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Black History and Cultural Diversity in the Curriculum

Volume 698: debated on Monday 28 June 2021

[James Gray in the Chair]

[Relevant documents: e-petition 323808, Add education on diversity and racism to all school curriculums, and e-petition 323961, Making the UK education curriculum more inclusive of BAME history; oral evidence taken before the Petitions Committee and the Women and Equalities Committee on 5 and 18 November 2020, and 25 February 2020, on Black history and cultural diversity of the curriculum, HC 893; correspondence with the Minister of State for School Standards, relating to Black history and cultural diversity of the curriculum, reported to the House on 9 March 2021 and 27 April 2021, HC 893; written evidence to the Petitions Committee and the Women and Equalities Committee, on Black history and cultural diversity of the curriculum, reported to the House on 8 December 2020, HC 893; and summary of public engagement by the Petitions Committee on Black history and cultural diversity of the curriculum, reported to the House on 26 January 2021, HC 893.]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petition 324092, relating to Black history and cultural diversity in the curriculum.

This petition calls on the Government to teach Britain’s colonial past as part of the UK’s compulsory curriculum, and it has received over 240,000 signatures. The petition was started by Esmie Jikiemi-Pearson and arrived on the parliamentary website on 10 June 2020. Within 48 hours, it had reached the threshold of 100,000 signatures. The speed at which the petition met the threshold for debate shows the strength of feeling across our country that change is necessary and urgent. Multiple petitions cover similar subjects, and the Petitions Committee has taken on this issue as one of our key projects for the year.

The creators of the petition, which calls to add education on diversity and racism to all school curriculums and to make the UK curriculum more inclusive of black, Asian and minority ethnic history, have also given evidence to the Committee. Holding hearings in partnership with the Women and Equalities Committee, we have heard from a wide variety of sources in this field, from the Education Minister to schoolchildren. I pay tribute to the Chair of the Petitions Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), for her commitment to the review. I am so pleased that the petitions have rightfully gained support from the public, which has allowed the Committee to investigate an area that I have long been passionate about: diversifying and improving our teaching of history in this country.

I must declare an interest as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on archives and history, and I am also an honorary fellow of University of Wales Trinity Saint David. I am passionate about history and, above all, the way it is taught. It amazes me that we are so narrow in our curriculum. When I did GCSE history many years ago, we studied Adolf Hitler’s Germany, crime and punishment, which was mainly about Jack the Ripper, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. That was it. I then did my A-levels, when we did the Tudors and the civil war—Oliver Cromwell, Charles I and all that. Our curriculum is just far too narrow. It is easy for the Government to point to the option of teaching topic 3—“Ideas, political power, industry and empire: Britain, 1745 to 1901”—at key stage 3. However, it is not mandatory; it is only one of many topics that can be chosen by schools and teachers. It is clear that the signatories to the petition do not feel that this is enough, and I must agree with them.

The Committee found that 45% of primary school teachers and 64% of secondary school teachers who responded to our survey disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement that:

“The National Curriculum ensures that students in my school experience a balanced range of ethnically and culturally diverse role models.”

Our inquiry has also shown that, far too often, subjects are not being taught because teachers lack confidence and, above all, proper training. One in four teachers told us that they lack confidence and the ability to develop their pupils’ understanding of black history and cultural diversity, with 86% calling for specialised in-school training to help address this. It is leaving students unprepared when they reach degree level, which continues a cycle of a lack of confidence within the subject.

Dr Deana Heath, who teaches southern Asian and imperial colonial history at the University of Liverpool, said: “I face an uphill struggle at the start of each new academic year. Many of the undergraduates who greet me know virtually nothing about any of the subjects I teach.” Although some black and BAME history is now taught in schools, it is far too narrow in scope. Most students’ experience of racial history up until A-level is incredibly American-centric. Students learn about American slavery and the black civil rights movement. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and even my great hero, Muhammed Ali, are now studied at GCSE by many pupils. However, very little black British history is taught.

When students learn about the transatlantic slave trade, Britain’s role is often simplified or is just a small part of their study. Few secondary school students learn about British slave plantations or slave ships. Even fewer learn how British involvement in the global slave trade shaped domestic economics, politics, empire building and industrialisation. Black British history has largely been forgotten in the UK curriculum, even though there have been black Britons since Roman times.

A student might have a chance to learn about the Montgomery bus boycotts in Alabama, but often does not learn about the history of bus boycotts much closer to home. In Bristol in 1963, there was a successful bus boycott for the Bristol Omnibus Company’s refusal to hire black or Asian bus crews. Many in the UK will know the name Rosa Parks, but not enough know the name Paul Stephenson. On the same day in 1963 that Martin Luther King gave his iconic “I have a dream” speech from the steps of Washington, the British Omnibus Company announced that there would be no more discrimination in the employment of bus crews.

