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History Curriculum: Black History

Volume 679: debated on Tuesday 8 September 2020

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Eddie Hughes.)

Madam Deputy Speaker,

“There were Africans in Britain before the English came here.”

That is the opening line of Peter Fryer’s monumental book “Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain”. Black and minority ethnic communities have roots in this country going back nearly two millennia. Among the Roman legions guarding Hadrian’s Wall in the third century AD was a unit recruited in north Africa. In 210 AD an African soldier serving in Carlisle went down in history as brave enough to make fun of the visiting emperor, Septimus Severus, who was at the time pretty much the most powerful person on the planet. In 1901 remains were discovered in York of a high-status woman living around 350 AD, born in Britain but likely to have been of north African descent, and forever known as “ivory bangle lady” for the ornaments buried with her. More recently, the remains of a young black girl were found in North Elmham near Norwich dating back to the Saxon era around the year 1000. A small black community appears in the account books of the court of King James IV at Holyrood shortly after 1500, and John Blanke was a black musician who performed for Henry VIII.

In past centuries, long before Windrush and the modern era, history records black British people as sailors, soldiers, teachers, craftsmen, retailers, nurses, writers, actors, singers, farm workers, entrepreneurs, vicars and chefs and in hundreds of other occupations. But from the late 1500s, of course, the majority of black people who came to live in this country were domestic servants, many initially brought here as slaves.

It is estimated that in the 245 years between the first British slave trading voyage and abolition in 1807, British ships carried around 3.4 million enslaved Africans to the Americas. The appalling depravity and cruelty of the triangular trade makes it one of the greatest crimes against humanity ever committed. It is true that there were brave and principled men and women in this country who campaigned for many years for an end to this abomination, including many who served proudly here in this Parliament, and it is also true that after the Abolition Act came into effect, the British Navy was prominent in stopping slavers who tried to carry on; but it is none the less a matter of national shame that the transatlantic slave trade was allowed to endure for so long, with involvement from across the British establishment, including MPs, the monarchy and the Church.

I am afraid that, even with the slightly extended time that we have available, the time is short to begin consideration of the complexities of the legacy of empire and colonialism, but I am in no doubt that those wishing to understand Britain today need an understanding of its colonial past.

I am very glad that my right hon. Friend has brought this subject to the House and I would normally speak if I could, but I spoke yesterday so I will not. Can she confirm that when slavery was abolished, compensation did not go to those who had been enslaved, but to the owners?

I can confirm that, and it is astonishing, by the standards of our own values, that that was the decision that was made, and even more astonishing that the Government were still paying off that debt in 2015. I do not think there are any words to describe the devastation of the impact that the slave trade had.

I congratulate the right hon. Lady on bringing this subject forward for debate; it is certainly timely. Does she not agree that history must be told in its entirety and factually, and not to fit any changing narrative; and that we can and must learn from all periods of history, whether it is dressed up prettily or is just the ugly truth? Educating our people should and must happen; I believe that is the way forward.

I do agree with that, and of course, coming as the hon. Gentleman does from Northern Ireland, he understands the emotional resonance that the history of controversial events in our past still has. I know that he and colleagues in the Northern Ireland devolved institutions have worked hard to try to ensure that this decade of very sensitive and politically charged centenaries has passed off peacefully. I very much hope that that continues as we move towards the centenary of partition and the creation of Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State. It is a reminder of how history is so relevant to our outlook on so many issues today, whether that is the subject of this evening’s debate or those centenaries in Northern Ireland.

We also need to understand that the racism and injustice that black and other ethnic minorities were subjected to in this country’s history was pervasive; it was often violent; it lasted for centuries; and its legacy continues to have an impact today. Even a cursory understanding of black history provides a reminder that the values that we are rightly proud to espouse in this country—that everyone should be entitled to equal concern and respect, whatever their ethnicity and from wherever their ancestors might have come—were the result of very long, and sometimes very bitter, struggles, and that many steps forward were strongly opposed at the time, including in Parliament.

The time available for this debate does not enable us to do any kind of justice to the richness of the story of the lives of black British people over so many hundreds of years.

