Labour should make the History of the British Empire compulsory at GCSE

According to YouGov, 59% of British people are proud of the British Empire.

I don’t think they’re actually proud of the torture of the Mau Mau in Kenya, or of the 10 million deaths in Bengal that happened as the direct result of the East India Company’s decision to force local farmers to grow opium poppies, or of the millions of people enslaved in Africa and forced to work in horrendous conditions in the Americas, or of the genocides of indigenous people committed in Australia and North America. I think they probably just don’t know about these things.

This is a profound problem for our public life. The British Empire is probably the episode in British history that has done the most to shape modern Britain as it exists today, and it is a period of our history of we which seem to be collectively ignorant.

empire map

And it is this ignorance that sustains the fantastical thinking around Brexit, and the desire to build an Empire 2.0 that have no basis in the real world and are doomed to failure. It is this rose-tinted, shallow version of the history of the empire, of plucky chaps in pith helmets venturing into the back end of beyond and building civilisation from scratch, which has sustained the baseless ‘have your cake and eat it’ politics of the Brexiteers.

Our public discourse is poisoned by our popular ignorance about the history of Empire, which is preventing us from collectively making sense of the position of Britain in the world in the 21st century.

This level of collective public ignorance is sustained by the fact that the history of the Empire is not taught to young people as a matter of course. Cambridge Assessment’s 2014 survey of A Level History choices found several permutations of Tudor history making the top 10 but few teachers opting to teach their students about the British Empire.

You could attempt to put the history of the Empire on the national curriculum, as Jeremy Corbyn has previously suggested.

But I don’t think that this would be nearly enough to redress this issue. Notwithstanding the fact that only local authority maintained schools are obligated to teach the National Curriculum, meaning that no academies or free schools could be compelled to follow such an instruction, it also wouldn’t secure much. Currently the only topic on the History National Curriculum as a compulsory topic to teach at KS3 is the Holocaust, which often gets shunted into a brief few hours at the end of Year 9. This is clearly not sufficient, and is probably a large part of the reason why a recent survey carried out by the Centre for Holocaust Education at UCL found that only 37% of young people in Britain know what the term ‘anti-semitism’ means.

Instead, in order to put an end to our public ignorance about the history of the empire and to provide the conditions for an honest, well-informed public discussion about the position of Britain in the world today to take place, the next Labour government should make History GCSE compulsory and make a unit on the British Empire a compulsory component of the History GCSE.

The Conservatives have shown how the content of exams can be used efficiently to ensure that teachers teach desired content in a rigorous way, as has been the case with phonics and grammar at primary school. Their desire to ensure that teachers teach a knowledge-rich curriculum at secondary school led them to reform GCSEs and A Levels to be extremely rigorous, testing vast amounts of knowledge and difficult, unfamiliar texts that children need strong subject knowledge to access. Labour should do the same by making History GCSE compulsory and making the British Empire a compulsory component of it as the most effective way of ensuring that most children get access to knowledge about the history of the British Empire.

The new History GCSEs are excellent and allow students to study a broad range of different topics from different periods and places. They are a far cry from the bad old days of Nazi Germany and 20th Century International Relations. It would not be hard to rejig how topics are offered by exam boards to ensure that all students study one unit on the British Empire. A Labour government could enlist leading historians and history teachers to produce a standard textbook of the history of the British Empire that could be used by all of the exam boards and which could represent a shared basic knowledge of the history of the empire that everyone in society would have access to.

This would go some way to enabling the next generation to understand their own history that much better. It would foster an honest understanding of the way in which the Empire shaped the world today and the way in which Britain destroyed the lives of indigenous people across the globe in order to enrich itself. Without a widespread and popular understanding of this history we have no chance of making sense of the position of Britain in the world today. The recent history of education in England shows that this would be one of the most efficient and effective ways a future Labour government could ensure that the next generation has that knowledge.

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2 thoughts on “Labour should make the History of the British Empire compulsory at GCSE

  1. “59% of British people are proud of the British Empire”

    “This level of collective public ignorance is sustained by the fact that the history of the Empire is not taught to young people as a matter of course. Cambridge Assessment’s 2014 survey of A Level History choices found several permutations of Tudor history making the top 10 but few teachers opting to teach their students about the British Empire.”

    1) “level of collective public ignorance”
    Are the public “ignorant”? I was taught about the British Empire in school before the National Curriculum was implemented. It’s been on the history curriculum since 1988 in all the different iterations, though I accept, as you say, it’s not been compulsory. The evidence for ignorance is their choice in a vote.

    2)” is not taught to young people as a matter of course”
    You don’t know that – you give the example of A-Levels but we would need data from KS3 and GCSE’s over the years to substantiate this claim.

    3) If I take your claim it has not been taught at face values. Is it the content or the medium? History content has been gutted in various ways in favour of skills. It’s also been the case that in order to make it “more exciting” it has been taught via role-play, etc (Willingham cites the case of US children being taught about slavery by baking cookies and therefore not really focusing on the history content).

    4) What is the purpose of making it compulsory? I think it should be on there in order to understand our past and present (socially, ethnically, etc).

    I have every interest in this topic being taught – it’s the connection between my ancestors and this country and it’s the reason why India is the country it is now. It’s the reason why my parents came here and why I was born here.

    If it’s to change the percentage then you are simply weaponising the curriculum (and yes I know that many on the left think it was anyway but there is no evidence of that).

    We have talked about using history as political propaganda before – I would caution against it again – mostly because this does not work and is more likely to backfire, most likely in the form of white racists/nationalists being able to claim all the knowledge of the great things that took place during that era, and they did alongside the bad and downright evil things that did, which is my main reason for arguing this point – why give them anything and a way in?

    5) If I recall correctly, the survey you refer to only allowed for a binary answer (so no nuance). You don’t know whether the people who voted this way learnt about colonialism or not. You make the assumption that they are ignorant simply because they didn’t vote in the way that you think is correct.

    On balance, I would have voted for proud rather than ashamed if they were the choices given to me. My relationship with the British Empire and Britain are different to those of white British people. I would also say that because I learnt about it at home and at school I know considerably more than most people. Yet you would have me down as ignorant not because I am but because you don’t understand how I came to that choice. That is a different matter altogether.

    If you want this as compulsory so because it is one of the most important parts of British history then I would support you in this endeavour as best I can but if this is simply so that British children grow up to hate their past as part of a left-wing induction into “right think” then I can’t.

    The current fad for “pick an identity and a historical grievance, rail against your own people and society to correct it” is one that I would not advocate for. Even ethnic identities such as Indian are more complex than at first glance. There is no way of controlling which identity and which historical conflict will be picked. Extremism may be exciting for the revlutionary mind but the reality is simply one of brutality.

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