I suspect we feel more comfortable looking at discrimination perpetuated by America than we do taking a closer look at our own history. We cannot continue to whitewash the UK’s past. Students must be taught a nuanced and honest view of British history. British and European history studied at GCSE and A-level all too often seems to be the history of white powerful men. History curriculums, especially until university, are too frequently studies of monarchs, politicians and military leaders. That creates an often Eurocentric white male, upper or middle class view of history and knowledge. That is not a full history of Britain, Europe or the world.

The roles of working classes, minorities, women and all those who have been underrepresented have not been granted the historical significance they deserve. Not only is teaching such a narrow view of history a disservice to the subject; it makes it far less accessible. Students in British secondary schools often feel too far removed from the Churchills, Napoleons or Henry VIIIs. A diverse curriculum is necessary to write new entry points in history—a new standpoint from which we can understand our past and the world we currently live in.

The few women featured in the curriculum are either painted as exceptions to their sex, such as Florence Nightingale, radical, such as the suffragettes, or are monarchs such as Elizabeth I and Victoria. Very few non-white women are mentioned in history textbooks for secondary school students. Mary Seacole is one of other the very few. Studies of women such as Seacole must be encouraged, to recognise the diversity of Britain’s past and the importance of such diversity, but unfortunately that has taken too long.

William Howard Russell, a war correspondent for The Times, wrote in 1857 that he hoped England would not forget Seacole as

“one who nursed her sick, who sought out her wounded to aid and succour them, and who performed the last offices for some of her illustrious dead.”

Yet it seems that exactly that happened for many years, In 2016, a statue of Seacole was erected across the road from this place. When the lockdown measures are lifted, I urge everybody to go over and see the wonderful statute to that wonderful woman. It took 12 years to raise the funds required and should be a symbol of pride in a black British heroine. Unfortunately, even the little act of posting a photograph of me with the statue on Twitter resulted in some terrible abuse about the role of Mary Seacole. That has no place in society. It amazes me that somebody who did so much for the people she looked after would be questioned about whether she was a nurse. That has to stop. Mary Seacole should be celebrated as an influential figure in British history. Her story, and the racism she faced, ought to be taught widely in history curriculums. We also must make sure that she does not stand alone. The history of Britain is incredibly diverse, and the curriculum should reflect that. It is not enough to pick one figure from history. The diversity of Britain and the way that attitudes to and experiences of race, sex, sexuality, disability or class have shaped history are vital to our understanding of today.

Ultimately, it all matters because of the impact it has on young people. A report from Paul Campbell, a lecturer in sociology at the University of Leicester, found:

“The lack of a sufficiently diverse or decolonised curriculum and faculty meant it was often difficult for black students to be able to connect content and assessments directly to their own lived realities”.

He found the students were multiply disadvantaged and

“have to work harder than their peers to connect with assessment and curriculum content.”

The lack of diversity in our curriculum can be found throughout our education system; although the petition is focused on history, it is equally true of the likes of English literature and other subjects. The Black Curriculum, one of the leading charities in this field, says that its aim is to provide a sense of belonging and identity to young people across the UK. To me, that is the whole point of the debate. It is our duty to get this right so that all students see themselves represented in education.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) on securing the debate. Previously—I believe it was the year before last—no subject of parliamentary petitions had received more signatories than black history being taught as part of our national curriculum. That has certainly continued with this petition. I am not surprised, because when it comes to black history, we are not given a complete picture. When it comes to British history, we are not given a complete picture, because black history, and the history of our past slavery and colonialism, are often missing. How can we truly understand this country as it is if we do not address those issues?

Like most people who have grown up in the UK over the past century, I never learned very much about that, and what I did was self-taught. The majority of the information we can find is about the US civil rights struggle. These international perspectives are important, but it was far too long before I discovered the UK’s own rich civil rights history and all the information related to our role in the slave trade and colonialism. I want children in our country to learn about these things and why our country is the way it is today; about why they may, if they are black, Asian or from an ethnic minority, experience discrimination; and about important figures such as William Cuffay, Mary Seacole, CLR James, Claudia Jones, Olive Morris and so many more. I cannot stress enough how damaging it is not to see oneself reflected in what we learn and what we learn about our history. Our Government seem quite obsessed at the moment with patriotism and having children sing certain songs in schools and so on. However, when someone is constantly made to feel like they do not belong, because of rhetoric around immigration, and when that is reinforced by what they learn—or rather, what they do not learn—that can be extremely damaging.

My first black relative born in the UK was actually born in 1806, in Twyford in Winchester. His name was Thomas Birch Freeman. He was the son of a freed slave and a maid and went on to become a Methodist minister. He eventually settled in Ghana but often travelled between Ghana, Nigeria and the UK. When I read about his history, I do not hear how strange it was for a black man to be walking around in the UK at that time. Black people have been part of this country for hundreds of years, but far too often people today are made to feel as if it is very recent—in the past 50 or 60 years—and that they are still very much migrants.