Does my right hon. Friend welcome the fact, as I do, that when we look at the guidance that was published by the Department for Education on the inclusion of black history within the wider context of the curriculum, we see that it sets out an expectation for schools that the complexity and richness and the dark side of these different campaigns that have been run, which my right hon. Friend has highlighted in her speech, are explored, and that that is done in a way that reflects the local context of the school, the children who are hearing about it and the heritage from which they come, and also the knowledge and expertise of teachers as to how that can be set in the wider context both of the community and of events of today?

I do welcome that, and I very much look forward to the Minister’s exploring those issues in more detail. I particularly agree with my hon. Friend that in looking at black history, yes, we need to focus on the injustice and the dark episode of the slave trade, but we also need to celebrate the incredibly positive contribution of black and minority ethnic communities over the years.

Does the right hon. Lady agree that we should ensure that the regional history of black Britain, particularly those who have contributed to our proud, shared history in the west midlands, is part of the national curriculum? We should recognise how black Britain helped to build my city of Coventry into what it is today—from its manufacturing expertise to its car-building might and our enviable arts and culture.

I think the hon. Lady is right. It is so important that we celebrate the phenomenally positive contribution of black British people over the centuries. Highlighting that in the classroom in the curriculum is incredibly important. That is why I am honoured to have been able to secure a debate on this really important subject today. I welcome the fact that suddenly the interest in black history has grown considerably. Who would have thought a few years ago that we would see people protesting on the streets and campaigning via those demonstrations for a better understanding of black history in the classroom? This is an opportunity for the Government to seize.

On that point, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is particularly important that, when that history is being explored, especially with young people, we are able to do it fully in context? I represent a London constituency with more than 100 first languages and an incredible diversity of backgrounds among all my constituents, and it is important to recognise that black history is part of that wider and complex history of the United Kingdom. The local context, and ensuring that everybody appreciates the context of their background within that wider community, is important. Schools, councils and other community organisations need the flexibility to respond in a way that reflects local diversity.

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. It is really important to have the flexibility for schools to reflect local circumstances. I am sure that is something that the Minister will agree on as well.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for hosting this debate on such a topical issue. It happens, by glorious coincidence, that the Gloucester History Festival, which I founded 10 years ago, has just started—it is our 10th anniversary. Because necessity is the mother of invention, this year the festival will be largely a virtual, digital event. For those who are particularly interested in black history, the advantage of that is that a number of events will be live-streamed and available on our website free of charge.

If my right hon. Friend does not object, let me highlight the fact that on 13 September there will be a brilliant talk on African Europeans by Olivette Otele, and on 14 September a talk on 100 Great Black Britons by Patrick Vernon and Angelina Osbourne. Those are just two of the great talks that will highlight some of the great contributors to our own story, which involves people of all colours and all nations. If that is something that can flow through our little history festival into cities across the country, which can be stimulated to do something similar and realise that the diversity of today’s populations is an echo of contributions across the ages, we will all benefit and our children and grandchildren at schools likewise. It is such an important aspect of our story. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend.

I am delighted to have been able to give my hon. Friend a platform to advertise his local festival. It is a good reminder that black history is not just for October and is not just about London—it is something that can command interest and engagement right across the country. I welcome the contributions of hon. Members who are making the point that getting more black history into the curriculum really does matter.

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for giving way and for securing this very important debate. Does she share my concern that the content on black history currently available within the national curriculum is taught to fewer than 10% of students? It is vital that every child being taught in British schools, whatever their background and heritage, can say with pride, “Our history is British history”, and that makes reform essential. Will she join me in calling on the Minister to do what he has so far been unwilling to do, which is to meet a group of passionate young people from my constituency who really just want to tell him why this matters so much to them?

The Minister’s diary is of course a matter for him, but I very much agree that I would like to see every child in school in this country learning black history. This is an important opportunity to try to take that agenda forward, and I will certainly make that appeal to the Minister. I think that is important because I love history, and I believe that black history is a fascinating subject to study, but I also believe that every child should learn black history in the classroom so that every child growing up in this country knows that the presence of black people here is not some 20th-century novelty.

Most important of all, I want more black history to be taught in the classroom because I want children from BAME communities to understand that people of colour have been a crucial part of our island story for very nearly 2,000 years. I want them to know that it was not just William Wilberforce who campaigned to abolish the slave trade, but such people as Olaudah Equiano, who had themselves been enslaved but who achieved freedom, fame and success against incredible odds and adversity. I want them to know about Ignatius Sancho, who in 1782 was the first black writer in prose to be published in this country. I want them to know about Tom Molineaux, the boxer and former slave who should have been the England heavyweight champion in 1810, had he not been unfairly robbed of the title by an underhand trick. I want them to know about John Kent, who became the first black police officer as far back as 1837. I want them to know about the thousands of soldiers from Africa, the Caribbean and India who fought and died for this country in two world wars.

