Teaching Black history: the struggle continues

Teaching Black history: the struggle continues


Written by: Marika Sherwood

In a lecture delivered to members of the Black and Asian Studies Association, one of its founders deplores the ethnocentrism and racism in education and society.

The Black and Asian Studies Association (BASA) was formed in 1991 with the aim of encouraging research and disseminating information on the history of Black peoples in Britain. (By ‘Black’ we mean people of African origins and descent.) We also knew that an organisation such as BASA just might have some influence on government and its quangos. So we set up a committee to work to convince archivists that their holdings would, without a doubt, include material on Black peoples and thus need re-cataloguing. We also emphasised the need to collect material from local Black organisations and peoples and to revise the training of archivists to incorporate these points. We did similar work with the Museums Association. As I am sure you are all aware, there has been considerable progress this year in many museums and archives; I just hope the momentum is maintained beyond 2007.

To attempt to influence education, we met with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) and the Department of Education (DOE) many times, once with a Secretary of State. These were almost a total waste of time, though this year BASA member Martin Spafford was part of a QCA panel re-working the KS3 history curriculum. This latest version actually suggests that Blacks in Elizabethan England as well as the Black Chartist leader William Cuffay could be incorporated in the ‘mainstream’ curriculum, and uses the innovatory work of another BASA member, Dan Lyndon, in his school as an example.

Our meetings with Ofsted have not resulted in the acceptance of our suggestion for compulsory training in the history of Black peoples in the UK for all their inspectors. (We made this suggestion to the DOE as well as to course trainers of archivists and museum curators.) It was explained to us that much of Ofsted’s inspection is contracted out, so it has no influence on the training of inspectors. This seems to me to be a wonderful way of avoiding responsibility. Our attempt to influence the Teacher Training Agency has been equally unsuccessful. And, of course, the government says it has no influence on what is taught at the teacher training institutions.


One government reaction well worth citing is the definition of Britishness. In January 2006, Gordon Brown defined it as ‘liberty, fairness and responsibility’; some thirteen months later this had metamorphosed into ‘British tolerance, the British belief in liberty and the British sense of fair play’.[1]

Let us examine how Britain lives up to these definitions of its core values. Historically, there is nothing much to substantiate Mr Brown’s claims. When children were taken from the workhouses and marched up to the Lancashire factories in the mid-19th century, was that ‘liberty’? Or when children on the streets were picked up and shipped out to the colonies as cheap labour? Or when political activists in Britain were exiled and those in the colonies jailed? When the ‘surplus population’ in Britain was, one way or another, encouraged to emigrate to the colonies of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa? Last, because it is anything but the least, just how many millions of enslaved Africans did Britain transport across the Atlantic and Indian Oceans? And would the forty year period of ‘apprenticeship’ for ‘freed’ slaves in the West Indian colonies have been reduced had Britain been able to deal with the many costly revolts there? Was it ‘fair’ to use ‘contract’ – ie forced labour in the colonies up to the late 1940s?

As for ‘fairness or fair play’ – maybe on the playing fields of Eton! What is there in the history of Britain that substantiates such a claim? Just look at the class and gender divisions! The use and abuse of workers! Look at attitudes to women, who even today often earn only a proportion of the salary of men doing the same work. Look at how long it took for Ireland to regain its independence.

I have to ask, as Gordon Brown is by no means the only minister speaking about it, why is the government so concerned with defining ‘Britishness’ suddenly? Is it because of the move by Scotland, and slowly by Wales, to return to independence? And is that why it is ‘Britishness’ and not ‘Englishness’ that the government tries to define? Is it also because of the many immigrants from Europe, who, according to many accounts, in fact bring not only wealth but ‘attitudes to work’ long forgotten by the English? And because, as they are Europeans, and the UK is part of the EU, Britain can no longer denigrate continental Europeans as it used to?