We also know that history is always written by the victors, and that is one obvious explanation for the status quo, in terms of what we learn at the moment. The historical amnesia surrounding our country’s own civil rights struggle and the slavery and colonialism that came before has a pretty blatant function in our political discourse. However, obscuring the past victories of the oppressed and marginalised does not help to prevent history from being repeated.

People often refer to this sort of teaching as decolonising our curriculum, but it is important to note that it is every bit as much about class as it is about race. In school, we have other notable gaps in our history lessons about struggles that were ended—for example, the miners’ strikes, the poll tax riots and the accomplishments of trade unions. The attempt to put the history of slavery and colonialism and black civil rights in the UK into the curriculum is an attempt to put the history of the working class into the curriculum. That is key.

I worry that there is an ideological reason behind resisting this change, despite the fact that we can see in this petition and previous ones just how many people want this change to be made to the curriculum. If working-class kids learn about movements for change and about just how much power they have as citizens, what is to prevent them from recognising parallels between past events and what is going on in the present, and—even more important—from mounting effective challenges and bringing about change?

We know that black history is usually confined to a month. That month is really a means to an end. That end has to be giving everybody a clear picture of our collective past. That is why we cannot keep confining black history to just that one month. Too great a burden falls on busy teachers, who often—I know this from information given to the Women and Equalities Committee—do not feel confident about teaching certain subjects, and there is not much support from the Government for them. The Government should take a lead from the brilliant teachers who do all the work themselves, and organisations such as the Black Curriculum, the Coalition of Anti-Racist Educators and the Black Educators Alliance.

It feels like subjects to do with issues of race are treated completely differently from other subjects, which is wrong. When someone wants to talk about race, it is treated as if they are taking away from talking about something else, which itself is the essence of racism. Far too often, the idea that we should teach slavery and colonialism in schools is dismissed as nonsense; we hear that all that it does is reinforce the idea that at some point people in our country did something wrong, in the process it takes children away from learning other more important things. I cannot understand why some people cannot see just how important it is for people to learn about these issues, so that they are not repeated and so that we understand where discrimination comes from.

Confronting the history of slavery and empire is not about recrimination. We need to address our shameful past to understand why we are living our shameful present, and eventually—hopefully—to change what we see and move to a future of equality. To do that, we need to understand that the process starts with education, because nobody is born racist; it is in what we learn. If racism is ignorance—I am sure that all Members would agree that it is—what is education if not the absence or ending of ignorance? I believe that if we teach these very important parts of our history, it will change our discourse, change the rhetoric and change some of the shameful things that we hear about now.

I wholeheartedly support this petition. I hope that the Government take on board yet another petition that is very clear about what we need to see in our curriculum.

Children have to be taught prejudice, I agree. We know that it does not come naturally to them. We all know, too, that the best way to deal with discrimination and promote inclusion is through education, yet for much of our history prejudice was instilled at school. Children were taught that one religion was better than another, they were taught harmful myths about gay people, and they were explicitly taught that the white race was superior to other races and that colonialism had a benign, civilising influence on foreign, faraway peoples who could only benefit from our interference. That was all bile, instilled in children and taken forward into adulthood. Those were horrible views that were entrenched.

Since then, the teaching curriculum has moved on, but does it do enough to address lasting legacies? According to research by the Diana Award, an anti-bullying campaign, almost one third of children have heard racist comments at school, with most having experienced it by their 13th birthday. Prejudice may no longer be taught, but are its root causes being addressed sufficiently? Here, black history is surely key.

“When I was brought up, I was taught in American history books that Africa had no history and that neither had I. I was a savage about whom the least said the better, who had been saved by Europe and who had been brought to America. Of course, I believed it. I didn’t have much choice. These were the only books there were.”

The late, great James Baldwin said that at the Cambridge Union in 1965. When I was at school in the 1970s, we were taught that Europeans discovered America, Australia and New Zealand, and they were barren wildernesses before our arrival. Although we knew about the evils of slavery, until recently, few of us understood how deeply immersed Scotland was in the trade. We had wiped the dark period from our collective national memory, but our streets held the clues, with Wilson Street, Plantation Street, Jamaica Street and Buchanan Street in Glasgow alone.

We do far too little to learn about and teach our legacy. That is why I have welcomed the debate about statues and context. It is an opportunity for all, whatever our backgrounds, to reflect on the physical legacy that surrounds us. It is an opportunity to engage with the public. Whether it is the Cecil Rhodes statue at Oriel College, Oxford, or the Edward Colston statue in Bristol, we as nations on these islands have, as one writer put it, begun to search our souls.

