'Decolonise The Curriculum' Movement Goes From Strength To Strength, In The Hands Of UK's Youth

Katie O'Malley
·8-min read
Photo credit: OLI SCARFF - Getty Images
Photo credit: OLI SCARFF - Getty Images

From ELLE

Rochelle Meaden is sat cross-legged on her bedroom floor in south London. Aged 17, she’s just finished a day at school, where she’s getting to grips with studying for her A-Levels during a global pandemic. In her spare time, she’s part of a growing number of students tirelessly fighting for the mandatory teaching of Britain’s colonial history in UK schools.

As it stands, it’s not compulsory for Britain's role in colonisation, or the transatlantic slave trade, to be taught on the UK National curriculum. While students must learn ‘how people’s lives have shaped this nation and how Britain has influenced and been influenced by the wider world’, it’s not until Key Stage Three that colonialism (notably in the US) is mentioned. The government argues that ‘it’s for schools and teachers themselves to determine which examples, topics and resources to use to stimulate and challenge pupils and reflect key points in history’. Others would fiercely disagree.

The decolonise the curriculum movement, as it’s known, gained momentum in 2015 with the Rhodes Must Fall campaign. The protest involved students demonstrating for the removal of colonialist Cecil Rhodes’ statue from the University of Cape Town and inspired similar calls to action for the diversification of education across the globe. At its core, the movement calls into question the origins of historical viewpoints on curriculums, arguing that the majority are of a colonial perspective. It’s a movement that’s largely being led by today’s youth.

Photo credit: DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS - Getty Images
Photo credit: DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS - Getty Images

Malala Yousafzai, the Parkland Shooting Survivors and Amika George are well-known examples of how students have long been at the vanguard for social change. As Greta Thunberg said earlier this year, officials are ‘behaving like children, so it falls on us to be the adults in the room’.

More than anyone, young people have the unique insight on how issues, such as racism and inequality, have long-lasting, catastrophic effects that reach far beyond campuses, as well as solutions about how to make a better future for all. ‘We sit at the perfect interchange of anger and hope – that’s a power young people have and shouldn’t forget,’ notes Meaden.

The power of youth activism

Last September, Meaden became a co-founder of Fill In The Blanks – a campaign group led by students from former British colonies, aged 17 to 19, as part of the transformative youth movement Advocacy Academy. Their mission? To push for the mandatory teaching of Britain’s colonial history in UK schools.

‘We came together because we all felt something was missing and that our colonial history is not being taught properly – or at all,’ Meaden tells me. At the beginning of the year, the group distributed 5,000 fake broadsheets across London announcing the mandatory teaching of the British Empire. ‘We wanted to start a conversation about what this country would look like if we had a truly honest and reflective curriculum of our past,’ she notes.

Photo credit: Fill In The Blanks
Photo credit: Fill In The Blanks

Months later, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement – launched in 2013 – experienced renewed fervour after the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police in the US. Young people took to the streets and social media to show solidarity with BLM and to demand the end of institutional racism. They spearheaded protests, delivered impassioned speeches to crowds, launched petitions calling for UK schools to decolonise their curriculums and successfully campaigned for the names of schools, inspired by slave traders, to change.

‘Students have an incredible power over institutions, and we need to be able to leverage that to push for further changes. Now is the perfect time to do it,’ says Professor of History of Slavery at Bristol University Olivette Otele. ‘Student protests are sometimes seen as elite but, truthfully, they’re about young people. This is what gives the BLM movement so much power because there aren't any class boundaries.’

A past doomed to repeat itself

It’s clear from the government’s reticence to change the national curriculum that there’s an issue in admitting culpability for Britain’s colonial past. In 2014, a YouGov survey found that most British people (59 per cent) think the Empire is something to be proud of, rather than ashamed of (19 per cent). And almost half of young people admitted to feeling shame, in comparison to two-thirds of over 60s who feel ‘mostly proud’.