Let me take the Indian subcontinent as just one example: 1.27 million men served in the British Army in the first world war, including in the blood-soaked killing fields of the western front and Gallipoli. More than 2.5 million men from the area now covered by India, Pakistan and Bangladesh volunteered for service in world war two, producing the largest volunteer army in history.

I am very proud of the fact that in the predecessor constituency to the one I have the privilege of representing, William Wilberforce had his London home. He lived there when he was campaigning in this House for the abolition of slavery, although he was a Member of Parliament from Hull. He was a resident of a house called the Chestnuts. That is very much celebrated locally, but will my right hon. Friend expand on the remarks she has made about the complexity of this representation in our curriculum? The guidance covers everything from slavery as something where, in the country that is now the United Kingdom, we saw empires taking people, through to the role of Britain in the abolition of that trade. It also talks about the incredibly positive contribution that so many black Britons have made throughout our history and identifies the complexity of those relationships in the context of empire; again, that is strongly reflected in the guidance to schools. Does my right hon. Friend also agree that in an incredibly diverse city like the one where we are both privileged to be Members of Parliament, the ability for teachers to take that guidance and translate it back so that those children get their education very much in context is a vital part of how our society responds to this debate today?

Order. I should just point out for the record that there is plenty of time and there are very few people here, and that was a very interesting intervention from the hon. Gentleman, but it was rather long and I do not want to create a precedent. There is a difference between an intervention and a mini-speech.

Thank you for that guidance, Madam Deputy Speaker. I welcome my hon. Friend’s point. It is important that teachers are engaged in this process and have the flexibility to explore the complexities. As he says, the history of empire is one of the most complex. There are undoubtedly gravely negative aspects of the history of colonialism but there are some positives as well, and it is important for people to be able to explore that within the history curriculum.

My outlook on life was profoundly shaped by the history that I learnt at school, and I would like to take this opportunity to thank two inspirational people—Valerie St Johnston and Gillian Blyth—who taught me. My study of history has greatly influenced the way I think, the way I write, and the way I analyse problems and challenges. I very much doubt that I would have achieved the political office that I have been privileged to hold were it not for the rigorous intellectual grounding that those two very gifted teachers gave to me.

I can well understand why changes to the history curriculum have been a key demand from many who took to the streets earlier this year to protest about inequality and racism, or who took time to email their Member of Parliament. In diverse, complex, multi-ethnic Britain, we need far more people to understand that we have a diverse, complex, multi-ethnic past. It is not possible to understand modern Britain without an understanding of its past. As the eminent US historian, David McCullough, put it:

“History is who we are and why we are the way we are”,

and as Marcus Garvey once said:

“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”

I call on the Minister to announce plans to give black history a much more prominent place in the school curriculum. I call on him to embrace the enthusiasm that we have seen on our streets for the study of black history, so that we can give future generations a better knowledge and understanding of how we came to be the nation that we are today.

May I start by congratulating my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) on securing this debate, and on her interesting, well-researched and compelling speech? She is right, of course—and I am sure that there is no one in this House or the country who disagrees—that the 245-year slave trade was, in her words, depraved, cruel and an abomination. But as the Secretary of State said in June, this country also has a lot to be proud of and children should learn all aspects of it—the good and the bad. Time and again, this country has made a difference and changed things for the better right around the world, and we must teach about the contributions from Britons of all ethnicities, both men and women, who have made this nation the great nation that it is today.

The Government believe that all children and young people should acquire a firm grasp of history, including how different events and periods relate to each other. That is why it is compulsory for maintained schools from key stages 1 to 3, and why academies are expected to teach a curriculum that is as broad and ambitious as the national curriculum. The national curriculum that we inherited in 2010 had been stripped of knowledge, with a heavy focus on vague concepts such as skills of learning. The Government therefore embarked on significant reforms to the national curriculum, with the aim of restoring the importance of subject knowledge in all its complexity and fascination. In 2014, the new, more ambitious, knowledge-rich national curriculum came into force in England, and from 2015 we introduced more rigorous GCSEs.

