Teaching the British Empire should be compulsory in England’s history curriculum as the subject provides a “ready-made vehicle for enhancing diversity and inclusion,” a historian says.
In a position paper in The Oxford Review of Education, Dr Andrew Mansfield argues that teaching the story of the empire from the 16th to 20th centuries using a global history methodology would engage ethnic minority students who may currently feel excluded.
As it stands, it is not compulsory to teach the British Empire, colonialism more broadly or the transatlantic slave trade. Mansfield, a historian at the University of Sussex, said it was “concerning” that although 82 per cent of schools teach some aspects of the empire, according to survey data, this was often done through a single lesson or short sequence of lessons.
He said: “I spent over five years teaching in schools and saw first-hand in my teaching and training the lack of diversity in the English history curriculum for key stages 3 to 5 — ages 11 to 18 — and the impact this had on ethnic minority student engagement with the curriculum. While many students like history, some students were put off by a lack of history they felt represented their historical family experience or did not speak to them directly.
“Despite the English history curriculum offering a broad range of topics, it is (a) possible to teach a very narrow set of topics, (b) for this to have a white Eurocentric perspective and experience only, and (c) for it to not connect Britain with the wider, modern, world. Using the rich history of the British Empire alongside global history’s multi-perspective methodology would overcome these issues by revealing a broader, inclusive picture of British history and its place in the world from different viewpoints.”
Many ethnic minority students have ancestry from former British colonies, including slave colonies, or other countries such as Afghanistan that were significantly impacted by British colonialism.
In his paper, Mansfield states that discussion of Britain’s colonial past has become increasingly polarised between those seeking to confront colonialism and encourage inclusion, and those decrying “wokery”. He believes balanced teaching can avoid a triumphalist “Island Story” narrative and examine empire, including its negative aspects, through “a historical methodology of criticism and analysis rather than one of moral revulsion”.
“Changing the curriculum is not an exercise in blame or shame but rather an acceptance that history evolves”Dr Andrew Mansfield
He writes: “The present Anglocentric view of Britain’s illustrious history as a dominating power is a redundant model and unattractive to many young people. Instead of vacillating between insular and potentially jingoistic historical episodes, use of the British Empire as a vehicle throughout all periods shows the nation’s citizens its connectedness to the world.
“In a globalised era, this steps beyond whiteness and world hegemony to a rich historical reality of exchange, interaction, migration, immigration, cooperation, antagonism and conflict over many centuries. Changing the curriculum is not an exercise in blame or shame but rather an acceptance that history evolves, and schools should reflect this.”
Mansfield is not the first to call for compulsory inclusion of the British Empire in the curriculum. Among other calls, a petition to the government in 2020 gathered over 268,000 signatures. The government responded that it had no plan to review the curriculum which gave teachers freedom and flexibility.
He said what was new about his proposal was his call for the compulsory inclusion of an entire theme on the empire and for this to take a global history approach.
He explained: “The intention is to use experiences from across the world of the empire over the last 500 years or so. Empires have been present for 5,000 years and the British Empire is one of them. The aim is to remove negative connotations of dominance and step beyond Eurocentrism to stories of interaction and connection between Britain and other peoples and places. These interactions have shaped modern Britain today and it is crucial that students and citizens understand how.”
But why are many schools choosing not to teach the empire in depth when there is nothing in the curriculum to stop them? Mansfield said: “Fear has caused avoidance of controversial topics, but it is often about training and resources. I was discussing this issue with a former teaching colleague the other day and they admitted that they still focus on the ‘big hitters’ — the Tudors, the Industrial Revolution, World War One and World War Two — because they do not have time to make the resources to diversify the curriculum.
“I believe many teachers would like to do more, but they do not have the time or finances to do as much as is needed.”
He added that a compulsory empire theme, enabled through additional funding for schools, would benefit all students, not only those from ethnic minorities. “Learning about your own history and how it has been impacted by a range of peoples and places around the world is the reality of Britain, particularly as it had an empire and was a seafaring and trading nation historically.
“In a multi-ethnic and globalised Britain, schools should not only promote an accurate understanding of how modern Britain has emerged but also instil tolerance and understanding.”
He said that to be more inclusive in their history teaching, schools also needed to train and employ more ethnic minority teachers. “Unfortunately there is a pipeline problem because there are fewer ethnic minority students taking history at university to become history teachers. This is connected to the lack of diversity in the school history curriculum to some degree, but it is a more complicated issue than this.”