But let me look at Britain today from BASA’s perspective. Should I begin by saying that it is very ‘interesting’ that we no longer have a government department for education. Equally ‘interesting’ is the reduction in the amount of history taught in schools. Given the realities of the history of the UK, this is hardly surprising: it might just contradict the much-lauded virtues of ‘Britishness’. And if world history would be taught, can you conceive of schools actually teaching that both Iraq and Israel were created by Britain?[2] And examining what responsibilities Britain thus ought to accept?

Using the definition of Britishness in schools provided by Home Office advisor Sir Keith Ajegbo that ‘pupils should study free speech, the rule of law, mutual tolerance and respect for equal rights’, let us take a glimpse at our schools.[3] By applying under the Freedom of Information Act, a researcher discovered that in ninety education authorities nearly 100,000 racist incidents had been recorded between 2002 and 2006. It should be noted that some authorities only began recording such incidents after 2002, and, as Professor Heidi Mirza argued, ‘there are a lot of young people who don’t want to report this because they are too embarrassed or frightened to do so’.[4] And, in my experience in the county in which I now live, some children just give up reporting because the teachers dismiss their complaints. Whether all complaints made by children actually appear in the schools’ official reports is also, to my mind, questionable.

Racism in schools

That racism in schools is alive and well was recognised by the Focus Institute on Rights in their report Right from the Start which states that the ‘Government has not paid sufficient attention to the implications of racial disadvantage, discrimination and, in particular, institutional racism in the way the early years services operate in practice’.[5] A report by Peter Wanless, Getting it. Getting it right for the (former) DfES found that ‘staff in many schools are unwittingly racist, with black youngsters three times more likely than white to be expelled permanently’. Furthermore, ‘black pupils are routinely punished more harshly, praised less and told off more often than other pupils’, and are ‘disproportionately put in bottom sets – due to behaviour rather than ability’. How does the research explain this? It is the ‘largely unwitting but systematic racial discrimination in the application of disciplinary and exclusions policies’. This ‘unintentional racism stems from long-standing conditioning involving negative images of black peoples, particularly black men’.[6]

Data for permanent exclusions by the DfES shows that in the years 2003/4 and 2005/6 ’26 out of every 10,000 pupils of mixed ethnic origin were permanently excluded from school. This was the same rate as the exclusion rate for Black pupils which was around twice that for White pupils … Almost 8 in every 100 pupils of Black or Mixed ethnic heritage were excluded for a fixed period in 2004/5. This compares with almost 6 in every 100 pupils of White ethnic origin and around 2 in every 100 Asian pupils.'[7]

Are schools in breach of their duties under the Race Relations Act (2000), which requires public bodies to eliminate racial discrimination? The Research Brief on ‘Minority Ethnic Teachers’ Professional Experiences’ issued by the DfES (RB853, June 2007) concludes that ‘minority ethnic teachers, particularly African Caribbean teachers, have argued that their communities have, for the past few decades, been consigned to the outskirts of the education system by a profession which has consistently formed preconceived and stereotypical notions of their communities based on unfair assessments and the mis-education of their children’.

It is thus hardly surprising that in 2005 only ’21 per cent of African-Caribbean boys in England obtained five GCSE passes at grades A*-C … The percentage for all pupils was double that.'[8] All teachers must know that pupils generally live up to their expectations. Expect nothing and you’ll get nothing.

The National Curriculum

But it gets worse. Racism is rife in the National Curriculum, which generally lauds the achievements of the English (no, not the British) and then Europeans, with barely a glance at the non-White world except for the USA. All inventors, painters, scientists, explorers, designers, poets, writers, mathematicians, astronomers, chemists, and sculptors – everything that is worth anything comes from the genius of Whites. Thus, by omission, the public bodies known as ‘schools’ reinforce the racism that has been promulgated in this country for at least the past 150 years.[9] If this were not intentional, why is ‘Black Peoples of the Americas’ still on the curriculum, while, despite BASA’s protests, there is no course on ‘Black Peoples of Britain’?

