The fight for racial justice in the present requires an understanding of our past. It’s time to #TeachRaceMigrationEmpire

The fight for racial justice in the present requires an understanding of our past. It’s time to #TeachRaceMigrationEmpire


By: Kimberly McIntosh
Date: 23 October 2020

Transforming how we’re taught about the past is one of the key demands in the UK following the Black Lives Matter protests. This is what needs to change.

The global resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests has renewed interest in the movement and its demands. As a result, calls for reform of the school curriculum have gained greater urgency. Youth-led grassroots groups are at the forefront, like All Black Lives UK, which organised protests in London, Manchester, and most famously Bristol, where the statue of 17th century slave trader Edward Colston was pulled down and pushed into the harbour. They demand that “a historically accurate account of colonialism and Black British history is taught in schools.” Other young campaigners such as The Black Curriculum, Reroot.ED and Fill in the Blanks are also leading the charge for curriculum change. 

At the Runnymede Trust, we’ve been working on this issue for over a decade. Energised by the momentum that the toppling of Colston’s statue spurred, we teamed up with Institute of Historical Research, Royal Historical Society, Stephen Lawrence Research Centre, the Raphael Samuel History Centre and the History Workshop to start a new campaign, #TeachRaceMigrationEmpire, to give tangible actions for allies who agree that teaching these histories is vital. But what’s actually on the curriculum and what needs to change?

The curriculum: an incomplete story

Migration and empire are central to Britain’s national story. Yet despite their centrality to our history, the teaching of race, migration and empire is a lottery in schools, leaving the story we tell incomplete.

Until the 1960s, the curriculum implicitly supported the merits of empire and remained evasive on its exploitative or violent realities for colonised people. Further, how race, migration and empire have been taught in schools and represented in textbooks has shifted with changes in government.

Today, the National Curriculum states that students must learn how Britain has influenced and been influenced by the wider world as part of the history curriculum before age fourteen. There is a lot of flexibility, which allows teachers to cover Black British histories, migration and empire. These are, however, optional suggestions. At primary school, the only statutory topics related to migration are the Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Scots and Vikings. At Key Stage 3, only the Holocaust is compulsory.

Flexibility for teachers is a good thing. But there are institutional challenges with this curriculum structure that limit the scope for change. Firstly, it makes it difficult to track what is being taught in schools. In 2014, the Department for Education admitted it didn’t know how many schools were teaching Britain’s involvement in the slave trade.

Second, teachers tend to teach the history they’ve been taught at school and university. What they don’t know, they don’t teach. Many of us who went to school in England may remember learning about the Henrys but little else. And there are few training opportunities to assist teachers who might want to teach migration and empire but do not feel confident doing so. In our survey of teachers, 78% wanted training on teaching migration and 71% on teaching empire.

To be taught widely, these subjects need to be made a compulsory part of the curriculum at Key Stage 3. And to ensure it’s done well, high quality training and support for teachers must be in place before the changes are made. We can learn a lot from the University College London Centre for Holocaust Education, which provides a national programme of Initial Teacher Education for early-career teachers, as well as online materials and resources.

Actions for Allies

Get educated

To fill in any gaps in your knowledge, there is a plethora of open access resources now available online. Along with the Institute of Historical Research, we’ve crowdsourced free materials for teachers, students and researchers on race, migration and empire. And in collaboration with Manchester and Cambridge universities, we created the Our Migration Story website, which features the stories of the generations of migrants who came to and shaped Britain.

Books such as David Olusoga’s Black and British: A Forgotten History, Colin Grant’s Homecoming: Voices of the Windrush Generation, Miranda Kaufmann’s Black Tudors: The Untold Story and Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race are a good way to learn about Black British histories.

Write to your MP and the Schools Minister

Ask your local MP to call for empire, colonialism, migration and Black British histories to be statutory topics in the history curriculum, with high quality training provided for teachers.

Write to your School Governors

In the current National Curriculum, schools have the flexibility to choose these topics. Ask your local primary school to include them at Key Stage 2, and your local secondary school to include them at Key Stage 3 and to select similar GCSE and A Level units.

Follow and use the hashtag

Share any action you take using the hashtag #TeachRaceMigrationEmpire on social media and follow it for updates.

The fight for racial justice in the present requires an understanding of our past. The global inequalities of today, and the racist beliefs that were used to justify much of them, have not gone away. Now is the time for a global reimagining. But before we move forward and build back better, let’s learn from our past.

Ninety-Nine issue 17 cover


This article first appeared in the June 2020 issue of Ninety-Nine, the magazine for Global Justice Now members.

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Photo: A Black Lives Matter protest in London in 2016. © Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images