what form does such teaching take?  Who is most likely to be doing this teaching? Under what guidance? And with what rationales?  

In order to attempt to do justice to the vast complexity and nuance of our subject matter, the project has been – and will continue to be – informed through ongoing dialogue with a broad-based consultative coalition including educators, campaign groups, exam and qualification boards, subject associations, historians and other university-based academics, as well classroom teachers and young people themselves. In addition to this, we have appointed an independent, and again broad-based, advisory board. 

We have found broad agreement that histories of empire and migration are fundamental to understanding modern Britain: its contemporary relationships with the wider world and the discourses of identity and belonging that continue to frame the lives of those who live and learn here. 

Whatever those with most invested in sustaining the idea that we are a country at cultural war with itself might proclaim to the contrary, recent research suggests that on the question of ‘the importance of learning from history’ there is in fact much common ground across ostensible political and/or demographic divides. As the authors of More in Common’s 2021 ‘Dousing the Flames’ report conclude, ‘Most Britons share a common aspiration for us to tell an ever fuller, truer and more comprehensive account of our national story’, yet ‘few feel that they know everything that they need to know’. In this context, formal systems of education – including both schools and universities – continue to have a centrally important role to play. We want nothing more than to support them to that end.

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