Decolonising the curriculum

This article was first published in March 2020.

A group of sixth formers from London are campaigning to change the way British colonial history is taught on the National Curriculum. They all have family connections to the British Empire, and feel that their past is not being taught properly in school History lessons. While colonialism is taught in some schools, it's not a compulsory part of the curriculum and these young people feel passionately that it should be.

What is colonialism?

I would describe colonialism as a country having partial or even total control over a country and then going on to further exploit them economically.

Britain used to have a lot of ‘colonies’ - other countries under its control. It was in charge of them during different periods in history. For example, in the 17th and 18th centuries, Britain ruled over parts of North America, and in the 19th century most of India and large parts of Africa were British colonies.

Why is colonialism important?

Colonialism is an important part of British history. At its peak, the British Empire was the largest and most influential empire in the world. We are taught about the British Empire as part of Key Stage 3 History, but these sixth formers feel that parts of Britain’s colonial history are being left out. For example, the role Britain played in taking enslaved Africans to the Americas.

In Year 8… my teacher started the lesson by proclaiming that slavery has nothing to do with race. I remember feeling so angry.

These activists feel it is important for all pupils to understand the British Empire’s use of violence against its colonies, and its uncomfortable views on race. They believe learning about history helps us to stop repeating the same mistakes.

Learning about colonialism also helps us all to understand how modern day society was formed. Many people moved from British colonies overseas to set up a life in Britain.

My parents had taught me stuff about my own heritage, so when I saw it being actively absent in the classroom, it made me feel like I was absent in history itself.

What does ‘decolonising’ mean?

When they say ‘decolonising the curriculum’, these activists mean we should question whose viewpoint the information is coming from. They believe History lessons are currently a version written from a colonial point of view.

What we learn is the victor’s story... decolonising means identifying that we are learning a story.

Education is powerful

These sixth formers want to encourage people to question what they are being taught more often. They believe seeing yourself left out of history can have an impact on who you become in the future. If you cannot see your past reflected in the curriculum, you may not feel you have a place in society.

Our curriculum limits the expectations and aspirations that black students have.

To challenge this, they have launched a campaign to change what is taught in History lessons: “The goal of our campaign is ‘to introduce a compulsory Key Stage 3 History module on British colonial history’.”

They would like all aspects of Britain’s colonial past to be openly talked about. That also includes the fact Britain took things from other countries.

As Nico says, “Education is extremely powerful. These years are when basically you become the person that you’re going to be in the future.”

If you need support

You should always tell someone about the things you’re worried about. You can tell a friend, parent, guardian, teacher, or another trusted adult. If you're struggling with your mental health, going to your GP can be a good place to start to find help. Your GP can let you know what support is available to you, suggest different types of treatment and offer regular check-ups to see how you’re doing.

If you’re in need of in-the-moment support you can contact Childline, where you can speak to a counsellor. Their lines are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

There are more links to helpful organisations on BBC Action Line.

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