Meena Wood portrait

Written by Meena Wood

Meena Kumari Wood is a former HMI (Ofsted), LA Adviser, FE College Principal and Principal of a Secondary Academy, is now a consultant, trainer and leadership coach across the British and International Education sectors.

The island of Zanzibar where I was born was famous – or infamous – on two accounts: clove  plantations and slavery. From the 17th century until 1909, spice plantations were worked by  Black Africans sold into slavery by Black African tribes to Arab Traders. Zanzibar, East Africa’s  slave hub held slaves on Prison Island before transportation to other destinations (Frölich,  2019). The history of Black slavery is far more nuanced than one simply perpetuated by just  Whites on Black Africans. Seventeen million East Africans were sold into slavery by Arab  traders – a far higher number than those sold into transatlantic slavery. Yet it is usually  more common within the History curriculum for students to become familiar with Britain’s  involvement in the abolition of slavery in the 19th century, than with the financial benefit Britain gained from the slave trade in the two centuries beforehand. 

The alienation of some Black Caribbean and Black African students may in part be attributed  to a curriculum, where the contributions and histories of Black people in Britain are not  incorporated or openly acknowledged in schools. A Values-Led History curriculum must  present a balanced view of colonisation, the British empire and its impact on peoples from  Africa, Asia and, nearer home, Ireland. The Windrush scandal report concluded that, in part,  it happened precisely because of society’s poor understanding of Britain’s colonial history  (Williams, 2018). 

The challenge we face as educators is to have a radical rethink of our curriculum. Teaching  history through source evidence is not a binary choice of good versus evil. Who chooses the  ‘source evidence’ will decide the values and the narrative we want all our students to learn.  Winston Churchill, while applauded for his second world war victory, also contributed to  atrocities in the empire. During the great Bengal famine (1943), millions died as rice was  exported to elsewhere in the empire (Tharoor, 2018). Churchill, however, blamed the  famine on Indians ‘breeding like rabbits’ (Safi, 2019). 

Generations of young people have been taught that Britain was an intrinsic force for ‘good’  against Nazi tyranny and, therefore, ‘saved the world’ from the forces of evil in the first and second world wars. They may now believe that the British empire was a force for only good.  Many children still believe that WW2 was ‘won’ by the British’, and not through a massive  world-wide coalition.  

Following the Brexit vote in 2016, I met with a class of predominantly White British  students; 13-year-olds jubilant about ‘leaving Europe’ and goading another student to ‘go  back home to Poland’-reducing him to tears. Their reasoning was that their grandparents  had died freeing Britain from the Europeans and now they wanted their freedom from  Europe! A mishmash of ignorance and distorted history viewed through their families’ lens  influenced these young students and, sadly, resulted in the racist taunts they meted out on  fellow East European students. 

How do these same children now view the Russia Ukraine war as this may not even be  discussed in schools? Don’t our children have the right to be taught that the multifaceted prism of history is a prime influencer on our present lives? 

Our students must learn in history and geography of the importance of the unity of the  European nations in fighting tyranny and fascism, alongside the role of the ANZAC, African  and Asian troops, and what finally led to establishing the European Union. Its continuing  relevance to Britain today, now outside of Europe, is key as we face yet another war in  Europe. 

In our schools we cannot simply continue ‘celebrating diversity’ through famous iconic  figures such as Mandela and Gandhi, or scheduling well-intentioned activities during Black  History month. Respecting ‘Heritage Matters’ through the curriculum means  opening all students’ horizons. Global cultural influences are best threaded through a school  curriculum that showcases prominent achievements of a diverse range of individuals  in every subject. There is no shortage of inspirational, credible role models. 

In science, we can refer to the first Black American African female astronaut Jemison in  space (1992). In mathematics, Mohammed ibn-Musa al-Khowarizmi (773 AD) demonstrated  the zero in algebraic equations, and by the ninth century, the zero had entered the Arabic  numeral system, as we know it today. This example can sit alongside the German  mathematician Gottfried Leibniz’s invention of the Step Reckoner ( 1671); a calculus based  on the binary system, the genesis of the computer. What about Katherine Johnson, a Black American mathematician, referred to as a ‘computer’? Her calculations of orbital mechanics  ( armed with pencil, paper and slide rule), as a NASA employee was critical to the success of  the first U.S crewed space flight.

We must empower a nation of young people to be truly proud of their individual and  collective heritages. All German schoolchildren learn in history about the holocaust . If  knowledge is power then we must enable all our White, Black and Asian children to become  more knowledgeable and to learn of the myriad facets of their history.  In our classrooms, White British students need to know the contributions made by other  nations to the UK economy and society. For instance, if they learn of the British Empire, are  students aware of the lasting legacy of the East India Company’s employees in ‘acquiring’  riches, and investing these in Britain’s finest 18 century buildings, even ‘buying’ a seat in  Parliament? Thomas Pitt, famously founded the dynasty of two Prime ministers (William Pitt  and his son) through the purchase of a diamond, whilst he was Governor in India.  

Perpetuating a polarised view of Britain’s role in global history risks creating schisms in our  society and risks prejudice, racist attitudes and actions. These are counter to young people  developing global citizenship in 2022 and beyond; especially important at a time when the  world is shrinking its geo-political boundaries.  

To gain deeper understanding and apply the knowledge they learn, young people must  acquire critical literacy skills. Only through becoming critical thinkers and readers can they  interpret the nuances of history for themselves and come to realise that we are all united  more by our similarities than our differences. Atticus Finch, in Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a  Mockingbird, sets this as a key life lesson when he tells his daughter, 

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . .  until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” 

This is how we can hope to create future generations who aspire to change society for the  better. 

References 

Tharoor, S. (2017) Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, 1st edn., London: C. Hurst & Co  Publishers.

Frölich, S. (2019, August 22). East Africa’s forgotten slave trade. Deutsche Welle [online].  Retrieved from https://www.dw.com/en/east-africas-forgotten-slave-trade/a-50126759 Safi, M. (2019, March 29). Churchill’s policies contributed to 1943 Bengal famine – study. Guardian. Retrieved  from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/mar/29/winston-churchill-policies contributed-to-1943-bengal-famine-study 

Tharoor, S. (2017). Inglorious empire: What the British did to India. London: C. Hurst & Co  Publishers. 

Williams, W. (2018). Windrush lessons learned, Independent review [HC 93 2020-21].  London: House of Comm 

Wood, M. and Haddon, N. ( 2021) Secondary Curriculum Transformed; Enabling All to  Achieve; ( Routledge)

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