Black British history plays a significant role in the formation of British cultural identity and the history of the UK, and ought to be taught as such in UK schools.
But evidence from my research on primary school teaching and learning about history and national identity shows that white British teachers – the dominant workforce in schools – are most likely to focus their classroom teaching on Eurocentric and white British cultural experiences and identities.
These white British teachers are in need of support and guidance. They must be encouraged to challenge the biases that can lead to history being considered, by default, to be white and European. They should be guided to see and to apply the opportunities given by black British history, in order to present a wider, more nuanced understanding of history in the classroom.
Understanding British history
As part of my recent research on the teaching of history at primary schools, I wanted to find out how primary school trainee teachers’ social conditioning by their backgrounds, families and education influenced their understanding of British history and how it should be taught.
I carried out my research with 27 white British trainees. All were history subject specialists and 90% came from a background characterised by white British neighbourhoods, education, peers and family influences. Firstly, they took part in a survey.
A key question in my study was: what does British history mean to you?
Most of these trainees gave similar responses. They cited the exclusively white and traditional ideas of British history that can be found in the national history curriculum: Anglo-Saxons and Vikings, Tudors, the Victorians, the British Empire, the first world war, and Britain during the second world war.
Interestingly, the white British trainees who came from more multicultural backgrounds, social and educational influences gave broader responses, particularly on seeing British history through an ethnically diverse perspective.
I then conducted follow-up interviews and focus group discussions with the trainees whose background was shaped by white British neighbourhoods, education, peers and family influences. The focus of these conversations was their reading, analysis and responses to histories of mass migration to the British Isles over the ages.
I presented the trainees with oral testimonies that gave accounts of 20th century mass migration to the British Isles by African-Caribbean people of the Windrush Generation, and specifically cross-cultural encounters with white Britain.
The intention was ask them to think about how they could approach the aims and contents of the primary school history curriculum through the black British experience.
Trends over time
The word “migration” does not appear in the current history curriculum for Key Stage Two – intended for children aged five to 11. Instead, statutory teaching and learning is concentrated on movement to the British Isles by Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Scots and Vikings. The arrival of these groups is described as “invasions” and “struggles”. I define these as cross-cultural encounters.
The primary school history curriculum does not reference any movement of people to the British Isles after the year 1066. This means the idea of nation through the blending of cultural and ethnic identities is framed by a Eurocentric perspective. But the history curriculum for Key Stage Two requires that “pupils should note connections, contrasts and trends over time”.
I wanted to test whether the trainees could shift their default understanding of history away from the white, European narratives typically taught in schools, to become more critical in their ways of seeing the past in the present.
Here are just a few of their responses to the idea that a study of Anglo-Saxons and Vikings “struggles” could be compared with more recent mass migrations, such as the arrival of the Windrush Generation. One trainee said:
You have the chance to contrast Anglo-Saxon laws and justice and invasions, death, and resistance and all of those sorts of words might be associated with… with riots and change. There is nothing post 1066 about explicit migration. Unless you take it on yourself as a teacher, you are not going to get that.
There are some good comparisons to be made. If immigrants from Jamaica moved to Britain to increase their wealth and to make money, then what did the Saxons move for? Compare it. Is there any change or movement over time?
Decolonising the history curriculum
A decolonised history curriculum is a dismantling of the “white privileged” narrative of British cultural identity formation and the idea of nation that has become so internalised it becomes difficult to recognise this in any other way. A decolonised curriculum will provide white British teachers with a greater opportunity to encompass the black British experience.
My research evidence has shown that white British trainees are willing to transform the way they see; to become critical curriculum thinkers who actively evaluate the educational worth of given curriculum aims and contents, allowing for their repositioning of curriculum discourses.