Current Affairs

‘Decolonise our education’: Government responds to calls to review history curriculum

The UK government is facing calls from politicians and members of the public to remedy perceived disparities in schools’ history curriculum and “decolonise” British education.

A petition calling for Britain’s colonial history to be made a compulsory part of the curriculum has now reached 262,645 signatures and prompted a government response on Thursday.

This response is a revision of the original given on 26 June and follows a Petition Committee request of revision – as it deemed the original response insufficient in addressing the request of the petition.

The revised response outlined themes engaged with between Key Stage 1 and 3 such as ‘the development of Church, state and society in Britain 1509-1745’, ‘ideas, political power, industry and empire: Britain 1745-1901’, and ‘challenges for Britain, Europe and the wider world 1901 to the present day’. All of these, says the government, offer “opportunities” to teach colonial and Black British history.

The response went on to give examples of subject areas which fit into these themes: the first colony in America, first contact with India, Britain’s transatlantic slave trade, the development of the British Empire, migration to and from the British Isles as well as Mughal India, China’s Qing dynasty, and changing Russian empires. Opportunities “are also within the scope of the subject content set out for GCSE History”, the response added.

However, the tone of the response suggested that the onus was on individual teachers and schools to study these examples, with the government’s role simply being to give them the framework to do so if they wish to pursue a fuller education for their pupils.

GCSE exam data collated by the Guardian showed that only 11% of GCSE students (approximately 28,412 in 2019) are studying modules referring to Black people’s contribution to Britain and less that one in ten are taught about the British empire.

Campaigners say that children are leaving school with a history education focusing on British greatness, without substantial acknowledgement of its colonial past. This concern is also shared by politicians: in recent days, 30 cross-party MPs were also turned down by the government as Nick Gibbs, the Minister of State for School Standards, said that there were no plans to review the syllabus. 

Speaking to The Oxford Blue, Layla Moran – a former teacher and now the Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, as well as the party’s Education spokesperson since 2017 – said that “the government’s rejection of a review of our curriculum demonstrates their reluctance to follow their platitudes with any meaningful action”.

Ms Moran was the leading voice in the cross-party call for a review of the British history curriculum in which only 12 of the 59 GCSE history modules provided by the country’s largest exam boards – Edexcel, AQA, and OCR – even mentioning black history.

“If we are to tackle the institutional racism in our society, the curriculum must not only be diverse, but we must equip young people with an understanding of the historical injustices that have led to that very racism”, Moran told The Blue.

The government seemingly agrees with this sentiment, writing on the national curriculum webpage that the purpose of a history education is to gift students “a coherent knowledge and understanding of Britain’s past and that of the wider world” and to help “pupils to understand the complexity of people’s lives, the process of change, the diversity of societies and relationships between different groups”.

Renewed pressure to reform the UK curriculum comes in the wake of global anti-racism and Black Lives Matter protests. In Oxford, demonstrations centred on the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign to remove the statue of the diamond magnate and imperialist Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College.

Paulina Maziarska

Paulina (she/her) is a News Reporter at the Oxford Blue, was previously a News Editor on the paper, and is currently a section editor (Middle East and North Africa) at another publication. She is a second-year History and Politics undergraduate at Trinity College.