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A view from the UK


Ian Luff, Margaret Taylor and Terry Haydn, UEA


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Basic Information

In recent years controversial issues arising from the administration, expansion and military defence of the British Empire in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries have begun to impact on both the way the topic is taught in British schools and on the coverage it receives in the popular press and academic journals. Such cases as the refusal to grant residency in Britain to Gurkha veterans of the British Army, upheld claims for compensation by Kenyans wrongfully arrested and mistreated in British prisons during the Mau Mau crisis, and similar allegations regarding British Imperial ruthlessness against communist insurgents during the ‘Malayan Emergency’ of the 1950s have all affected attitudes to the British Empire in particular and, to some extent, empire in general in the UK. Added to the ongoing controversy concerning the British Empire’s involvement with slavery until 1833, these issues have created significant pressure to move the study of Empire away from cultural, military and economic focuses towards a concentration on moral and ethical issues centring on the debate concerning the appropriateness of an apology for empire. Generally statutory National Curricula have moved in the same direction since 2000 but this trend has faltered since 2010 and may be under some threat of reverse.

Reference to the Curricula

From the advent of compulsory state education in 1870 empire featured in the historical and geographical education of children. Geography lessons looked at the extent and variety of the lands of the Empire – invariably coloured pink on a Mercator projection of the globe centring on Britain. History concentrated on deeds of daring resulting in the expansion of the Empire and saw this expansion not only as beneficial to Britain but also to the lands brought under the imperial wing. The Empire was portrayed as a family nurtured and guided by the ‘mother country’. It was held up as a model of matriarchal benevolence expanding through a sense of duty. A ‘white man’s burden’ to quote Rudyard Kipling: imperial enthusiast extreme. Every year ‘Empire Day’ reminded each child of the achievement of empire: but none of its drawbacks.

Such a view of the British Empire remained dominant in British schools until the late 1950s when withdrawal from Empire began in earnest as new nations gained independence from Britain. ‘Empire Day’ gave way to ‘Commonwealth Day’ with an emphasis on partnership with Britain rather than on British benevolent superiority. Since education was organised under local democratic control. With no centrally imposed national curriculum it is difficult to paint a picture of a general educational approach to empire in British state schools in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. It is likely that Local Educational Authorities of a more socialist persuasion promoted an emphasis on withdrawal and the birth of new nations whereas those under right of centre control perhaps were happier with an emphasis at least partially based on regret and wistful nostalgia for past glory. Where such guidance is lacking it is also highly likely that the views of individual teachers shaped the approach in the classroom.

The 1991 National Curriculum, whilst willing to look at examples of empire other than the British for children aged up to 11, placed a clear focus on the British Empire from an economic perspective for children of secondary school age (11-16 at that time). Britain’s worldwide expansion and Empire was studied from the point of view of its effect on British economy and society to the exclusion of any effect on controlled lands.

By 2000 the study of other world empires was permitted for secondary children and the study of the British Empire was exemplified by a study of its development and methods of rule. The focus on economic and social effect of colonisation on Britain remained statutory but this was joined by a study of expansion and its effect on others – albeit in non statutory guidance. In practice many schools seized instead on the chance to study the abolition of slavery and the slave trade in the British Empire seeing this as sufficient coverage of empire given limited curriculum time.

By 2007 the requirement to study the British Empire and its impact on different people in Britain and overseas had become statutory and explicit. It was also joined by a requirement to look at pre-colonial civilisations thereby telling schools to stop the study of subjected peoples only through the lens of British control.

The current (2014) National Curriculum mentions ‘the expansion and dissolution of empires’ as a statutory aim for all children thereby ostensibly broadening study of empire once again beyond that of Britain. However in the statutory ‘subject content’ for children older than 11 firmly brings study of effects of empire securely back to a British focus ‘ideas, political power, industry and empire: Britain, 1745-1901’. Optional examples are presented of possible depth study of British rule in India and dissolution of Empire in the sub-continent yet these sit uneasily with that statutory focus on effects of empire on Britain. It should also be noted that approximately 50% of British state funded schools – Academies and Free Schools - are exempt from having to follow this national curriculum and are thereby free to choose for themselves whether to study empire at all. It does remain likely that the National Curriculum will be used by many of these schools as a rough guide in drawing up programmes of study.

Learning Objectives

Since 1991 the learning objectives of the study of Empire as all topics studied at secondary level have been based around the development of historical skills and processes as much as around historical knowledge as such. The current (2014) National Curriculum once again features these prominently in its aims: ‘know and understand the history of these islands’; ‘know and understand significant aspects of the history of the wider world’; ‘understand historical concepts such as continuity and change, cause and consequence, similarity, difference and significance, and use them to make connections, draw contrasts, analyse trends, frame historically-valid questions and create their own structured accounts, including written narratives and analyses’.

In practice few children will have been given a sound grasp of the causative reasons for the establishment of the British Empire, its development as a whole and the process and reasons for its decline. More will have analysed in depth isolated aspects of British colonisation and rule in one area of the Empire such as India. Alternatively many will have studied empire as a backdrop to the practice and abolition of slavery and the slave trade. It is an inescapable fact when considering the study of secondary level history in the UK that whatever broad and ambitious programmes of study and aims are laid down by successive generations of National Curricula actual study time for history in many schools is limited to an hour a week or less and the subject ceases to become compulsory after the age of 14. This frequently results in huge variation in quality and quantity of knowledge of empire – or indeed any other topic - depending on time available and decisions made in individual schools.

The study of the decline of the British Empire as a discrete topic does feature as a depth study in some GCSE specifications between the ages of 14-16. Typical learning objectives at GCSE require students to actively engage in the process of historical enquiry and develop their knowledge and coherent understanding of selected periods. They are also expected develop an awareness of how the past has been represented and interpreted and develop the ability to ask relevant questions. Learning enables them to organise and communicate their historical knowledge and understanding as well as to recognise that their historical knowledge, understanding and skills help them understand the present. There is also the objective of providing a basis for their role as responsible citizens, as well as enabling them to study further should they wish to do so.