Does the Minister agree that, if we do look at putting a greater emphasis on black history, there should be a clear focus on doing so to promote greater unity and a sense of shared Britishness, and that we should be slightly cautious that we do not promote more separateness?

My hon. Friend makes an important point about not being divisive with our curriculum and, indeed, with schools’ ethos in general. The Government have strongly promoted the study of history to the age of 16 by including GCSE history in the English baccalaureate measure for all state-funded secondary schools in England. With the introduction of the EBacc, we have seen entries to history GCSE increase by a third since 2010. The reformed history curriculum includes teaching pupils the core knowledge of our past, enabling them to know and understand the history of Britain from its first settlers to the development of the institutions that help to define our national life today. It also sets an expectation that pupils ask perceptive questions, sift arguments and develop perspective and judgment.

The curriculum does not set out how curriculum subjects or topics within the subjects should be taught. We believe that teachers should be able to use their own knowledge and expertise to determine how they teach their pupils and to make choices about what they teach.

My right hon. Friend is making a powerful point about the changes made to the curriculum and the way in which teachers can interpret it to bring alive the points required. Does he agree that there is a huge opportunity in each locality for teachers to work with local civic trusts, local history festivals and so on to develop activities that bring alive some specific items? For example, visiting the Roman wall in Gloucester brings Roman history alive, and seeing how the civil war damaged a church gives an idea of what being under siege was like 377 years ago. Such things can be more joined up with encouragement from the Department.

I agree with my hon. Friend. I think the gist of what he is saying is, “Please attend the Gloucester history festival, coming soon to a town near you.”

Teachers have freedom over the precise detail, so they can teach lessons that are right for their pupils, and they should use teaching materials that suit their own pupils’ needs. At the same time, the teaching of any issue in schools should be consistent with the principles of balance and objectivity, and good history teaching should always include the contribution of black and minority ethnic people to Britain’s history, as well as the study of different countries and cultures around the world. The history curriculum has the flexibility to give teachers the opportunity to teach across the spectrum of themes and eras set out in the curriculum.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, but there is a problem with the approach he describes. Without resourcing, guidance and encouragement from Government, teachers will for very good reasons keep on teaching the content that they have always taught. My 14-year-old daughter is learning the same history that I studied 30 years ago. We will not see progress in this area, and we will not see our children being taught a more rounded, inclusive and truthful version of British history, unless the Government demonstrate some leadership and offer some guidance and resource for teachers to teach new content. That leadership needs to come from the centre.

While I take on board the hon. Lady’s important point—in fact, some of the things she said can be applied to other elements of the curriculum—we do believe in autonomy and in trusting professionals. She highlighted in her earlier intervention the proportion of young people taking up the option of studying “Migration, Empires and the People” in the AQA history GCSE, and she was right to point out that it is about one in 10. I expect more and more schools to consider offering that option to their pupils, particularly given the publicity that she and others have given to the issue. She may also be interested to know that the exam board Pearson is currently developing a study option on migration in Britain and, subject to Ofqual approval, it will also provide more choice to schools.

To support that, the curriculum includes a number of examples that could be covered at different stages, drawn from the history of this country and the wider world. Examples include, at key stage 1, teaching about the lives of key figures such as Mary Seacole and Rosa Parks. The key stage 2 curriculum suggests that teachers could explore the Indus valley, ancient Egypt and the Shang dynasty of ancient China as part of teaching on early civilisations. It also calls for study of a non-European society, with examples including Mayan civilisation and Benin in west Africa from 900 to 1300 AD.

At key stage 3, as part of the teaching of the overarching theme of Britain from 1745 to 1901, topics could include Britain’s transatlantic slave trade, its effect and its eventual abolition, and the development of the British empire. Key stage 3 also requires teaching of at least one study of a significant society or issue in world history and its interconnections with other world developments, with examples including Mughal India from 1526 to 1857, China’s Qing dynasty from—as I am sure you know, Madam Deputy Speaker—1644 to 1911, and the USA in the 20th century.

The Department sets out that GCSE history specifications produced by the exam boards should develop and extend pupils’ knowledge and understanding of specified key events, periods and societies in local British and wider world history, and of the wide diversity of human experience. The GCSE in history should include at least one British in-depth study and at least one European or wider world in-depth study from the three specified eras. There is significant scope for the teaching of black history within those eras. As I said, two exam boards—OCR and AQA—provide options to study migration in Britain and how this country’s history has been shaped by black and minority ethnic communities in the past.

