The white-washing of our curriculum - what more must be done?

Education is our most important tool for change, but what happens when the education you have been given has lead to you being uneducated in a society which systematically favours white people?

Anna Robson
6th June 2020
It is through my white privilege that I am able to write this article, and it is through the same privilege that I will never understand the issues raised during the Black Lives Matter movement. I understand that I will never understand. However, I stand.

Over the past week, people of the UK have been quick to disassociate themselves from the racism that is prominent in the US, arguing “at least we aren’t as bad as them” or “America has a greater problem with racism”. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The UK witnesses its own problems of not just racism, but a distinct lack of anti-racism promotion and awareness, across all ages and areas in the UK. The root of this stems from a white-washed education system that has caused an intergenerational problem.

The UK witnesses its own problems of not just racism, but a distinct lack of anti-racism promotion and awareness

In 2013, Education Minister Michael Gove moved back the re-evaluation of the school curriculum that teachers and students had fought for long and hard. In comparison, Gove’s rival Jeremy Corbyn has called for a curriculum that shows the realities of British imperialism and colonialism, arguing that “Black History is British History”. This is not the first time there have been calls for a change. Following the death of Stephen Lawrence by white youths, Macpherson in 1999 also highlighted the need for a change in the curriculum. Some have argued that this is not enough, and a campaign has begun to ‘decolonize history’ in the industry of history and education as a whole. Decolonizing history calls for greater representation of non-European thinkers, and a better historical awareness.

A teacher speaking to The Guardian in 2018 for example was shocked at her pupils’ complete lack of knowledge about Black history and how it relates to the UK. The teacher recalls a pupil saying “That has nothing to do with me” when discussing the slave trade and its relevance to this country. She then goes on to highlight that when discussing Winston Churchill and the world war, the class was “captivated”. People have argued that this is because we as Britons, have only ever focused on the wins and victories of our history. Little do we learn however, of the influence that ethnic minorities played in Britain's victory. It does well to our image and our legitimacy to focus on the heroic narrative that even though we are a tiny island, we have been able to achieve so much, as if we were independent from the help of other nations and ethnicities. The issue? It is one side of a much larger, much more diverse, and more brutal story. Thus, as education is of the up-most importance, what happens when the education that you have been given for 15 years has been the cause of your systematic racism?

we as Britons, have only ever focused on the wins and victories of our history. Little do we learn however, of the influence that ethnic minorities played in Britain's victory.

This is where the work of Lavinya Stennett as the CEO of The Black Curriculum comes in. Through her personal experience as a history student at SOAS University of London, Stennet has channeled the “frustrated” experience that she had with the obvious absence regarding the contributions of black people in history, and black historians in education, into a much-needed social movement. A study at the University of Reading in 2014 re-iterates Stennett’s frustration. The study observed that two high school students of ethnic backgrounds sensed no personal connection or collective identity about the history they were taught. It also concluded that the history taught to young students does not adequately explain how our past was constructed, and fails to show Black students in any context other than slavery.

"Black history, in a consistent and nuanced way is a solution to institutional racism, allowing us to come to terms with a history that has informed our current society."

Lavinya Stennett

GCSE and A-Level History curriculum hark back to days of strong Nationalism in Britain such as the Civil Wars, World War II, the birth of the NHS. This is even more frustrating when you learn that in 2012, Mary Seacole, the nurse and activist against prejudice during the Victorian era, was removed from the curriculum. White history does not adequately explain how Britain has developed as a nation, it is racist and naive to believe that Black people did not play a role in where we are today.

To combat the systemic racism that manifests in Britain's white-washed curriculum, Stennett has concluded a 12 topic plan for a new syllabus that teaches pupils that Black history in Britain does not lie solely with slavery. It ranges from the influence of Calypso and Reggae music, to the displacement of Black British people and gentrification. Why can’t we simultaneously discuss the Indian Wars and the fight for independence in Ghana while also discussing the Wars of the Roses? This syllabus is vital, and it is needed now more than ever.


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AUTHOR: Anna Robson
2nd-year Archaeology student and Welfare Officer for Newcastle Uni Athletics & Cross Country.

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