Seeing yourself: 40 years of Black History Education in the United Kingdom

Photo by Katerina Holmes on Pexels.com

In the year 2000, I bought “The British Millennium: 1,000 Remarkable Years of Incident and Achievement” a pictorial history of Great Britain (The Hulton Getty Picture Collection, 2000). Flipping through the copious pages, I expected to find something relatable on a personal level in at least the last fifty years of pictures. But in 987 pages of images, I found three photos of Boxing Champion Lennox Lewis, one of Rugby hero Jeremy Guscott, and a picture of the Spice Girls. 

A little less than twenty years earlier in 1981 young Black people erupted in spasms of anger that tore through parts of major cities around the United Kingdom. Brixton in London, Handsworth in Birmingham, Chapel Town in Leeds, and Toxteth in Liverpool all witnessed disturbances. The previous year riots had also occurred in the St. Paul’s district of Bristol. Lord Scarman’s report into the unrest chronicled, “complex political, social and economic factors” as contributory to the riots. Undoubtedly in the minds of some BAME (Black Asian Minority Ethnic) parents was the question of education. 

Many people regardless of ethnicity frequently look to education as a door opener to better opportunities. The economic, political, and social stagnation of the 1970s and the fact that BAME people were often the last in and first out of employment, frequently in low paying work, pushed many to want better for their children. However, the panacea of education had and has always operated as a “doorkeeper”. It spawned an even more narrow gateway when the 1988 Education Reform Act introduced a market driven education system, and racial equity, and equality became casualties of a market driven colour-blind approach to education. 

Racial disparities should come as no surprise. As far back as the 1960s it is clear the educational system was then and is not now immune from covert and overt racism. Macro and Microaggressions, along with conscious and unconscious bias have many times encouraged stereotyping and profiling of BAME students in the education system. Multicultural education and anti-racist policies were and are both promoted and dismissed to ameliorate issues of schooling. Moreover, the belief probably still flourishes among some BAME communities that history curricula should give BAME students more inclusive views of themselves. Furthermore, there are also calls from politicians and parts of the public for School history to play a significant role in the forging of public national identities and improving intergroup relationships. History for some still teaches lessons worth learning or at the very least remembering.

The 1988 Education Reform Act mentioned previously included several “neutral” provisions such as allowing parents to specify their preferred choice of school and a new National Curriculum for England Wales and Northern Ireland. Inspecting this new History National Curriculum (HNC) strand’s content for recognizable BAME cultural identification, reveals marginal inclusion of BAME people and their contributions to British history. 

Revisions to the National Curriculum followed in 1995, 2000, 2007, and 2014. The 2000 History Curriculum had much in common with the 1995 version. Significant changes included directions to teach citizenship and “Thinking skills” plus catering to “inclusion”. The statutory inclusion statement gave teachers some freedom to modify the National Curriculum. 

The 2014 new National Curriculum was perhaps even more controversial than the original. It was criticised over its exclusionary nationalistic English Literature and History curricula. Michael Grove the British Education Secretary’s ideal of a “Golden Thread” of British history saw education continuing to play an increasingly “political” role in establishing what it meant to be British. And this stance placed schools at the centre of the British “war on terror” particularly aimed at British Muslim students.

At the start and on the edge of a new decade, in 2001 and 2011, British streets were again punctured by riots in Bradford and Oldham, by mainly Asian young men, suggesting an era of transition was well underway in that community regarding what they would tolerate from sections of British institutions and society. The old choices of assimilation, integration, and nationalism as a means of social cohesion were and are no longer the only alternatives, as the rise, demise, and rebirth of jihadist groups have proved attractive to some disaffected young people and the notion and reality of Brexit has brought for some nostalgia of a perhaps mythical bygone era and for others regret at Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union. 

These issues were and are complex. For many BAME students, any lesson content if it is interesting and well taught is likely enjoyable. For others content which excludes people they consider ancestors, may teach them they are invisible, and unimportant. Furthermore, the idea that British history preserves, and transmits concepts of national identity may often seem alien to some but highly feasible to others. 

What impressions have all these changes had on school history and students? As might be expected it has been a mixed bag. The complexities of individuals coupled with the often warring notions as to why we teach history have produced a complex heady mixture. Research by Doharty (2019) details microaggressions experienced by Black students in school during Black History Month. Other research suggest ethnicity has little impact on how students receive different history narratives (Huber and Kitson 2020). However, in the United States research  and personal narratives continues to strongly suggests that students’ cultures and backgrounds play a significant role in perception of lesson content and classroom experiences (Coates, 2015; Emdin 2016; Wilkerson; 2020). 

Societies are sometimes guilty of cherry picking the past to excuse, promote, and to engender a sense of purpose in everyday life. And the study of history should probably have some impact on the way people perceive society. But any single “Best” version of the past is the hallmark of authoritarian regimes. Studying history in a democracy should require analysis, exploration, and independent thought. School history has always been highly contested territory.

In the wake of the Windrush Scandal which questioned the identities and belonging of Black people to the United Kingdom and in the wake of Brexit we cannot demand unquestioning loyalty of BAME students if what they see around them jars with the history they learn at school. 

School history should allow students to ask questions. Students don’t need and probably don’t want easy answers that actually answer little. Students need to understand how to examine and evaluate commitments and attachments people hold to competing contentious narratives of the adult world. These are skills that studying history and how it works nourish. Additionally, perceptions, real, or imagined, marginal groups have of how they are represented, or not, in history may well be mainly an affective reality; but a reality we cannot choose to ignore.

Because when we look at a group picture taken of us, we always look for ourselves, first. 


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