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.


The Toothlessness of Everyday Experience – how powerful knowledge helps us to reject bullshit politics.

“The only way out of a debt crisis is to deal with your debts. That means households – all of us – paying off the credit card and store card bills.”

So read the first draft of David Cameron’s 2011 conference speech as he attempted to justify his government’s austerity programme with a call to basic common sense. We’ve borrowed too much in the good times, so now we have to pay off our debts. It made sense because it resonated with people’s personal experiences of debt. Ordinary people were having to do it, so it made sense for the government to have to do it too by decimating public services.

But David Cameron’s speechwriters were forced to hastily rewrite his speech the night before it was delivered, as economists pointed out that if people followed Cameron’s advice and everyone tried to pay off their debts they would destroy the economy.

Continue reading “The Toothlessness of Everyday Experience – how powerful knowledge helps us to reject bullshit politics.”

Standardised Exams in a Fair Society

If a fair society wanted to design a standardised exam which all of its students would sit it might look like this.

There would probably be a minimum standard, the basic level that you expect all students to reach. These would be the very minimum expectations of any independent citizen, of the things that they would need to be able to function in society. In part, these exams would be held in order to check that all students were being taught in a way that enabled them to reach that level. Continue reading “Standardised Exams in a Fair Society”

On the Western Front

If you’ve ever been to a Commonwealth cemetery on a foreign battlefield you will have found yourself doing it. Regardless of your intention when you arrived, or of your attitude towards the whole edifice of remembrance, you’ll soon realise you’re doing the same thing as everyone else: walking along the rows of graves, tastefully bordered with flower beds, reading the names on headstone after bright white headstone.  The cemeteries demand it.

Image result for tyne cot
Tyne Cot Cemetery

Continue reading “On the Western Front”

Imagined Communities and Cultural Literacy

From Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities:

“Nothing suggests that Ghanaian nationalism is any less real than Indonesian simply because its national language is English rather than Ashanti. It is always a mistake to treat languages in the way that certain nationalist ideologues treat them – as emblems of nation-ness, like flags, costumes, folk-dances, and the rest. Much the most important thing about language is its capacity for generating imagined communities, building in effect particular solidarities. After all, imperial languages are still vernaculars, and thus particular vernaculars among many. If radical Mozambique speaks Portuguese, the significance of this is that Portuguese is the medium through which Mozambique is imagined (and at the same time limits its stretch into Tanzania and Zambia). Seen from this perspective the use of Portuguese in Mozambique (or English in India) is basically no different from the use of English in Australia or Portuguese in Brazil. Language is not an instrument of exclusion: in principle, anyone can learn any language. On the contrary, it is fundamentally inclusive, limited only by the fatality of Babel: no one lives long enough to learn all languages.”

Teaching a Radical History of the British Empire

Attached are some resoures that might be helpful when trying to teach a radical history of the British Empire. Borrow them, steal them, alter them, improve them, spread them far and wide.












The Radical Case for a Knowledge-Rich Curriculum

Adam Robertson provides a radical justification for a knowledge-rich, subject-based curriculum by moving away from the social mobility based justifications for teaching subject knowledge employed by the likes of E.D. Hirsch and instead foregrounding social justice, and equipping students to fight for it, as the goal of such a curriculum.
Continue reading “The Radical Case for a Knowledge-Rich Curriculum”

Towards a Theory of Transferable Knowledge: helping students to build meaningful mental shapes

Adam Robertson suggests a way towards a theory of transferable knowledge that does more than simply ask students to reuse directly taught knowledge in a new context. Building on Counsell’s (2000) notion of students working as ‘similarity spotters’, he suggests that students need to build ‘meaningful mental shapes’ so as to be able to quickly make sense of newly encountered material, fitting it into pre-existing patterns constructed from previously learned knowledge.


There are two familiar facts that shed light on what transferable historical knowledge could be: the fact that teachers are able to gloss over a new topic entirely unfamiliar to them and quickly familiarise themselves with it, to a degree that it would take their students many hours longer to achieve; and the fact that presenting a student with an analogy for the topic or story under discussion can prompt a ‘eureka’ moment in which everything suddenly makes perfect sense. Both are instances in which knowledge is being transferred, of transferable knowledge enabling people to make sense of newly met topics and to ‘get better’ at history, and both point towards how we might begin to harness the power of transferable knowledge in the classroom. Continue reading “Towards a Theory of Transferable Knowledge: helping students to build meaningful mental shapes”

Why Social Mobility is no sort of Social Justice

Adam Robertson argues that in an unequal society focusing our attention on achieving social mobility can only cement injustice. Instead, in order to work towards social justice through education we need to foreground the eradication of oppression in our thinking.


Lurking behind much debate and discussion abouteducation in this country is the assumption that Social Mobility is ‘A Good Thing’. Indeed, for many people it has become ‘The Thing’ itself, what the entire education system is geared to produce.

Continue reading “Why Social Mobility is no sort of Social Justice”