Secret Teacher: the UK has a complex racial history. Why aren’t we teaching it?​

A black male teacher marks essays

When you’re a minority, racism is a part of life. But the struggle of marginalised people in the UK is largely ignored by the national history curriculum.
Photograph: Alamy

Growing up as a person of colour, racism was an ever-present discussion in my circles. When you’re a minority it is, sadly, a part of life.

Race issues are increasingly being discussed more widely, thanks in part to social media and movements such as #BlackLivesMatter. But the UK education system does not prepare children to have these conversations.

The recent controversy over an H&M advert sparked heated debate among the secondary students I teach. Some were confused; others understood it was a sensitive issue but weren’t sure why. Students of colour were unsure how to explain how they felt or were embarrassed to do so. It was heartbreaking.

This opened a class discussion on the history of race in the UK. Suddenly, the atmosphere changed. Students were shocked, bothered and enraged. “Why aren’t we learning about this in history?” one asked. Why indeed?

The aims of the national history curriculum include teaching students to “know and understand the history of these islands … how people’s lives have shaped this nation and how Britain has influenced and been influenced by the wider world”. It goes on: students must “understand historical concepts such as continuity and change, cause and consequence, similarity, difference and significance, and use them to make connections”.

Amid the units about the slave trade, abolition and the Civil Rights movement in the US, we forget the Civil Rights movement in the UK, unless teachers choose to include specific case studies. The brutalities and crimes of the British empire
are ignored. Even Winston Churchill, who historians have found believed in racial hierarchies and eugenics, escapes scrutiny beyond his war hero reputation. Students are led to believe racism and discrimination came out of the ether in this country. That adds to the marginalisation many feel, and has a profound impact on students’ understanding of racism.

There are schools that choose to talk about Mary Seacole, the British-Jamaican businesswoman who helped British soldiers in the Crimean war. But students should also learn about Una Marson, a black feminist fighting racism in Britain in the 1940s. There’s Cherry Groce, who was shot and paralysed by police in the Brixton riots in 1985. There’s William Cuffay, who fought for universal suffrage until he was deported to Tasmania by Queen Victoria. And there’s Olive Morris, a key figure of Brixton’s Black Panther movement and prominent civil rights activist.

Our classrooms are diverse and students want to learn what is most relevant to their lives. If they are to demand change and equality, they need to understand that the playing field isn’t level for everyone. They deserve a safe place to talk about why that isn’t the case and ask difficult questions – for example, about the meaning of structural racism. How has British history negatively affected countries around the world that the ancestors of many British citizens once called home?

Instead, the curriculum supports an ideology that doesn’t acknowledge many of the flaws in UK history. In whitewashing the discrimination and bloodshed in our past, is it any such a wonder that parts of our society are racist, misogynistic and prejudiced? It’s not enough to discuss these issues in Black History Month in October and ignore the reality of racism that minorities have to endure all year round. Students need to be taught to critically analyse these events and empathise with people across cultures in a diverse but interconnected world.

The weight of feeling marginalised exists in and out of school for so many pupils. As teachers, we have a responsibility to tackle racism in the classroom, but the nuances of an offensive act can be hard for white colleagues to understand. Training is essential so that teachers can teach inclusivity, and identify and prevent racism and prejudice in all its forms. Despite the inclusion of some race related history, we need to change our approach to accommodate our students and their place in the world. By reflecting the histories and perspectives of marginalised citizens, teachers can build pupils’ understanding and empathy. Society could do with a bit more of that.

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