That is why I was so disappointed, I confess, to read about the UK Culture Secretary’s intervention at the Museum of the Home in Shoreditch. Formerly the Geffrye Museum, it was renamed in the light of Sir Robert Geffrye’s record as a slaver. The museum went on to consult visitors and local people about whether they wanted Geffrye’s statue to remain at the entrance or brought indoors and contextualised. More than 2,000 people responded, and the majority supported removal and context, but the Secretary of State stepped in and overruled the museum director, threatening her with a budget cut if she honoured the results of the consultation. That is a deeply inappropriate intervention by a politician in a museum’s legitimate work, and it would be unthinkable for a Culture Secretary in Cardiff or Edinburgh, where academic and curator freedom are respected, to do the same. The right-wing press and some politicians try to present the debate as about pride in our history versus national shame, but that is far too crude. We must attempt to put into context the actions of Britain abroad and the effect they had on other nations and peoples.

Inextricably linked to this debate is the history of people of colour in the UK and the massively undervalued contribution that they have made over many centuries. Teaching a history that is disproportionately white, or that whitewashes our crimes, means two things: not only do children of colour have fewer role models or people with whom they can identify, but it entrenches the stereotype that white people exclusively made our nations what they are today.

The next generation shows so much promise. They are more accepting of diversity than our generation. They are far more aware of racism, sexism and homophobia. Let us help them by teaching history that accurately reflects our role in the world, how we got here, and how every group contributed to the countries we are today.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) on securing this important debate. I pay tribute to and congratulate the almost 270,000 people who signed the important petition that led to this debate, including hundreds of Leicester East residents.

Across the world, racism and the far right are on the rise. It has never been more important that we learn from the history of racial oppression and end the injustices that exist to this day. With the Black Lives Matter movement, we have rightly seen renewed public calls for our schools to teach the true, brutal history of the British empire and the legacy of imperialism, colonialism and racism that continue to have a generational impact today.

The national curriculum currently omits the vast contribution that black people have made to the UK and the ongoing legacy of Britain’s imperial legacy. In reality, black history is taught in only 10% of all schools. To remedy this, the Government must pick up the calls from the National Education Union for a review of the curriculum and teacher training, and the strategy to make new entrants to the teaching profession significantly more diverse over the next four years. These are not new plans. In 1999, the Stephen Lawrence inquiry called for changes to the national curriculum to help tackle and combat racism in our institutions, including making black history mandatory. I support the mandatory teaching of history, specifically including black histories on the national curriculum in key stages 1 to 4.

I congratulate the Welsh Government on making black history mandatory in all their schools. They understand that by taking on the events of the past we can forge the future. As argued by the Runnymede Trust, the national curriculum should apply to all schools, regardless of status, to prevent some from opting out. Currently, free schools and academies do not need to follow the national curriculum.

The need for these improvements to the curriculum were underlined in March 2020, when the Windrush lessons learned review recommended that the Government

“tell the stories of empire, Windrush and its legacy”

Research by Teach First found that many pupils in UK schools will not have studied any novels or plays by authors who are not white. This shows how much more needs to be done to ensure that all pupils access a diverse curriculum.

When we reflect on the Black Lives Matter movement, it is crucial to recognise that the United Kingdom has been central to the historical subjugation of black people. It is estimated that until the Slavery Abolition Act 1833, Britain transported some 3.1 million Africans—around 25% of all slaves—to its colonies. When the British Empire did abolish slavery in 1807, it provided 46,000 slave owners with today’s equivalent of £17 billion, 40% of its national budget. The British Government only paid off its obligations to former slave-owning families and organisations in 2015. Until then, black British taxpayers were among those who paid to compensate those that imprisoned our ancestors. They are among those still paying the price today, with the slow and inadequate support offered to victims of racialised state violence, including the Grenfell Tower disaster and the Windrush generation.

Present day global inequalities remain permanently shaped by the horrors of extractive colonialism and racialised subordination. Former colonial powers must begin to recognise and repair the historical damage upon which their prosperity was built. One example is the unacceptable instances of appalling murder and violence at the hands of the British state that have been erased from present-day memory of empire.

Nowhere is this clearer than in Kenya. There is a collective amnesia in the United Kingdom regarding British torture camps in 1950s Kenya. This is recent history. Members of the Kikuyu tribe were systematically tortured, starved, beaten, mistreated and raped, and the Sotik people were massacred, with 1,800 men, women and children murdered in a colonial land-grab. Across Kenya, Africa and other regions forced to endure the injustice of colonialism, indigenous communities were systematically alienated from their rightful lands. Yet these massacres have been airbrushed from British history.