Photo credit: NurPhoto - Getty Images
Photo credit: NurPhoto - Getty Images

This disparity of opinions over Britain’s wrongdoings, coupled with the misrepresentation of its colonial history, is something Meaden has experienced first-hand. The teenager recalls once being told by a teacher that ‘slavery had nothing to do with race’ and that it was mutually ‘beneficial’ for those involved. ‘My mouth went dry. I was speechless,’ she tells me. ‘When we don’t teach this history, we deprive young people of a language we need to understand and tackle racism today.’

In her work as a professor, Otele notes that excluding certain parts of history perceived as ‘inconvenient’ or ‘uncomfortable’ is a form of bias. ‘There’s a separation from what is, what is known and what is being taught,’ she says of the UK national curriculum. For some people, she says, the omission of colonialism in education is a form of brainwashing. ‘It’s an ideology to present the country as victorious and grand, but you can be grand and have a troubled history,’ Otele adds.

But it’s not just governments who seem unwilling to change the status quo. Earlier this year, a Freedom of Information request submitted by the Guardian to 128 UK universities found that only 24 (a fifth) said they were committed to decolonising the curriculum. For Otele, this is a sign of ‘profound anxiety about [Britain’s] colonial past’. ‘Often people say that they’re not racist and don’t have a problem with diversity and a multi-cultural Britain, but they’ll have resistance understanding that their thought processes are the result of what they’ve been taught. As a result, they don’t learn to question what has happened because it’s in the past. If we don’t challenge history, then we’re bound to reproduce certain mechanisms that lead to inequalities again.’

Photo credit: NICHOLAS KAMM - Getty Images
Photo credit: NICHOLAS KAMM - Getty Images

Due to curriculum's narrow approach to Britain’s past, Meaden has been forced to teach herself about the Black experience and Black history. ‘It’s embarrassing that I’ve learnt more about colonial history from Instagram and Renni Eddo Lodge’s book Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race, than my formal education,’ she says. When the responsibility is placed on students to inform themselves of their history, it serves only to divide them further away from each other.

Fighting misconceptions

Like many youth activists before them, people often mistake Fill In The Blanks members’ youth for inexperience. ‘They sometimes patronise us because we’re young, even though our ages give us an extra form of expertise,’ says Meaden. ‘People often think we don’t have the authority to speak on decolonising the curriculum, forgetting that we’re fresh in or just out of the curriculum and couldn’t know better what it looks like.’

While the movement to change the curriculum has attracted international support, it’s also been widely misunderstood in a similar vein to the BLM movement. Since the start of BLM, its critics have suggested its very phrase implies Black lives matter more than others. Likewise, opponents of the decolonisation of the curriculum have suggested it means eradicating certain white literature and historical figures from history.

Photo credit: Hollie Adams - Getty Images
Photo credit: Hollie Adams - Getty Images

‘It’s not about one versus the other,’ highlights Otele. ‘There are certain canons written by people who are not white, who are British and from all walks of life. These studies haven’t been integrated into our curriculum simply because of the assumption that you need to know certain things first before moving onto others. But you can learn both at the same time.’

Another misconception is that our colonial history is something only minority groups should care about. But in much the same way as teaching the graphic truths of the Holocaust is mandatory in German schools, we must acknowledge that we’re all products of our past. ‘It’s just as important for the descendants of the people who colonised to learn about Britain’s past as it is for me as a descendant from Uganda,’ Meaden says.

For too long, history has diminished, overlooked and near erased the presence, influence and voices of Black communities. It is only in teaching about Britain’s colonial history and addressing the nation’s wrongdoings that we prevent ourselves from repeating them. The deaths of Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery are salient reminders of the dangers of allowing racist ideologies to permeate society. More than ever, education requires self-understanding, not self-aggrandising.

African Europeans: An Untold History by Olivette Otele is available to buy on Amazon now.

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