British schools should teach migration and empire: Runnymede

Britain’s colonial past should be taught so children have an ‘honest understanding’ of history, think-tank says.

British Empire colonialism
British troops in Kolkata, with rifles at the ready, clearing a street after Hindus and Muslims used firearms against each other [Keystone/Getty Images]

London, United Kingdom – When Hannah Cusworth, a History teacher in London, started planning lessons for a module on migration and the British empire, she came across a problem.

“With more commonly taught topics – like the Tudors or Nazi Germany – there are a lot of different textbooks and resources, so they’re really easy to teach,” she says.

“But when I was developing lessons about migration, I found the resources weren’t there. I was happy to research because I found the topic fascinating, but it was really time-consuming.” 

The current secondary school curriculum in the United Kingdom says that schools should ensure that pupils understand “how Britain has influenced and been influenced by the wider world” and “their own identity and the challenges of their time”.

However, it is not exactly clear how this should be done.

A new report, published on Thursday by leading race equality think-tank the Runnymede Trust and the TIDE Project at the University of Liverpool, calls on the government to make the teaching of migration and empire compulsory in secondary schools.

There are already some opportunities to teach these subjects – two exam boards have GCSE units on Migration to Britain, which include some coverage of empire.

However, these are optional modules, and the report, Teaching Migration, Belonging and Empire in Secondary Schools, found that only four percent of students studying GCSE History are taking one of these courses.

If we don't adequately understand the past that has produced the world within which we live, we are unlikely to understand how and why the present is configured in the way that it is.

by Gurminder K Bhambra, Professor of Postcolonial and Decolonial Studies at the University of Sussex

Meanwhile, changes to the English curriculum in 2016 narrowed the focus onto more traditional subjects – Shakespeare, Romantic poets, the 19th-century novel. The result is a drastic variation in whether courses on migration are taught in different schools.

“We’re talking about subjects which we believe are essential to our national story, understanding who we are as a nation, and how we got to this point,” says Kimberly McIntosh, senior policy officer at the Runnymede Trust and one of the authors of the report.


“We need to make sure that these subjects are being taught. There is scope for that in the curriculum. But it’s up to teachers to decide what they teach.”

A survey carried out for the report showed that 78 percent of teachers wanted training on teaching migration and 71 percent on teaching empire. 

The question of how Britain engages with its own history is of paramount importance, not just to schools, but to society at large.

“If we don’t adequately understand the past that has produced the world within which we live, we are unlikely to understand how and why the present is configured in the way that it is,” says Gurminder K Bhambra, professor of Postcolonial and Decolonial Studies at the University of Sussex.

‘Understanding of national stories very important’

A poor understanding of British history can have concrete political results.

Last year saw the Windrush scandal, where a significant number of people from Britain’s Caribbean community were wrongly arrested and denied their legal rights.

At least 83 people were wrongfully deported.

There is a real issue, within much of the media, government, and academic scholarship, with accepting darker citizens as British citizens by historical right and not as second or third generation migrants whose access to citizenship is both conditional and provisional,” says Bhambra.

She points out that there is hardly an institution in Britain that has not been shaped by the empire in some way, although there is little public understanding of this fact.

“This is, in part, as a consequence of reforms to the teaching of history within schools which has diminished the significance given to the study of empire and its decolonization,” says Bhambra.

“The failure to address this history, as British history, has made subsequent migratory patterns appear anomalous instead of understanding them in terms of earlier movements.”

UK windrush
The Windrush scandal saw people from Britain’s Caribbean community wrongly arrested and denied their legal rights [Getty Images]

The report notes that nearly 17 percent – one in six – of children aged 0-15 in England and Wales are from black and minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds, highlighting this as one reason that a new approach to teaching migration, empire and belonging is needed.

“Understanding of our national stories is very important,” says McIntosh.

“But it goes beyond just ethnic minority children having a sense of belonging or being able to see themselves on the curriculum. For all of us, it is important to have a clear, valid and honest understanding of who we are, and for people who look like me, why we’re here and how we got here.

“These are our future political leaders. It is important for them to understand the history of our nation fully and properly.”

The report recommends further research to establish what is already being taught in schools on migration and empire.

It also calls for more institutional support for teachers and training on teaching sensitive subjects, noting the success of the Centre for Holocaust Education which provides a national programme of teaching and online resources.

“Teachers are really, really pushed for time and results,” says Cusworth. “So many don’t have the time to take a risk and try something new – it is easier to teach what you have always taught.”

The schools already teaching courses on migration and empire have seen a positive effect already.

Cusworth was one of 12 teachers on a project led by Runnymede and TIDE, working to develop classroom-ready materials to teach migration and empire. Her school has introduced the course this year.

“It has been really powerful,” says Cusworth. “Both ethnic minority and white British students have found it powerful, because they have been exposed to a part of their history which they had a vague sense about, without knowing any details. I think we’ve helped them to see how Britain became such a multicultural country.”

Jewish settlers
British soldiers met with opposition during trans-shipment when the refugee ship Louisiana, renamed Shivat Zion carrying undocumented immigrants arrived at Haifa, on July 18, 1947. Some 374 people, including 179 men, 71 women and 122 children along with two stretchers were transferred from the vessel to the empire shelter. The photo shows Jewish refugees disembarking from Louisiana at Haifa, as some refugees scuffle on the Gangplank [AP Photo]
Source: Al Jazeera