The brutality of modern racism in the UK cannot be separated from this history. This perverse legacy continues to affect us in all walks of life, from police use of force to unfair immigration detentions to the disproportionate number of black children who go to bed hungry. If we are to end the scourge of institutional racism and the destructive legacy of colonialism, it is vital that children and young people are taught this true history. It is therefore essential that the Government abandon its crusade against the reality of institutional racism.

This Administration is underpinned by a deep and troubling broader political project that is designed to divide working-class communities against each other and to distract from the real causes of inequality and injustice. The Government must recognise that they risk being on the wrong side of history. They must abandon their divisive culture wars and commit to introducing an accurate and diverse curriculum.

It is a pleasure to work under your chairmanship, Mr Gray.

History is written by the winners. However uncomfortable and however painful it is, we have a responsibility to confront the whole history of our nation, not only the things that are easy to celebrate. We must learn from the parts about which we are disturbed and ashamed. Most importantly, we need to recognise that the history of the transatlantic slave trade has thrown a very long shadow and that we are still living with the legacy of the injustices committed both long ago and not so long ago. Learning from our past should create a better future. We cannot hope to reach a place of true racial equality without having the difficult conversations about our colonial past.

Education is a valuable tool to empower young people to make change happen. We have a duty to ensure that the next generation better understands historical injustices and the way in which those injustices still play out in our society today. Teaching black history and the histories of other ethnicities and cultures adds an important layer to our overall understanding. That does not mean erasing someone else’s history—far from it. Including more in our history books can only be enriching. I find it hard to understand why some people feel threatened by that.

Last Friday evening, I had the honour of chairing a discussion panel exploring Bath Abbey’s historical connections with slavery and Empire. The event coincided with the abbey’s exhibition on the same topic—I encourage anyone visiting Bath to see that fascinating exhibition. Bath Abbey has more monuments than any other parish church in our country. Some of those monuments praise the achievements of people connected with the slave trade. I commend Bath Abbey for bravely confronting the legacy of its history and demonstrating how we should respond sensitively today.

The speakers at that moving and thought-provoking event last Friday taught us so much. Two speakers recounted their and their parents’ lived experiences of arriving in the UK from the Commonwealth and the indignities they were subjected to. Sadly, they were not alone. Irvin Campbell, chairman of local charity Stand Against Racism and Inequality, told us that the only time black history was mentioned when he was a pupil was when the diagram of a slave ship was shown. The richness of black history has been left out of our school curriculum. We need to rectify that. Irvin taught me to use the term “enslaved”, instead of slave. To call someone a slave robs them of their innate dignity. He has spoken in schools about the proud history of African culture, their kings and queens, and he has watched young people swell with pride as they learn about their history.

Education has a hugely important role to play in ending institutional racism and in closing inequalities in the UK. Our curriculum must be broadened and, where those topics are covered, reviewed. We must ensure that teachers have the resources and training they need to deliver an honest, open and inclusive curriculum, so that we see real progress in schools. One of our Bath Abbey speakers read a poem by Steve Turner, which still echoes in my mind:

“History repeats itself.

Has to.

No-one listens.”

Let us have the courage to share all our collective history. In doing so, we have the opportunity to show that we listen and that—maybe—history does not repeat itself.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) for introducing this important debate.

The people of Manchester, Gorton care deeply about diversity in education, as shown by the fact that over 1,000 of them signed the petition. The strength of feeling on this issue in Manchester and right across the country must be a signal to the Government that now is the time for a truly radical overhaul of the national curriculum, and that we must ensure it considers the histories, lives and experiences of all people.

Towards the end of last year, working in collaboration with The Black Curriculum, I launched a new diverse curriculum charter for schools across my constituency. The charter is backed by Manchester City Council, the Runnymede Trust, Kids of Colour, Impact Reformation and the Equality Act Review, as well as a host of trade unions. The charter was developed off the back of the many conversations that I had following the eruption of the global Black Lives Matter protests and the wider concerns about systemic racism in our country that were raised last year.

Racism is still a fact of life, and young people across the UK are still growing up in a society that is plagued by inequality. Education has the power to change lives, and it holds the key to raising a new and truly anti-racist generation of young people. That is why it is so important to ensure that the curriculum reflects the experiences of all people in our society. Too often, the current curriculum omits or misrepresents the contributions of black, Asian and minority ethnic communities in Britain. We gloss over colonialism and depict racism as an historical artefact rather than a current and lived reality. In doing so, we fail our young people.

There has been fantastic enthusiasm in Manchester, Gorton for the diverse curriculum charter, and many schools have already undertaken important work in addressing diversity and inclusivity in their curriculum. Although such enthusiasm and drive from local schools is incredibly welcome, we must be under no illusion that this is enough. Without concerted Government action to embed diversity and anti-racism at every level of our education system, all our children will miss out on learning about the wonderful richness of our society.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) for securing the debate, after 270,000 people signed the petition. It is a credit to them that we are having the debate.

