Black History in UK Schools: How can we change what’s being taught?

Over the last few days, many people have been advocating for curriculum change to make schools teach more black history. As it stands, the history curriculum does not explicitly state the need to cover black history, however the only specified period every student must cover before they get to GCSE is the Holocaust. Black history is not covered in schools. The question is why?

The secondary history curriculum should ensure that students get a broad view of history since 1066. The national curriculum states the purpose is to gain an “understanding of Britain’s past and that of the wider world.” It gives broad sweeping statements of requirements such as “the development of the Church, state and society in Britain 1509-1745” and “challenges for Britain, Europe and the wider world 1901 to the present day”. This is all followed by specific examples of what to focus on within each topic – such as, “the first colony in America and first contact with India” and “Britain’s transatlantic slave trade: its effects and its eventual abolition.”

However, these examples tend to highlight the positive impacts Britain has had on the world without looking at the negatives. The national curriculum would rather focus on how Britain abolished slavery rather than how it created the transatlantic slave trade in the first place. Or on the benefits and successes of the British Empire instead of the atrocities committed during its height and their lasting effects. However, if the purpose is to gain a true understanding of Britain’s past we must teach and learn about the darker sides of Britain’s history.

Within the curriculum, there are empty spaces where there should be specific examples of black history for teachers to choose from and include within their curriculum design. But, despite this, it can still be included and studied.

Annie Spratt | Unsplash

Do teachers have the freedom?

During the first few weeks of my PGCE course we were tasked with justifying how our favourite periods of history could fit into the national curriculum. It was made clear from this activity that the wording of the curriculum is vague enough to allow a multitude of additional period studies that are not explicitly mentioned. Black history could easily be taught in schools but it isn’t and that’s a problem.

The issue with the lack of black history teaching is not solely down to a restrictive curriculum. When planning a curriculum teachers and schools all have their to prove to Ofsted that the lessons will be the most beneficial for pupils. It is obvious that learning about black history would be advantageous for all children across Britain so this doesn’t explain why it is often left out.

One common issue found in schools when planning a curriculum is the amount of time given to certain subjects and how schools want you to use this time. For many history departments, lesson time in KS3 (when the national curriculum applies) is used for the background information required for GCSE study. This is where diversity is extremely limited.

Exam boards are commonly spilt into four different themed exams: Period, wider world, thematic and British. These categories are to ensure options for students. It does do that, but to a very minor scale. For many, “world history” is narrowed to the study of Nazi Germany or the Cold War. The British history element focuses on medieval history, or the Tudors. As such, the themes used to diversify the curriculum in KS4 fail miserably when it comes to black history. They continue to paint Britain as a nation that has only ever been great.

Protesters at the June 7 Black Lives Matter Protest in London chant ‘Decolonise the Curriculum’, calling for change to the education of black history| Michele Theil

Remembering black history

In most exam boards there are a few options that could incorporate some black history, however these options are limited to 20th century American history and looking at migration to Britain over time. These options barely scratch the surface of the history of the experiences of black people in Britain and fail to account for Britain’s role in their suffering. Key moments of change have been left out of GCSE study. The earlier curriculum aims to provide an understanding of Britain’s role in the wider world is forgotten. Even within the topics where black and non-black people of colour could be included, exam boards fail to create an inclusive syllabus – when studying the history of medicine, Florence Nightingale is included for her changes to nursing in Britain. But the contribution of Mary Seacole, who was a black woman, to the caring of soldiers during the Crimean War is forgotten.

Changing the national curriculum to include more black history is undoubtedly important. But there is also the question of how much of year 7 and 8 history do people really remember in later life? Getting the government to change the national curriculum is only a start as these are the years when history is compulsory. However, this could be in vain without also convincing the GCSE and A Level exam boards to change too. If the exam boards include more black history, this can open the doors for classroom teachers to include more black history throughout KS3 as well.

By getting exam boards to include more modules and options for black history, pupils will have the choice to study it in more depthal. Ghia will allow detailed and extensive study of a topic that is currently being side-lined by many schools. Getting black history included in the school curriculum means ensuring there are more opportunities at all levels – in KS3, GCSE and A-Level study. This will give students the appropriate time and detail they need to explore and learn.

Without the study of black history, we are doing a disadvantage to the black and minority ethnic people in the UK. They depend on this understanding to help them fight against a legacy of racism and discrimination across the world.

Editor’s Note: We have collated a list of GCSE history exam topics for downloading here.

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