A good historian and history teacher is a blend of detective, lawyer, and story-teller. At its simplest history is story-telling with evidence, though for many years history in schools was simply the story of rulers, of so-called great men. The stories of the little people, often far more interesting, were neglected. And the more oppressed the people, the more likely that their story remained untold in history books.
Imagine for a minute you are a trans man or woman, or a black trans man or woman. You have all the experience of isolation in a cruel world full of prejudice and, to add salt to the wounds, the story of people like you is completely absent from any history curriculum in schools here or, in all probability, anywhere in the world.
I taught history in two Nottinghamshire secondary schools for 37 years. I told a lot of stories, enthusiastically led trips to historical sites, put evidence and story-telling centre stage, and looked for the stories of the little people at the expense of “great men”. When I retired in 2017, I felt I had done the best job I could. Now, I’m not so sure.
There is increasing concern amongst parents and teachers about the history curriculum’s limitations. In a survey conducted by the Runnymede Trust last year, 78 per cent of teachers wanted training on teaching histories of migration and 71 per cent on teaching histories of empire.
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the Black Lives Matter protests, demands for change in the history curriculum will only increase. And there is plenty of material with which to make a start.
The exceptional TV programmes by David Olusoga, “Black and British — A Forgotten History”: “Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners” and “The Unwanted: The Secret Windrush Files”, should be essential viewing for teachers, teaching assistants and students. Olusoga understands, as every history teacher should, that you must dig deep to reveal the stories of all the forgotten people in society.
In the series on Windrush, Olusoga uncovers the shocking record on migrants of the 1945 Labour Government. Interrogating the documents with his usual attention to detail, Olusoga reveals that, on June 22 1948, 11 Labour MPs wrote to the Prime Minister Clement Atlee to express concern at what they called an :incursion”.
The “incursion” of which they complained was the arrival that same day of 500 Caribbean migrants on board the Empire Windrush. These “socialist” MPs believed that an “influx of coloured people would impair the harmony, strength and cohesion of our public and social life”. Labour’s colonial minister, Arthur Creech Jones, played to the racist gallery by remarking that they wouldn’t survive their first English winter.
The Tories, re-elected in 1951, amplified the racist themes of the Labour Government. To get around the migration rights bestowed on all Commonwealth citizens in the 1948 Nationality Act, they began to “investigate” the living and working habits of the Windrush Generation in an attempt to prove them lazy, feckless, welfare-scrounging drug dealers. At one and the same time, the Tories continued to recruit Caribbean workers for a “booming” British economy.
Most of this is absent from any history curriculum, as is Churchill’s view that the Tories should fight the 1955 General Election on the slogan “Keep England White”.
The history curriculum is little better when we consider the teaching of the Slave Trade. In an eight-minute video entitled “Black British History We’re Not Taught in Schools”, Olusoga says “what a lot of people are taught in schools is the biographies of individual black people. Lots of good stuff comes out of that, kids now learn about Mary Seacole and Walter Tull, that’s great and I haven’t got a problem with it.
“ But if you only do that, what you find is you just create these isolated black characters... you don’t learn about is the forces that led Britain to interact with Africa and Africans. We don’t learn just how important the sugar slavery economy was in the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries.”
Where the school history curriculum where it does specifically cover the Slave Trade, a trade spanning more than three centuries, the emphasis is on either the “great work of British abolitionists” like Wilberforce or slavery in the Americas. You would not know from the British history curriculum that Britain was the mainstay of the Atlantic slave trade for most of the three centuries during which this brutal system operated.
Racism is covered in the history curriculum, but most notably when dealing with antisemitism in Nazi Germany, not the experiences of black people in Britain or the British Empire. Racism was also covered in the now long-gone Integrated Humanities GCSE which, in the unit “Persecution and Prejudice”, looked at the experiences of the Asian and Afro Caribbean communities in Britain post World War 2.
And racism is covered in PSHE topics. But what Olusoga has done is expose a glaring omission in the history curriculum, the centrality of racism in Britain for centuries.
When it comes to racism, the history curriculum has passed the buck to other countries, like Germany and the USA. It needs a major overhaul, the sooner the better.
A good place to start the first lesson of a revised history curriculum would be the toppling of a statue, the history-making moment when slave-trader Edward Colston was first felled to a Bristol street and then dumped in the harbour. The lessons to follow could include a trip to the museum in Bristol where the Colston statue is to be housed.
The statue could form part of an exhibition on the brutality of the racist slave trade, and the slave plantations. The placards used by those who toppled it, should be spread around the statue, along with pictures and a video of its toppling. The Tories say children should be taught “British Values”.
A good history curriculum will show that central to British Values for centuries was white supremacism, and that Churchill, frequently voted “greatest Briton”, was in fact a white supremacist.