From education to employment

Is there a future for teaching Black history?

Peter Ejedewe, English Tutor and Writer

As we enter a difficult time for education.  A time of responsibility, resetting the guidance and delivery due to the Covid 19 lockdown.  A movement towards social cohesion, supporting and understanding the protests surrounding the death of George Floyd and the subsequent anger and issues of Black Lives in the UK. 

The removal of statues in Bristol, Marches in London, Leeds, Manchester and other cities. We need to answer questions regarding the history we are teaching young people and the education of Black and ethnic Minorities in Britain.

Many years ago in 2008, I was instrumental in developing a project, leading to the FE college becoming one of the first to achieve ‘The Stephen Lawrence Education Award’. It was the foundation of a number of initiatives in the Leeds region.  But in the 12 years since, there has yet to be an FE College in the UK delivering an accredited course in Black History.  Why is that?

You may say it is enough that there are courses in Culture, Citizenship, Sociology and that students study modules of ‘The Slave Trade, The American Civil Rights Movement, The Abolition of slavery and, you would be right. 

Yet the same questions occur in conversations with colleagues on the topic:

  • Why aren’t we teaching about the contributions of black people to Britain and the world?
  • Why are the only accredited courses in Black History all at Postgraduate level?  
  • Why has ‘The Black Curriculum’ not been endorsed by the department of education?  
  • Why is Black History Month in FE so poorly supported and only celebrates celebrity? 

Yes, in BHM we have lessons, events, celebrations, posters, resources to acknowledge Mary Seacole, Lenny Henry, Pele, Bob Marley, Malcolm X and Rihanna, but are we really saying that these icons are the breadth of Black Culture and history in the UK?  

Are we whitewashing the contributions of inventors, innovators, academics, scientists, artists, businesspeople, engineers, and other fields? Where achievements of our history are applauded with statues, coursework and achievement and held in terms of endearment?

Yet Black and minority contributions are heavily biased with American heroes and history from across the ocean.


One example is Mary Secole. 

Although she treated more soldiers in the Crimean war, stayed in the front line longer, endured the greater hardships, yet she is still a footnote to Florence Nightingale.



A second is Thomas Eddison.  

Edison patented the first commercially successful bulb in 1879, yet the Carbon filament of Lewis Howard Latimer, one of Edison’s researchers, patented a more efficient way of manufacturing carbon filaments in 1882.  It is this Carbon Filament which most scientists view as the basis for the modern lightbulb we have today.  

So what Black history could students learn about?

John Edmonstone (1793-1822) who was Thomas Darwin’s teacher at Edinburgh University.

Shirley Ann Jackson- her ground-breaking research led to invention of the portable fax, the tone telephone, solar cells, fibre optic cables.

Arthur Wharton, the Ghanaian born Keeper and winger, first black professional and the first to play in the Football League for England.

Learie Constantine, born in Trinidad, he would go on to become England’s first black peer because of the work that he did for politics and racial equality.

What about Sara Forbes Bonetta, West African princess and goddaughter to Queen Victoria. Lilian Bader, Arthur France, Walter Tull, Ignatius Sancho, Charles Wotten, Joe Cough, Paul Stephenson, Caryl PhillipsZadie SmithAndrea LevyJohnson Beharry, Joy Gardener, Smiley Culture the list goes on.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson recently rejected calls for changes to the history curriculum that would include more teaching about Britain’s colonial past and involvement in slavery.  He said:

“Our national curriculum covers the issue of the British Empire, and the incredibly rich history that this nation has, and it’s absolutely vitally important, incredibly important, that when children are learning about our nation’s history, they learn all aspects of it, both the good and the bad. But we mustn’t forget that in this nation, we have an incredibly rich history, and we should be incredibly proud of our history because time and time and time again, this country has made a difference and changed things for the better, right around the world.”

“We should, as a nation, be proud of that history and teach our children about it.”

I agree with his sentiment, but he has missed the point. 

How many of you reading this article have heard of Arthur France, Charles Wooten or Lilian Bader and understand their contribution to our “incredible rich history”? 

How many of your students of a Black, minority or white European background understand their place in British history beyond ‘The Slave Trade’, ‘Empire Windrush’ or a smattering of sporting or musical icons mainly from the USA?’ 

How many students will be inspired by a history with which, they have no cultural or limited social connections?  Would they rather be learning about Montgomery or Manchester?  Students would have a better understanding of the death of Charles Wootton in Liverpool in 1919, than the tragedy of Emmet Till or Trayvon Martin.

But returning to answer Gavin Williamson’s stance on changing the history curriculum.  

British history has its long-established subject matter

Indeed, the national curriculum does cover British Empire. It does cover both the good and the bad. But from the viewpoint of white privilege, white dominance and white hierarchy. He does say “this country has made a difference and changed things for the better, right around the world. And that we should be proud of that history and teach it to our children”.