I will start by quoting the Minister for School Standards, the right hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Nick Gibb). He is not present, but we have been upgraded with the Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan), who is a fellow Sussex MP. Back in 2014, the Minister for School Standards said the following when he spoke to the Association of School and College Leaders on the importance of the curriculum:

“We all know the cliché of older generations asking their children, or grandchildren, ‘don’t they teach you that at school?’ We were determined to allow the children of tomorrow to answer such inquisitions, ‘yes, in fact, they do’.”

We should think very carefully before constructing a curriculum that is based on the schooling of yesteryear. Let us not forget that it was a Conservative Government who passed section 28, which banned the teaching of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues in schools, until it was repealed by the last Labour Government. Just because some things were taught in the past does not mean that the same things should be taught in the same way today. For that reason, it is essential that we keep the curriculum under continual review and that we ask ourselves some simple questions. Is the curriculum equipping our kids with the knowledge and tools that they need to prosper once they leave school? Is it preparing our children for life and building tolerant citizens who embody the values that we as a country aspire to? And does it reflect the brilliant and diverse history of our country, avoiding narrow interpretations of our national story at the expense of a bigger, more significant truth?

As today’s petition makes clear, generations of young people are leaving school without an informed and balanced understanding of our past. There is no requirement for schools to teach our colonial history. Nor are they required to recognise the role it has played in perpetuating barriers to many black and minority ethnic people enjoying all of the opportunities that life in modern Britain offers. Not only is that holding people back; it is a moral scar on our society that is failing to heal. The Labour party would introduce such a requirement, building a diverse curriculum, including content focused on Britain’s role in the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism. In Labour-run Wales, the Government have already committed to introducing that from September 2022, which shows what Labour in power can do and is doing.

However, this is not about trashing Britain’s history; it is about celebrating it. As the author of today’s petition states,

“By educating on the events of the past, we can forge a better future.”

The Labour party believes that a diverse and complete curriculum is one of the best tools that we have in our armoury to build the future that we all want to see: a just future, a fair future, and a future in which every individual, regardless of their race and ethnicity, feels as though they have a stake in the country that we all call home.

How can a young person benefit by missing out on learning about the Bristol bus boycott in 1963; or the 15,204 men who served in the British West Indies Regiment in the first world war; or Mary Prince, the first black woman in British history to write an autobiography; or Mary Seacole, the historic nurse from the Crimean war; or Walter Tull, the Tottenham Hotspur striker and first mixed-race heritage infantry officer in a regular British Army regiment? Yet research by Teach First has found that pupils could complete their entire GCSEs without studying a single work by a non-white author. Teaching about black scientists, authors and change makers will inspire a new generation. After all,

“You can’t be what you can’t see.”

The murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement were watershed moments that demanded real change. That need for change was accelerated by covid. Baroness Lawrence’s report for Labour highlighted how black, Asian and minority ethnic people have been left over-exposed, under-protected and overlooked throughout the pandemic. Instead, the Government contented themselves with publishing an insulting document, downplaying the role of institutional racism and constructing a false binary between race and class.

The Tories want to tell us that they are interested in ending class and regional inequalities, but in reality they are not interested in ending inequality at all. After all, it was not white privilege that closed thousands of Sure Starts, early years and youth centres; it was Tory cuts. As for the 9% fall in real-terms funding for schools, and policies leading to record levels of child poverty and food bank use, the Conservatives did all of that on their own as well. No amount of cultural provocation can hide the facts.

Labour is listening to the lived experience of black, Asian and minority ethnic people. We will introduce a race equality Act to tackle racism at its root, including through proper education about our colonial past, and we will implement the reviews that the Government have failed to implement, both from Macpherson and the Windrush lessons learned review, which called for action on education, but it has been conspicuously absent. The Government will hide their lack of interest in tackling racism behind any cloak they can. Only Labour can tackle racism root and branch, and that must begin with the breadth of information and sensitive teaching that we offer our young people.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank the many people who signed the petition, and I also congratulate the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) on securing the debate. Like him, we welcome the increased debate about black history in the curriculum, and I thank all Members who have contributed to today’s debate. We welcome the opportunity to respond on this matter, as my right hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards has done on previous occasions.

This country has a lot to be proud of, and children should learn all aspects of our shared history, both the good and the bad. We must teach about the contributions of people of all ethnicities, both men and women, who have made this the great nation that it is today. The shared history of our country is one that is outward looking: a nation that has influenced the world and, in turn, been influenced by people from all over the world. It is those people who have built the culturally rich country that we have today—a true example of a melting pot. A great example of this was commemorated last Tuesday on 22 June, when communities across the country marked national Windrush day. The third national day celebrated and commemorated the Windrush community, and the nation paid tribute to the outstanding contribution of the Windrush generation and their descendants.

