A case for Decolonising the Curriculum
Updated: Jun 23
“The National Curriculum should contain a balanced account of the history of the British Empire and colonialism, and should also include teaching about the history and cultures of peoples of African descent.”
In 2013, I travelled to South Africa to volunteer in a primary school, situated right next to Rhodes University in Grahamstown. This University town was bustling with talk of the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign. Neighbouring students joined a protest against the placement of a statue; British imperialist Cecil Rhodes, upon whose colonial legacy the University of Rhodes was named. This campaign soon influenced students at the University of Oxford in England, which gave rise to the ‘Why is My Professor Not Black’ movement at the University College London and has propagated a widespread student led interest into giving a balanced account of the educational space, particularly the National Curriculum in the United Kingdom.
In England and Wales, it is not currently compulsory for primary or secondary schools to teach about colonisation, slavery or the British Empire. By default, it is also not compulsory for the curriculum to include teaching on the history and cultures of people of African descent.
However, under the Equality Act 2010, all schools are expected to comply with a public sector equality duty. A useful way to fulfil this duty is to undertake an Equality Impact Assessment (EqIA). The EqIA for the Reform of the National Curriculum in 2013 acknowledged the criticisms of eminent historians, who called for a broader curriculum that ‘included significantly more world history’1 and has included ‘opportunities to study’ elements of West African, Middle Eastern and Indian history. However, the EqIA gave ‘freedom over the detailed content to be taught’ and therefore removed any requirement to name key historical figures or events.
In the summer of 2020, fuelled by the murder of George Floyd and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, the Schools For Change movement also began. This movement held that the National Curriculum in its current state does not contain a balanced account of the history of the British Empire and colonialism. The movement’s petition letter cited the Impact of Omission Survey, which revealed that compared to a response of 86.2% of students who said that they were ‘educated on the Tudors as part of their curriculum’, only 9.3% learned about ‘the role of slavery in British Industrialisation’2. Furthermore, during discussions of the British Empire in schools, when asked about the extent to which the role of slavery was discussed, 5.5% of students replied ‘to a significant extent’, 33% replied ‘to a limited extent’, 34.9% replied ‘it was mentioned briefly’ and 26.6% replied ‘not at all’3.
It would not be implausible to ascertain that such a curriculum reflects a colonial mindset and perpetuates white supremacy and negative stereotypes of black criminality and inferiority. In 2018, in England and Wales, there were 1,487 crimes with a hate element, at or near schools and colleges in the last two academic years.4 By this account, the current National Curriculum could be seen to assert ‘irrational and unjust practices and has detrimental effects on both staff and students’5. This failure to give a balanced account of history, including the erasure of the contributions of black and brown soldiers in WWI and WWII, is akin to propaganda and racial indoctrination.
The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination is orchestrated by the United Nations and is the principal international human rights instrument, defining and prohibiting all racial discrimination. It holds that states should ‘condemn all propaganda and all organisations which are based on ideas or theories of superiority of one race’. Correspondingly, it was found in the UK’s parliamentary questions in 2019 that ‘Her Majesty’s government have no specific plans to mark the UN International Decade for People of African Descent’, which defies the UN’s recommendations to ‘develop educational and media campaigns to educate the public about people of African descent, their history and their culture, and the importance of building an inclusive society, while respecting the human rights and identity of all people of African descent’.6
The National Curriculum not only needs balancing, but it needs to see a ‘decolonisation of the mind from the colonisers’ ideas- ideas that made the colonised seem inferior’7. The initial instruction was simple: Rhodes Must Fall. Yet the lack of action to build fair structures following this, demonstrates a British colonial mindset that is still deeply entrenched within education systems and institutions around the world. Evidence has shown that a mis-representing of colonialism in our education is in breach of United Nations recommendations. With this realisation, how close are we in reality to providing a fair account of the cultural and historical contributions of people of African descent? First we must decolonise our minds: the colonial impact of our National Curriculum, must fall.
By Corinne Crosbourne
Corinne is a Joint Equality and Diversity Officer who works in local government . With a background in employment law and Human Resources, she has a particular interest in championing race and gender equality. Outside of her day job, Corinne is a feminist poet and artist, under the alias ‘thewomanistwords’. She is in the process of turning her passions for equality into a Community Interest Company (CIC), for an initiative that addresses the intersection between racism and mental health issues for the black community.
Follow her on Twitter @CrosbourneC
1 Equality Impact Assessment: ‘Reform of the national curriculum in England’, Department of Education July 2013
2https://impactofomission.squarespace.com/surveyCredit: Public Health: industrial workplace. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)
3https://impactofomission.squarespace.com/surveyCredit: Public Health: industrial workplace. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)
4 The Guardian, 2018
5 Keele’s Manifesto for Decolonising the Curriculum, Source: Journal of Global Faultlines, June-August 2020, Vol 7, No.1 (June-August 2020), pp 109
6 General Recommendation 34 adopted by the committee, XII (Measure in the field of education) 7 Charles E, “Decolonising the curriculum,” Insights, 2019, 32: 34, 1-7; DOI: https://doi.org/10.1629/uksg.475