Many of the issues discussed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet and Members intervening on her can be taught in other curriculum subjects. As part of a broad and balanced curriculum, pupils should be taught about different societies and how different groups have contributed to the development of Britain, including the voices and experiences of black and minority ethnic people. Across citizenship, English, PSHE education, arts, music and geography, teachers have opportunities to explore black and minority ethnic history further with their pupils, helping to build understanding and tolerance.

The UK has a tremendous history of standing up for freedom and tolerance around the world, from Magna Carta and Oliver Cromwell’s readmission of the Jews to the Royal Navy’s five-decade campaign against the slave trade, which captured hundreds of slave ships and freed 150,000 Africans. Black and minority ethnic Britons have played a fundamental part in our island’s story, from black Tudors to the Commonwealth soldiers who served with such distinction in two world wars. It is right that our current curriculum ensures that children have the opportunity to learn about them in school. At the same time, schools must be mindful of their duty of political impartiality under the Education Act 1996. Teaching should be inclusive, not divisive, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) said, and the curriculum must never be co-opted to promote a narrative that is extreme or one-sided.

Polling earlier this summer from Policy Exchange’s history project, chaired by the former chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Trevor Phillips, found that 69% of people rightly believed that UK history as a whole was something to be proud of, while only 17% thought it was something to be ashamed of. Similarly, large majorities were found to be in support of retaining statues of our great heroes, such as Sir Winston Churchill and Admiral Nelson, as well as national memorials such as the Cenotaph. As the Prime Minister has said, we should not be embarrassed about our history, and we should celebrate and honour it. At the same time, we should celebrate the voices of those who may not have been heard as strongly in the past.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again. I just want to ask him, as I asked the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers), whether he will meet a group of young people from my constituency who are campaigning on this issue and are desperately keen to have a conversation with him about their own experiences and why this is so important. They want every young person in this country to be proud of the contribution that their communities of heritage played in the history of this country, but that content is so often absent. Will he meet them?

If the hon. Lady will forgive me, at the moment we are in the middle of a covid crisis: we are focused on tackling the issues of GCSEs and A-levels, the autumn season and next year’s summer exams, making sure that schools are reopened safely—getting people back into school, back into study and back into catching up on lost education—and all the other issues that relate to tackling the covid crisis that is confronting this country and the Government. Departmental officials have actually, though, discussed black issues with a number of organisations, and we do welcome the profile given to the importance of teaching about the contribution of black and minority ethnic people to Britain’s history by bodies such as the Runnymede Trust, The Black Curriculum, Fill in the Blanks, and many other groups and individuals over the years.

On tackling discrimination and intolerance in our schools, I first want to say that there is no place for racial inequality in our society or in our education system. The Department for Education is committed to an inclusive education system that recognises and embraces diversity and supports all pupils and students to tackle racism and have the knowledge and tools to do so. We are funding several anti-bullying programmes that encompass tackling discriminatory bullying—for example, the Anne Frank Trust’s Free To Be programme, which encourages young people to think about the importance of tackling prejudice, discrimination and bullying. Our preventing and tackling bullying guidance sets out that schools should develop a consistent approach to monitoring bullying incidents and evaluating the effectiveness of their approaches. It also points schools to organisations that can provide support with tackling bullying related to race, religion and nationality.

In addition, effective holocaust education helps pupils to learn about the possible consequences of antisemitism and other forms of racism and extremism, and to help reduce the spread of antisemitism and religious intolerance. The Department supports schools’, pupils’ and teachers’ understanding of the holocaust by providing funding for the Holocaust Education Trust’s Lessons from Auschwitz project and University College London’s Centre for Holocaust Education. Additionally, in October 2018 the Chancellor announced £1.7 million for a new programme in 2019-20 to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen by British troops. Within and beyond the national curriculum, schools are required to promote fundamental British values actively, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect for and tolerance of those of different faiths and beliefs.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet for raising these important matters. I welcome the opportunity to set out how black history is already supported within and beyond the national curriculum. I am confident that our schools will continue to educate children to become tolerant, culturally and historically knowledgeable citizens who embrace the values of modern Britain.

House adjourned.