The national curriculum enables teaching that includes black and ethnic minority voices and experiences. A shared British history can and should be taught, whether it is events such as the Bristol bus boycott, which many Members have mentioned today and which had a national impact, or the global impact of those soldiers from across the former empire who fought in both world wars. The theme “ideas, political power, industry and empire: Britain, 1745-1901” is statutory—I want to make sure that is on the record—but the topics within the theme are not. We believe that schools and teachers should use the flexibility they have in the curriculum to develop a more detailed, knowledge-rich curriculum to teach their pupils in an inclusive manner. It is knowledge that works to unite people and our nation by revealing the rich, interwoven tapestry of our history and enabling all pupils to see themselves in our history.

It is positive that teachers and schools are responding directly to the renewed attention on history teaching. These debates help to encourage that attention and ensure knowledge-based subject teaching—which, by the way, has changed a lot since many of us were at school. A number of Members referred to their history teaching, but I think it is fair to say it has moved on a lot since then. As a recent survey of history teachers by the Historical Association has shown, many more history teachers are reflecting in their teaching commitments to develop more content on black and diverse histories. That change at the school level will help pupils to gain more breadth and depth in their understanding of history.

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 history is compulsory for maintained schools from key stages 1 to 3, and it is why academies are also expected to teach a curriculum that is as broad and ambitious as the national curriculum. The Government have also strongly promoted the study of history to age 16 by including GCSE history in the EBacc measure for all state-funded secondary schools in England. Since 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 pupils to know and understand the history of Britain from its first settlers to the development of the institutions that help define our national life today. It also sets an expectation that pupils ask perceptive questions, sift arguments, and develop perspective and judgment. It teaches pupils to understand how different types of historical sources are used to make historical claims, and discern how and why contrasting arguments and interpretations of the past have been constructed.

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 pupils, and to make choices about what they teach. Teachers have freedom over the precise details, so that they can teach lessons that are right for their pupils, and they should use teaching materials that suit their pupils’ needs.

At the same time, the teaching of any issue in schools should be consistent with the principles of balance and objectivity. We believe that good teaching of history 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 about that across the spectrum of themes and eras set out in the curriculum.

To support that, the curriculum includes a number of examples that could be covered at different stages and that are drawn from the history of both this country and the wider world. The examples include, at key stage 1, teaching about the lives of key black and minority ethnic historical figures, such as Mary Seacole—she has been mentioned many times today—and Rosa Parks. The key stage 2 curriculum suggests that teachers could explore the topics of ancient Sumer, the Indus valley, ancient Egypt and the Shang dynasty of ancient China, as part of the required teaching on early civilisations. It also requires the study of a non-European society that provides contrast with British history.

At key stage 3, as part of the statutory teaching of the overarching theme of Britain from 1745 to 1901, topics could include Britain’s transatlantic slave trade, its effects and its eventual abolition. That could include teaching about the successful slave-led rebellions and challenges that led to the abolishment of slavery—for example, the Haitian revolution. For the UK, it could include the role played by slaves and former slaves, such as James Somerset, with regard to the Somerset ruling, and Olaudah Equiano, as well as the abolition movement and the development of the British empire.

I realise that the Minister is speaking for a colleague at the moment, but would she say that it is fair to set as the aspiration for her Department, once all the changes to the framework have gone through, that within a very short amount of time we should never have a student going through the entire educational process—as is happening right now—without ever having read a book or a text that was authored by a black or non-white author?

Of course we want a broad variety of reading in particular—it is very important—and a wide range of books are available now in all our schools. I am sure that the hon. Member goes into as many schools in his constituency as I do in mine, and we see the broad range of books, but we cannot be taking away the teacher’s role here. Teachers want to be able to come up with their own curriculum and to be able to choose the materials. There is a broad range of materials. Obviously we have the statutory themes, but within that it is up to teachers; they are empowered to decide at what point they teach things and introduce many of the black authors that we have now on the curriculum. It is up to them to decide at what point they want to introduce that; it certainly is not for me to set out what all the teachers in our 20,000-odd schools should be doing.

In the theme about challenges for Britain, Europe and the wider world from 1901 to the present day, the end of empire can be taught. For key stage 4, 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 depth study and at least one European or wider world depth study from the three specified eras.

There is significant scope for the teaching of black history within these. Two exam boards, OCR—Oxford, Cambridge and the RSA—and AQA, provide options to study migration in Britain and how this country’s history has been shaped by the black and ethnic minority communities in the past. Also, Pearson announced last year a new migration thematic study option, which will be available to teach this September. Therefore, the sector is responding and there are many organisations that support the sector with the production of these materials.