In April this year the QCA published (on the web) ‘Multi-ethnic histories: a bibliography for teaching and learning at key stages 2 and 3’. It is supposed to ‘support the teaching of the multi-ethnic dimension of British history in the national curriculum’. For the section on ‘The African and African-Caribbean communities’, this offers two websites (one not on history), two publications on Mary Seacole, a novel by Stella Osammor and Hakim Adi’s book on this history; nothing for the teachers’ own education. ‘The transatlantic slave trade’ lists a book on anti-slavery, histories of Mary Prince and Robert Wedderburn; Equiano’s book and Sancho’s letters as a ‘teacher resource’, two novels on Abraham Hannibal and one website.[10] Section 12, ‘The First World War’, offers my article on the BBC website while Section 13 on WWII, lists the Channel 4 ‘Black and Asian History Map’, a book on the Windrush, and Martin Spafford and my book, now long out of print.

So what does the QCA say about History in its lavish National Curriculum: statutory requirements for key stages 3 and 4, published jointly with the new Department of Children, Schools and Families, in 2007? Pupils are expected to ‘investigate Britain’s relationship with the wider world and relate past events to the present day’; and ‘explore cultural, ethnic and religious diversity and racial equality’. Thus ‘British history’ is to include ‘the impact through time of the movement and settlement of diverse peoples to, from and within the British Isles’, which has helped to shape Britain’s identity’. How teachers are supposed to do this from the bibliography provided is completely beyond my comprehension. (I must emphasise that it would be an absolute miracle if any teachers had learned any of this history at university.)

The great advance in this curriculum is that it includes ‘the development of trade, colonisation, industrialisation and technology, the British Empire and its impact on different people in Britain and overseas, pre-colonial civilisations, the nature and effects of the slave trade, and resistance and decolonisation’. But again, we have to ask: given their own mis-education, how are teachers supposed to teach these topics? In their outline, the QCA only notes the work of Olaudah Equiano and William Wilberforce and recommends that teachers should link with ’emancipation, segregation and the 20th century civil rights movement in the USA’. So now we know. Just return to teaching what was in the curriculum from day 1, the USA. From where are teachers supposed to get reliable, well-researched information on the rest of these excellent suggestions? Undoubtedly, sooner or later, a new bibliography will be issued on the slave trade and slavery, which will ignore the actual inefficacy of the Acts of 1807 and 1833.[11]

It is further recommended that pupils should study ‘the ways in which the past has helped to shape identities’. Can you imagine teachers approaching this topic with confidence? Will they, for example, look at the multi-fold legacies of slavery, which of course includes racist ideologies and practices and the engendering of White superiority?

The ‘programme of study’ for KS3 ‘Citizenship’ in this publication goes on for twenty-four pages, whereas History deserved only nine. What conclusions can we draw? Perhaps that ‘history’ is too political, too threatening, or that ‘Britishness’ ie, ‘citizenship’ has to be reinforced while we live in a state of ‘War on terror’. The curriculum is supposed to encourage ‘respect for different national, religious and ethnic identities and … encourage pupils to challenge injustice, inequalities and discrimination’. Furthermore, one focus should be on the ‘fairness and the rule of law as part of justice’. I wonder just how many ‘BEM’ pupils there are who have not themselves or who do not have relatives who have experiences demonstrating the unfairness of many aspects of the worlds they inhabit in the UK.

The QCA advises that when teaching ‘identities and diversity: living together in the UK’, ‘the historical context … should be considered where appropriate’. Could the QCA explain when this context is not ‘appropriate’? A second statement explains for me the rationale behind teaching ‘Citizenship’: ‘All pupils, regardless of their legal or residential status, should explore and develop their understanding of what it means to be a citizen in the UK today’. That definition might sound very different coming from a Zimbabwean asylum seeker about to be returned home, or someone rotting in our ‘detention centres’ and hugely overcrowded prisons, or those dealing with daily discrimination.

