By Abi Glyn
Until the age of 14, I thought Africa was a country. Kudos to me, by the time I went to university I had learned it was a continent. However, that’s about as far as my knowledge of Africa and its diaspora stretched. So how did I manage to start a degree in International Relations without any knowledge of the world’s second largest continent? The answer lies with my education, or lack thereof. In this blog, I discuss both the dangers of the United Kingdom’s national curriculum as it stands, and some suggestions on how to move forward.
The Eurocentric narrative of the national curriculum perpetuates a cycle of ignorance
It has been widely reported that the national curriculum is Eurocentric (Arday, 2019), with history dominated by France, Germany and the United Kingdom during the "world" wars. Children are growing up without any knowledge of how the world works beyond the West and are thus forced to learn about Africa and its diaspora through the opinions of family members and other people in their community. This knowledge gap has contributed to the persistence of stereotypes that Africa is this poor, abstract place in need of saving, which is reified when Africa is only discussed in relation to suffering, fundraising or finishing your dinner – don’t you know that there are children starving in Africa? Through these stereotypes, along with inaccurate media representations, children develop the same damaging beliefs, and the cycle continues.
The lack of attention on Britain’s part in historic racial injustices pushes blame and restricts progress
African history is more than the trans-Atlantic slave trade, yet this is the only piece of history we are taught outside of the yearly token Black History Month. This only serves to reinforce the black victim narrative which can make Black and Minority Ethnic children feel uncomfortable (Leach et al., 2020). It can also affect their academic performances and decisions. The only faces children seen in history books are white, and only 5 out of 59 GCSE history modules from the top 3 exam boards explicitly mention the history of black British people (Leach et al., 2020). Atkinson et al (2018:21) contribute the white, Eurocentric narrative of the history curriculum to the “low uptake of history as a subject by Black and Minority Ethnic pupils and their low-levels of undergraduate admission to History as an academic discipline more generally”.
In a 2014 survey, two-thirds of Britons claimed they were proud of the British empire (YouGov, 2014). This seems odd given that our imperial history is almost completely omitted from our education. It is important for children to be taught the realities of how Britain became 'Great', so that they can come to their own conclusion based on facts, not hearsay. Whilst some argue this could create anti-patriotism, it could in fact help children think critically about their past whilst learning lessons for the future, as evidenced with German schools teaching the Holocaust (Heath, 2018). Furthermore, learning about past atrocities driven by racial ideology could help children understand the consequences of prejudices whilst learning to recognise and challenge racist behaviour when they see it.
Xenophobia and racism are rampant within a continuously diverse Britain, with an 8% increase in hate crimes from 2019-2020 (Home Office, 2021). However, this reality is often ignored whilst racism against people of African heritage in the United States is criticised, reinforcing the idea that tackling racism in the United Kingdom is not necessary, as we are not and never have been 'as bad as them'. The teaching of Britain’s colonial past can challenge this mindset, give children a more accurate view of history, and help them see through present-day racist stereotypes (Arday, 2020).
African history is more than colonisation
Whilst it is important to recognise the long-lasting impact of colonisation, we must also teach children to view Africa beyond its position in relation to Western civilisation and dominance (Weiner, 2016). Had I not gone to university or studied something other than International Relations, I likely would never have known of the African empires that threatened the Romans, their history of international trade, sophisticated technologies and societies that existed long before a European stepped foot on the continent.
However, higher education institutions must also reflect on how they teach content about African countries. Most modules tend to focus on the issues of poverty, underdevelopment, and conflict. Yes, many parts of Africa are poor and, just like the rest of the world, there have been and currently are some terrible conflicts. We should not ignore this but rather give a more balanced perspective. For example, lessons on the Rwandan genocide can help children understand the consequences of ethnic prejudices, but it should also be acknowledged that Rwanda has been able to rebuild, with subsequent improvement in its judicial system and impressive advancement in women’s equality. Therefore, primary, secondary and tertiary institutions alike must move past viewing Africa solely as a negative case study and instead teach of its diversity, rich successes and history.
Where do we go from here?
One of the biggest hurdles we face is the fear of getting things wrong. Research has shown that often educators are uncomfortable in facilitating discussions on topics of race and ethnicity for fear of using the incorrect terms and language, or that a student will do so (Arday, 2020). But where better to challenge ignorance and address these mistakes than in a safe place of learning? Giving support to teachers on how to navigate difficult discussions would help them escape the cycle of choosing Eurocentric modules that fit safely within their comfort zone.
However, this is too heavy a responsibility for teachers to bare alone, especially given the curriculum restrictions and workload pressure they face. For national-level change to happen, action needs to be taken at all levels. From government bodies, academics, exam boards and headmasters – these stakeholders must work together to share best practice and initiate change, involving the voices of those that matter but are currently missing. Collectively and individually, we must all ask ourselves what we do to make a positive, lasting change.
Abi Glyn is a BSc International Relations student at the University of Gloucestershire. This blog is based on her essay submission to the Royal African Society and All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Africa’s inquiry into how Africa and its diaspora are taught in British schools. The 2022 APPG Africa Education Inquiry Report can be viewed here.
Atkinson, H., Bardgett, A., Budd, A., Finn, M., Kissane, C., Qureshi, S., Saha, J., Siblon, J., & Sivasundaram, S. (2018). Race, Ethnicity & Equality in UK History: A Report and Resource for Change, The royal historical society, London. Available at: https://files.royalhistsoc.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/08171054/RHS_race_report_2018.pdf
Arday, J. (2019). ‘Dismantling power and privilege through reflexivity: negotiating normative Whiteness, the Eurocentric curriculum and racial micro-aggressions within the Academy’, Whiteness and Education, vol. 3 (2).
Arday, J. (2020). Black British History in the National Curriculum Report, 2020. Available at: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5c4325439d5abb9b27980cd4/t/5e1530a2ecbb473fb909584c/1578447045883/The+Black+Curriculum+Report+2020.pdf
Heath, D. (2018). ‘British Empire is still being whitewashed by the school curriculum – historian on why this must change’, The Conversation, 2nd November 2018. Available at: https://theconversation.com/british-empire-is-still-being-whitewashed-by-the-school-curriculum-historian-on-why-this-must-change-105250
Home Office (2020). Official Statistics Hate crime, England and Wales, 2019 to 2020. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/hate-crime-england-and-wales-2019-to-2020/hate-crime-england-and-wales-2019-to-2020
Leach, A., Voce, A., & Kirk, A. (2020). ‘Black British history: the row over the school curriculum in England’, The Guardian. 13th July 2020. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/jul/13/black-british-history-school-curriculum-england
Weiner, M. F. (2016). ‘Colonized Curriculum: Racializing Discourses of Africa and Africans in Dutch Primary School History Textbooks’, Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, vol. 2 (4), pp. 450-465. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/2332649215628037
YouGov (2014). “The British Empire is something to be proud of”. Available at: https://yougov.co.uk/topics/politics/articles-reports/2014/07/26/britain-proud-its-empire