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The UK Is Not Innocent: Why Reforming the School History Curriculum Is Imperative

Image: Thomas Allsop (2020)

Following the brutal murder of 46-year-old George Floyd in Minneapolis, millions of activists have lined the streets of the USA and around the rest of the world in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Many in the UK have reflected on the police brutality in the US concluding the ‘racism isn’t as bad in the UK’ or ‘the UK isn’t racist’.

This is not true. The UK is not innocent. The Windrush Scandal and Grenfell represent the most recent examples of institutional racism in the UK. Exposed in 2018, the Windrush Scandal demonstrated the Home Office’s unfair detention and deportation of at least 164 Black British citizens from the Windrush Generation.

The Windrush generation, named after the SS Empire Windrush, the ship that brought one of the first groups of West Indian migrants to the UK in 1948, represents those who were granted citizenship of the United Kingdom and Colonies under the 1948 Nationality Act. The generation also includes those moving from the West Indies before legislation changes in 1973. Children of the Windrush generation, who have only known the UK as their home, have been told to ‘return home’ to the Caribbean as they cannot prove their citizenship. Although the scandal was exposed and received national attention, the Home Office deported 50 people to Jamaica in February this year.

Institutional racism does not only reside within government policies. Racism is prevalent in our police force: 12% of incidents involving the police using force against people involved Black people despite them making up 3.3% of the population in 2017/18. Black people were also 9.5 times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people in 2018.

Within education, a year after the Brexit vote: 60% of school staff reported they had witnessed racist bullying. Treatment of Black pupils in schools is unfair, teachers are provided minimal resources with dealing with racism and many white teachers may display racist micro-aggressions to BIPOC students in the classroom. Moreover, Black students are unfairly punished for their hairstyles and wearing bandanas under some uniform ‘rules’, while Caribbean children are 3.5X more likely to be excluded than all other children.

A primary reason why people believe the UK ‘isn’t racist’ is partly down to how history is taught in our schools. Currently, pupils can go through their entire compulsory education without learning about the atrocities committed by the British Empire.

Whilst there is Black History Month held every October in the UK, this represents the tokenism given to BIPOC experiences - one month is simply inadequate. British schools usually teach about the US Civil Rights Movement, with focus on inspirational figures such as Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King Jr., however curriculums rarely delve deeper than this. The focus on the experience of African Americans in comparison to Black Britons creates a process of distancing the UK from the historic racism in the US; the murder of Emmett Till, the KKK, making our history appear much more ‘glorious’ in comparison. This image of our history is deeply problematic.

There is only one optional, insufficient module available on British colonial history for sixth form students in the UK. In this light, it is not surprising whatsoever that 59% of Brits declared they were ‘proud of the British empire’ in 2014. Clearly, the British public is not aware of the atrocities committed.

For example, the Bengal Famine killed up to three million people in 1943 and was the direct result of Winston Churchill’s policies. Evidence has shown that Churchill’s cabinet was repeatedly warned that exhaustive use of India’s resources for the war effort could lead to a famine. Despite this, the cabinet opted to continue exporting rice from India to elsewhere in the empire. If atrocities such as this were taught in our schools, would so many be ‘proud’ of the empire and glorify these ‘great’ war leaders?

This absence of teaching is coupled with rhetoric from politicians, including our Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who during the Brexit campaign suggested we ‘take back control’. The Leave vote reflected, argued by Nadine El-Enany, a longing for ‘a time when Britannia ruled the waves and was defined by her racial and cultural superiority’.This failure to discuss Britain’s colonial past prevents an open dialogue on how to move forward, and the atrocities of the empire are not condemned. It seems many politicians want to hide the atrocities of empire but cling on to its ‘legacy’.

In 2014, the Education Secretary, Michael Gove radically overhauled the school curriculum insisting schools have a duty to actively promote the ‘fundamental British values’. This meant changes including the removal of texts written by diverse authors being replaced with British classics. The failure to teach the truth of the British Empire reflects that politicians do not want these conversations to be had as it would put their pro-Brexit, anti-immigration politics into question.

Furthermore, Black history in our national curriculum is largely absent. An estimated 2 million African and Caribbean soldiers fought in both the First and Second World Wars and 165,000 troops from the African continent alone died during the conflicts. This is rarely addressed in the teaching of the World Wars in schools, where the focus is mainly on Europe, the USA and Japan.

Moreover, BIPOC have lived in this country since the Roman times, yet their history is rarely taught when teaching British history in schools. More emphasis on the teaching of this generation and other groups of BIPOC, would highlight the vital role they have played in this country's history. It is the recognition of this role that is needed to begin to counter the damaging anti-immigration rhetoric which has been at the centre of our politics for the last decade.

While we look to the USA and, many stand in solidarity with the protests there, we must understand our country faces an equal problem of racism. The failure of our school’s history curriculum leaves children to grow up ignorant to our country’s racist history and the atrocious legacies of empire. The concealment of the ever-present contribution made by BIPOC to our society leads to complicity from white people, which only allows the current anti-immigration policies to flourish. This is why our school history curriculum must change now.

Resources for change:


Campaigns to support:

Edited by Ellie Muir, Essays Editor

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