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Wed 28 October 2020
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Creating a fuller, fairer picture of British history requires urgent reforms to the National Curriculum, explains Dr Cheryl Diane Parkinson

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With the spread of COVID-19, the pandemic of racism has been exposed.

Many of us are watching the news, taking part in protests, signing petitions and trying to utilise this moment to change the status quo. And we are watching our white friends – those who stand by our side, those who actively oppose us, and those who remain silent. 

The disappointment that Martin Luther King Jr held towards “the white moderate” is demonstrated by some people’s reactions to the recent protests. Some are more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice and “prefer a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice”.

In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail in 1963, King depicted these people as constantly saying “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”.

White people who seek to protect Churchill’s statute clearly do not see him as the non-white community do, which is reminiscent of the different ways that Christopher Columbus is retrospectively viewed by white Americans and Native Americans.

History, as it is taught in the UK, reinforces unconscious bias with misinformation. This in turn emboldens racists to weaponise this false, incomplete knowledge of history against black people. It has arguably contributed heavily to political debate in recent years that have been framed around Britain’s history and place in the world – not least Brexit.


Some white people challenge Black Lives Matter protestors with a self-righteous indignation that reeks of an ignorance of history.

Some use this incomplete history to state that they agree with the Black Lives Matter cause, but do not agree with its methods – such as toppling slave trader statues or re-examining the legacy of Churchill.

To reinforce their stance, they highlight the historic victories that Churchill led, without acknowledging his historic failures. The fountain of knowledge from which they draw intellectual sustenance has been poisoned from the beginning. If we are to evoke any kind of change, this fountain needs to be filled with a different liquid.

Under Labour, diversity was introduced into the National Curriculum, particularly in the study of English literature with poems from other cultures explored. Students read To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, providing a much-needed insight into racial discrimination.

Under the Conservatives, then Education Secretary Michael Gove axed such texts in a bid to make the curriculum “more rigorous”, opting instead for books authored by the likes of Jane Austen. In order to generate change, we need to look at where power lies within this country and who makes these decisions.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is establishing a commission into racial inequality, whereas the Shadow Justice Secretary David Lammy is calling for action. As the latter pointed out in a BBC News interview, commissions have happened before – Johnson simply needs to act on their advice.


Nothing is going to change until the current attitude of the white moderate is dismantled – and this will only happen when unconscious bias is dispelled from Government and our society generally.

In this, the media can play a vital role. Television programmes such as Black and British: A Forgotten History with David Olusoga and books such as Akala’s Natives need to be more readily available. Black representation across all aspects of media, theatre and the arts needs to increase, but fundamental to this is completely changing the way we teach history.

Campaigners are calling for black British history to be taught in schools. The Black Curriculum group has written to the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson requesting a review of the syllabus, arguing that “learning black history should not be a choice but should be mandatory”. A Department for Education spokesperson replied: “Racism in all its forms is abhorrent and has no place in our society. Schools already play a significant role in teaching children about the importance of having respect and tolerance for all cultures.” It is a response offering no indication that any kind of change is afoot. 

Arguably, schools can decide how and what is taught at primary level and at Key Stage 3 (Years 7 and 9), but this becomes much more difficult at Key Stage Four (Years 10 and 11), when students have a strict programme of study controlled by the Government. Now is the time to adjust the National Curriculum to serve us better; whether we are black or white. It needs to look at British identity and historical representation and teach a full and true British History.

Department heads in schools, alongside senior leaders, can implement change. The texts given to students need to be more diverse and school libraries more reflective of our multicultural society.

If lost lives are wedging open the gates of change, our action needs to be bold – utilising that opportunity to its fullest. As rapper Killer Mike has said: “Now is the time to plot, plan, strategise, organise and mobilise.”


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