The chances are that teachers will avoid teaching anything considered a ‘delicate subject’. The Historical Association has reported that ‘teachers and schools avoid emotive and controversial history for a variety of reasons, some of which are well-intentioned … In some settings, teachers are unwilling to challenge highly contentious or charged versions of history.’ The report recommends that ‘Initial teacher training should include more attention on how to teach these subjects and a better research base should be made available to teachers’. Will anyone have sufficient courage to follow up on this? After all, even Ofsted, in its report History in the Balance (July 2007, p.4), admitted that in primary schools ‘few teachers are specialists and so find it difficult to develop the subject’.[12]

How far have we moved from the UK’s first Black head teacher’s assessment of the 1960s: ‘so much ignorance, so much prejudice, seemed to be built into the school curriculum’?[13] My colleague Dan Lyndon assures me he has ‘been working with teachers on these issues for nearly five years now and more and more are taking steps to increase the amount of Black and Asian British history taught in their classrooms – you only need to see the success of www.blackhistory4schools to see that this is the case – over the last three months over 13,000 people have visited the website with over 200,000 hits. The Internet is a powerful tool that we can use to change habits and attitudes.’ I just hope that those ‘hits’ result in action! Martin Spafford is also more hopeful, arguing that the ‘wording of the new curriculum allows a way for community groups … to knock on their school doors and influence or even train teachers’. He is ‘more interested in how teachers network online and in the flesh from their own felt needs to learn in or to teach’. This reminds me, I’m afraid, of the conclusions I drew many years ago after running in-service sessions for teachers: those who attend are fine, but what about the other 90 per cent? Another colleague, a county advisor, offers a different perspective: because of the lack of ‘training days … most of the training I have delivered has been … after school staff meetings … It’s debatable whether (these sessions) influence practice unless they have some sort of hook built in, such as a resource pack, DVD, etc.’

Some statistics on racial discrimination

The total population of England and Wales (47.2 million) was estimated in mid-2005 to be 2.8 per cent Black and 4.7 per cent Asian.[14]

Of the ‘stops and searches’ of vehicle occupants in 2005/6, 8 per cent were Black and 11 per cent were Asians. Of the 2,045 Blacks thus searched, twenty were arrested ‘in connection with terrorism’; of 2,811 Asians, thirty-three were supposed ‘terrorists’. Blacks accounted for 15.4 per cent of the total of ‘stops and searches’, and Asians for 7.9 per cent. (Or for 21 per cent and 11 per cent, depending on which table you believe.) Of the total of 1,197,657 ‘arrests for notifiable offences’, 11 per cent were Blacks and 6 per cent were Asians.[15]

In June 2006 in our grossly overcrowded prisons, 14 per cent of inmates were ‘Black or Black British’, 6 per cent were ‘Asians or Asian British’ and 3 per cent were ‘Mixed’. Of young offenders sentenced to ‘1 year or more’, 15 per cent were Black and 6 per cent Asians.[16] Black men are four times more likely than White men to be on the national DNA database.[17]

The proportion of ‘BME’ peoples employed in the criminal justice system is the reverse of those at the receiving end of the system. Two per cent of prison officers were Black, 1 per cent were Asian; in the Crown Prosecution Service, it was 4 per cent Black and 5 per cent Asian while less than 1 per cent and only 1.55 per cent of the judiciary were Black or Asian.

The Charity Commission has reported that 0.2 per cent of its staff were ‘BEM’.[18] The TUC found that only 6 per cent of White women but 16 per cent of Black, 18 per cent of Bangladeshi and 22 per cent of Pakistani women ‘often took a lower level job than they were qualified for’.[19]

Unemployment rates are 6 per cent for White men and over twice as high for all ethnic minority men except Indians. The rate for White women is 4 per cent, for Indian women 6 per cent, for Black Caribbean women 8 per cent, Black Africans 12 per cent, Pakistani women 15 per cent and Bangladeshi women 17 per cent.[20]

The ‘income poverty rates’ are less that 10 per cent for ‘White-British’ working families, about 18 per cent for ‘Black-Caribbean’, almost 30 per cent for ‘Black African’, 40 per cent for Pakistani and almost 60 per cent for Bangladeshi households.[21] The percentage of children living in ‘low income households’ is 18 per cent of Whites and 38 per cent of ‘BEMs’; the highest proportions are 65 per cent of Pakistani children and 27 per cent of Black children.[22]

