Updated: Jun 23, 2022
On June 21 of this year, the UK Department of Education tweeted its support for the ‘One Britain, One Nation’ movement, proposing to make the day of June 25 one that celebrates the national values of “shared values of tolerance, kindness, pride, and respect”. This was met online with hostility, jubilation, controversy, and mockery. Some viewed it as a rightful reclaim of patriotism, while others saw a pathetic move to gain some political points among nationalists. In reality, this brief online debate acted as a microcosm, epitomising broader debates about educational policy and post-colonial consciousness, specifically in relation to Britain’s identity and how the government it seeking to shape it. How exactly its identity and history should be taught to future generations remains a contentious issue, wherein the consequences of mishandling such a task could result in the perpetuation of ignorance around race and colonialism. This issue has never been more pertinent than in recent years, with changing global views on race and racism and the resulting ‘culture wars’ which now characterise contemporary society.
Education, being the tool that shapes the next generation, is a vital policy pillar in any country. Executed incorrectly, it can indoctrinate a generation, filling them with internal prejudices and biases that can linger for the remainder of their lives. While the UK has a robust and organised education system, it has come under criticism in recent years as the country, and indeed the world, has experienced a proliferation of the debate surrounding the European colonial era. The problematic legacy of the British Empire, in particular, has become a focal point of the conversation regarding the government’s educational policy, especially with regard to historiography.
We must begin, therefore, with a look at the current national curriculum in place across Britain. Most secondary school children would be able to recite the names of all six wives of a king who died nearly 500 years ago, but know nothing about the Partition of India or the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya. Both of these represent key events in both modern British and world history, and play a vital role in introducing students to the structure of modern day society. While the national curriculum does require “at least one study of a significant society or issue in world history”, this gives each school leeway to teach, or not teach, a more diverse curriculum . The lack of any specific reference to Britons of colour, or even an approach looking at the varied socio-economic development of Britain, is a sobering reality for historians. This had led to accusations that the government has purposefully excluded black British history, despite calls for a change in education policy going back more than two decades, most notably through the 1999 Macpherson Report in the aftermath of the brutal murder of Stephen Lawrence.
The clear absence of black British history from the curriculum, and the exclusion of the harmful actions of the British Empire, reveal that the government’s education policy is fundamentally flawed, as it neglects several aspects of Britain’s history that are intrinsically valuable for understanding the fabric of modern society. This is a critical area of policy to falter in. There remains an ignorance to the true importance of education to society, whereby many societal problems could be eased, if not solved, through proper education. The current system, failing to educate on the role played by ethnic minorities in building the country, has neglected many. Most recently the windrush community, as essential workers that aided in rebuilding post-war Britain, were instead swept under the carpet, treated as illegal aliens and blamed for social issues.
The effect on national consciousness and race relations has been wholly negative as a result of structural failings in the British curriculum that a). snub the contributions of non-white citizens and b). Ignore the harmful and sometimes devastating effects of the nation's colonial past around the world. The resulting effect has meant the creation of a national blindspot on important socio-historical issues. Change starts at home, and the only feasible way to fix society’s ignorance is to properly educate the younger generations. With an education policy stuck in a cage of selectivist patriotism, there will be no concrete change.
In reaction to calls for a progressive education policy, the government has seemingly reaffirmed its belief in unflinching patriotism. This is not surprising as in recent years the Conservative Party has benefitted electorally among socially conservative voters for their traditionalist stance on the nation's history. This led to former Education Secretary Gavin Williamson stating in June of last year that “we should, as a nation, be proud of that history and teach our children about it”. This, however, presents a problem for the government’s argument. While boasting about the positive aspects of British history, they attempt to shield the public from the negative and more problematic. This poses the question: if you can’t be ashamed of your own history, then how can you be proud of it? One notion that is commonly used is that history remains firmly in the past, and since most Britons today don’t remember, let alone live through, the Empire they shouldn’t feel ashamed of its wrongdoing. Yet, paradoxically, while appealing to such a sentiment, the government simultaneously suggests the nation should be proud of similarly remote periods and events. The government must fully acknowledge Britain's past, opening up the deep scars that remain in society, if it wishes to champion its rosier moments.
It is evident that the government’s educational policy surrounding its own history is ultimately flawed. The absence of key black British figures such as Walter Tull and Olaudah Equiano as well as a proper evaluation into the role of the British Empire beyond patriotism is worrying to the historian. The government clearly has an immense task ahead dealing with its colonial hangover, and it remains to be seen whether it will take on the task of changing national perception about race, or remain blissfully ignorant and allow systemic racism to reproduce itself through the education system. It is unclear whether it will confront its own history and make subsequent changes to education, or if this issue will continue for further generations.