by Marlon Lee Moncrieffe
7th October 2021

What should be included in the teaching of British history in schools was raised to greater public attention, particularly during and in the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter anti-racism protests of 2020. Public challenge to the government’s education agenda emerged most fervently when over ¼ million people signed one of many petitions calling for the teaching of Britain’s colonial past to be made more explicit, and particularly Black-led accounts of history. However, despite ministers being held to account in parliament, the public call for change was rebuffed. The government continues to insist that the national curriculum for history is ‘broad, balanced and flexible’ enough for Black British lives and experiences to be included, and taught.

What every single government response to the public scrutiny and challenge on this issue hid was the fact that national curriculum knowledge is dominated by Eurocentric (White people’s) historical starting points. These instruct teachers to ensure that ‘all pupils know and understand’ about ‘how people’s lives have shaped this nation’ using ‘Britain’s settlement by Anglo-Saxons and Scots’; and ‘the Viking and Anglo-Saxon struggle for the Kingdom of England’.

I am interested in sharing how 20th century Black British histories can be used to transform opportunities for all in research, curriculum teaching and learning in the primary school. I see that this must begin with decolonising the history curriculum. To decolonise the history curriculum is to arrest the danger of unchallenged Eurocentric knowledge being inflicted as ‘epistemic violence’ and as total truth on Black and minority-ethnic educators and pupils.

In my book, Decolonising the History Curriculum, I examine why and how national history curriculum direction and guidance continues to be dominated by Anglocentric (White people’s) frame of reference. In short, this is to support the cultural reproduction and communication of an Anglocentric national narrative as being the total truth of national identity, and for cementing a fixed Anglocentric ideology of nation in perpetuity. I share Richard J. Evans’s position that ‘National Identity isn’t something that can be manufactured and imposed on a people by a government’. My vision for transforming curriculum knowledge in teaching and learning about national identity and the idea of nation is positioned with Ilona Aronovsky’s discussion on opportunities for curriculum diversification, i.e. by conceptualising teaching and learning opportunities through the diverse and intertwined histories of all peoples of Britain, past and present.

In my research with 21 White British trainee primary school teachers, one significant question I asked them was: What does British history mean to you? My diagnostic assessments uncovered the stark impact of their education, socialisation and families on framing their thinking about teaching British history in the primary school classroom. These responses were generally a regurgitation of past and present national history curriculum episodes, i.e. Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, the Tudors, the Victorians, World War Two. Following this, I provided these trainees with a range of personal testimonies written by African-Caribbean (Black British) people concerning their lived experiences from episodes from British history including migration to the British Isles from Jamaica as part of the Windrush generation, and cross-cultural encounters through the Brixton uprisings in 1981. An aim of my research was to centre the Black British voice, allowing these to lead the telling of British history. Another aim of the research was to see if these oral testimonies could support the trainees in transforming their embedded and unchallenged thoughts about the narrative of British history. Here is a small sample of the trainees’ responses:

Diana: …the Viking raids and invasions. They are quite … and then 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 and stuff like that and so you have got this chance to contrast.

Catherine: It’s all migration I suppose, isn’t it?

Diana: Yeah.

Catherine: Well. Like the settlement of Anglo Saxons, you can… Like when they (parent and child) are talking about… Brixton erm… being the ethnic minority… settlement. They settled there. And you could almost say like where Anglo-Saxons settled…

Diana: Settle (in synchrony with Catherine).

Catherine: And you can kind of make relations that way.

Primary school teachers and trainees must be empowered to engage in questions and debate the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ of curriculum implementation in their teaching and learning. Not simply to become ‘curriculum makers’, but to become ‘critical curriculum thinkers’ in actively challenging the educational worth of the statutory content directives and guidance of the national history curriculum.

What is clear to me from my research is that current primary school history curriculum teaching and learning communications as both directives and guidance can serve to reinforce the inequality and division of British people. A revised and improved anti-racist and decolonised primary school national history curriculum would do well to incorporate statutory teaching and learning through the lives and experiences of Black British people over the ages. This, when fused with White British historical narratives, will present the eclectic nature of our national identity and the fluidity of this over time, and support the reconstruction of the idea of nation in the 21st century.

Marlon Lee Moncrieffe is Doctor of Education at the School of Education, University of Brighton.

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Main image credit: pxfuel