So what should we in BASA do? I think it is essential to return to discussions with the government regarding teacher training (both in-service and initial), to take up the issue of the training of Ofsted inspectors and the QCA. We need somehow to encourage universities to offer courses on the history of Black and Asian peoples in Britain and set up research projects. Is the Equiano Centre going to lead the way? If printed books are still being used in schools, then we need, yet again, to hold discussions with the Text-book Publishers Association. We also need to keep an eye on museums, archives and the heritage sector, as I am fearful that the current momentum might well vanish once the 1807/2007 commemorative funding and extravaganza are over. And public libraries need to be approached. Should we also consider trying to find ways of working with parents and community groups, perhaps to encourage them to serve on schools’ governing bodies and thus bring up the issue of ethnocentric curricula? Or the lack of Black teachers? There is a multitude of tasks to be getting on with.

Related links

The Black and Asian Studies Association (BASA)

[1] From the web: BBC News, 14 January 2006; Guardian Unlimited, February 27, 2007. [2] Britain, of course, also created the Anglophone countries of the Americas and, with other Europeans in Berlin in 1885, the countries of Africa. [3] On the web: BBC News, 2/5/2007. [4] On the web: Channel 4 News, 24 May 2006. [5] http://education.guardian.co.uk, 26 June 2006. [6] On the web: BBC News, 11 December 2006; The Independent 10 December 2006. [7] DfES, SFR 24/2006, 29 June 2006. [8] On the web: 'Robin Richardson: There is a way to help black boys perform better at school', The Independent, 12 December 2006. [9] See my 'In this curriculum I don't exist', www.history.ac.uk/education, 2005; 'Racism in Education?' Race Equality Teaching, 22/3, summer 2004; 'White Myths, Black Omissions: the historical origins of racism in Britain', International Journal of Historical Teaching, Learning and Research, 3/1, January 2003; 'Race, Empire and Education: teaching racism', Race & Class, 42/3 2001; 'Sins of omission and commission: history in English schools and struggles for change', Multicultural Teaching, Spring 1998. [10] The relevance of Sancho to abolition is unclear to me. Yes, he had been born to an enslaved woman and became a Londoner of many accomplishments, but was not active in the anti-slavery movement. [11] Marika Sherwood, After Abolition (IB Tauris, 2007: and with Kim Sherwood, Britain, the slave trade and slavery 1562 to the 1880s, Savannah Press 2007) Even 'Slavery' on the National Archives' Learning Curve web site propagates this comfortable mythology. [12] Regarding 'Britishness', Ofsted argues that /considerable uncertainty exists among history teachers about the concept...some teachers have concerns about overt political interference in the curriculum. (pp.31-2) [13] Beryl Gilroy, Black Teacher, London: Cassell 1976, p.52. According to a recent newspaper report, a Junior School lined up its pupils 'by the colour of their skin' for class photographs. (Metro, 24 October 2007, p.9. [14] Ministry of Justice, Statistics on Race and the Criminal Justice System - 2006, October 2007, Appendix A1. [15] Ministry of Justice, Statistics on Race and the Criminal Justice System - 2006, October 2007: Tables 12.2, 12.4, 12.5 and Table 4.7; Table A in Executive summary contradicted by Table 5.1 'Total arrests for notifiable offences'. [16] Ibid, Tables 9.2 . [17] IRR News Service, 'Worries over DNA and racial profiling', (19 May 2005), https://irr.org.uk/2005/may/ak000007.html. [18] www.charity-commission.gov.uk/library/tcc/pdfs/res0607: Analysis of Employment for Race Equality Scheme 2006-7. [19] www.tuc.org.uk/extras/bwae.pdf: 'Black Women and Employment'. [20] www.blink.org.uk/bm/manifesto_section.asp?catid=7: 'Tackling Unemployment', 3 May 2007. [21] Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 'Findings informing change', April 2007. [22] www.blink.org.uk/bm/manifesto_section.asp?catid=7: 'Tackling Unemployment', 3 May 2007.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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