Many of the issues discussed today are matters that can also 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 experience of black and ethnic minority people. Across citizenship, English, personal, social, health and economic education, arts, music and geography, teachers have opportunities to explore black and ethnic minority history with their pupils, helping to build understanding and tolerance.

We cannot shy away from the major part that this country played in the slave trade, which children need to be aware of and understand. However, the UK also has a tremendous history that we should be proud of, standing up for freedom and tolerance around the world.

I thank the Minister for giving way, and we have a little time to debate this issue. Does the Minister agree that a lot of why we are debating this is that a profound sense of injustice lives on as a legacy of the injustices that have been committed in the past and continue to this day, which people from ethnic minority backgrounds want to be debated on a moral basis? I speak as somebody of a German background. The most atrocious inhumanities in the name of “race” have been committed by Germans. In my school days, we needed to learn that and to feel the pain, disgust and shame at what our people in Germany—my people—had committed. Do the people discussing this issue today not want the British people to also understand and do that?

I find it very difficult to compare what we are talking about today to the holocaust, if I am honest. However, we cannot shy from the major part that this country played in the slave trade, and it is important that children are aware of that. In a lot of the debate and discussions we are having, there is a lot of movement in this area. Teachers are very much learning about new materials and embracing the opportunity to do so as well. However, the UK also has a tremendous history that we should be rightly proud of.

Order. Is the hon. Lady seeking to make a point of order? Or does she seek to intervene on the Minister? Does the Minister wish to give way to the hon. Lady?

I am so sorry, Mr Gray, but I want to put on the record that I do not compare anything to the holocaust.

I agree that it is very good to put that on the record.

As I say, we should be proud of the UK’s tremendous history of standing up for freedom and tolerance around the world, from Magna Carta to our ongoing commitment to individual rights, civil liberties and freedoms. Our rich and diverse cultural heritage has been created by Britons from all over the world and has been globally influenced. It is through this rich heritage of arts and culture that we continue to have instant global recognition, from Shakespeare to Zadie Smith. Black and ethnic minority Britons have played a fundamental part in our island’s story, from the black Tudors to the Commonwealth soldiers who served with such distinction in the world wars. It is absolutely right that our curriculum ensures that children have the opportunity to learn about them at school.

I want to turn to tackling discrimination and intolerance, which a couple of hon. Members mentioned. On this matter, I say first that there is no place for racial inequality in our society or in our education system. The Department for Education is absolutely committed to an inclusive education system that recognises and embraces diversity and supports all pupils and students to tackle racism and to have the knowledge and tools to do so. Since 2016, we have provided more than £3.5 million to organisations, including the Anne Frank Trust, to prevent bullying. We are currently running a procurement exercise to fund activity in 2021 and 2022 to make sure that schools have the right support in place to prevent bullying of all pupils, including those with protected characteristics.

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 provide support for tackling bullying related to race, religion and nationality. Within and beyond their curriculum, schools are required actively to promote fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect and tolerance for all those of different faiths and beliefs.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Islwyn for raising this important matter. I welcome the opportunity to set out how black history and diversity is already supported within and beyond the national curriculum. I am confident that our schools will continue to educate children to become tolerant and culturally and historically knowledgeable citizens who embrace the values of modern Britain, and of whom we should be proud.

This has been a fantastic debate, and I pay tribute to all Members who have taken part. One thing that I have always felt about history is that it is the story of people’s lives and their shared experience. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Streatham (Bell Ribeiro-Addy) and for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe) for their very moving speeches.

I hope the Minister will listen to what my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) said about the pilot scheme on black and ethnic minority history being run there. I hope that that can be rolled out across the country. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson) for his passionate speech, and I thank the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) for her speech about how, in her area, they have bravely taken on Britain’s colonial past and the extremes that that history has thrown up. I also thank her for her wider campaigning in Parliament.

I pay tribute to the Labour Front-Bench spokesperson, my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) for his succinct, passionate and wide-ranging speech that brought in everything that encompasses black history and the experience not just of ethnic minorities but of the working class in the last 30 years. I also thank the Minister, whom I have known since 2017, when we served together on the Public Accounts Committee, for stepping in at the last minute in place of the Minister who should have responded. She gave a very constructive and informative speech. To be honest, I was quite hopeful from the end of her speech that we can come to some arrangement with the Government to bring black history to the fore in schools. She said that the Government really get that, and there is consensus around the issue, so we can really improve the teaching of history.

Ultimately, as I said in my speech, I am passionate about history and about the way it is taught. For too long, it has been seen as a dry subject, when really, it can be brought to life because it is about the lives people have lived. The way history is taught is now more important than ever. So many people deny that so many things happened, and with the rise of fake news, it is very important that we stick to the facts and that everybody’s voices are heard on our experiences of growing up in the country that we call Britain.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered e-petition 324092, relating to Black history and cultural diversity in the curriculum.

Sitting adjourned.