Then why is the contribution of Commonwealth enlisted people not being taught?  Are we saying it is right to teach all our students that the parents, grandparents and generations preceding them from the Caribbean, Africa, Asia and subcontinent made no contribution during the two world wars?  Or that their only historical contribution is as, slaves and then freed slaves, (freed by parliament and not by riots in Haiti or later in Jamaica). That they had no place in keeping Britain safe during the wars.  That they are not inventors, not artists, not scientists, not engineers, not civic leaders or politicians.  That we are only good as sports people, musicians, actors and celebrities.  Are we still teaching that minority immigration began with the Empire Windrush in 1948?  What about black musicians and writers of the 16th and 17th century who lived in Britain?  Do we wish to teach a half truth?  A lie of omission is still a lie.

What are we teaching students in the classroom?

That Black and minority students are, or can never really contribute because their ancestors haven’t lived here that long except in certain fields like entertainment or sport.  That only a small number of black people were the exception, not the rule. That the ‘rich history’ we are teaching them is a true and accurate reflection of British history.

What do students understand of the three million Commonwealth soldiers who fought in WW1?  The 1.5 million soldiers from India or the 134,000 from the Caribbean in WW2?  Maybe a single mention of the page throughout the curriculum.  Are they aware of the minister who recruited Caribbean nurses and staff for the NHS and his role in bringing the Empire Windrush to the ‘Mother country’?

What about the traditions of oral stories and links to literature, poetry, the growth of two-tone music, fashion and grime music scene in Britain?  The mills of Keighley and Bradford that made the northern cities thrive?  The scandal of the Empire Windrush and policing and deaths in custody. Or the British-born pioneers and their influence in society. Would students not benefit from understanding the origins of modern music or what significance carnival costumes played in settling residents in the UK?   Would they gain knowledge by studying the beginnings of the post-war right groups and debating Stop and search laws or Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock MBE?

When thinking about the recent protests against yet another black killing in the death of George Floyd.  The mental health and wellbeing during lockdown and protests for BLM, we can all see, for students, there is a clear and as yet, unquenched thirst for Black lives in the education system to be recognised and accredited with appropriate education, including, l believe, teaching Black British History. 

At university level, B.A. history modules include Medieval and Renaissance Europe, Empire and Aftermath: The Mediterranean World from the Second to the Eighth Centuries, The Crusades and Medieval Christendom, The Tudors: Princes, Politics and Piety, 1485-1603, The Harlem Renaissance: Black Culture and Politics 1919-1940, Black Politics from Emancipation to Obama.  

Yet few include Black British history in the UK as many of us, who live and have studied, understand it.

What is the hierarchy in a West Indian ‘front room’?   

How have the cultural celebrations changed between 1950’s to 1980’s?

Media portrayal of Black and minorities from ‘Love thy Neighbour’ to ‘Goodness, gracious me. What are the changes?

How are students to progress from FE to HE without knowledge and understanding of British history and culture?

Would it be a viable choice if they have not studied it at FE?

There is an awakening of social conscience and collective need for balancing truth. It equates to a reimagining of education in British history and FE colleges should be out front leading the path in what seems like a struggle for the minds and hearts of the 14-19+ critical curriculum thinkers.  

But what of the data for justifying more than a short course or mini project for Black British History and Culture?

Do the numbers stack up for an accredited Black British History course?

According to official Further Education participation statistics, 21.3% of students in further education are of Black, Asian or other minority background. 9.0% Asian, 6.6 % Black, 3.1 % Mixed, 2.5 % other, a total of 652,000. It also shows that compared with the % of population, Black & Minority students have increased (April 2019).

There are also those 76.8% or 2.4 million white students participating in FE who may wish to study the course (2017/18). I have a large cohort of students who would enjoy and value a course.  They are bathed in the culture of multiculturalism and like myself do not see a Black British History course as only for minorities.

The AoC data published in 2019/20 has 244 colleges in the UK. With 2.2 million people attending 168 gen FE colleges, 51 6th Form colleges, 13 land-based colleges, 2 arts and 10 Inst of learning.  These can be viewed as 669,000 16-18-year olds. 69,000 16-18-year-old Apprenticeships and 13,000 14-15-year olds enrolled in further education.

When we break these down further; 738,000 16-18-year-old; 352,000 19-24-year-old; 14,000 Under sixteen. Of these, 26% have identified themselves as Black or ethnic minority. (2019/20)

In 2020, where students can live stream protests, download videos of extremists’ views of presidents, prime ministers and world leaders or the latest tiktok craze, what do we engage them with to put ideas into context, history. Where they can view disasters and celebrations, video chat with heroes and mentors on the other side of the globe, their eyes are open, and the world is just a click away. We need them to set a wide gaze. 

They can become celebrities in themselves by posting dances or exciting stunts. In an era, where they can raise millions for charity from a bedroom or build a career by endorsing online.  Can we as educators say that British history is valid even though it has excluded sections of society? Given what is happened today, the history that is being made.  We owe the students the truth regarding British history so they can understand the protests and learn about both black and white heritage in Britain and acknowledge the omission of the past. We should be teaching Black British history to our students.  If not, it may only lead to further division, mistrust and a lack of belonging in minority communities and in those who believe that we should not be a cohesive society.

The truth is freedom and we should shine light on the substantial contributions both positive and negative, on Black British history.  Don’t you? 

Peter Ejedewe, English Tutor and Writer

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