Race Matters

Helen Hayes MP: 'Black history is central to the making of Britain'

On October 23, 2019 Runnymede and Helen Hayes MP are organising a photo call in parliament with MPs showing their support for Black history to be taught in schools all year round and not just during Black History Month. Here, Helen Hayes explains why she believes teaching Black history, migration and Empire in schools is important.

It has been a very special privilege for the past five years, to have been involved with the Advocacy Academy, a charity in south London which mentors and equips young people to become active citizens, campaigning on the issues that matter to them.  

Each year, the advocates launch a series of campaigns, and so it came to be that several months ago, I found myself standing outside the Department for Education as a diverse group of young people chanted ‘Our history is British history!’. 

We are now in Black History Month, an important time each year to celebrate black history and the contribution of the black community across the UK, but also a vital opportunity to campaign for permanent reform. Black history should not be confined to a particular month, it should be taught in the mainstream of the history curriculum throughout the year - Black history should be talked about, and taught, with consistency.

Britain’s history is the story of migration. There were Black Tudors and Black Romans long before the Empire Windrush docked in 1948. Both the Bristol Bus Boycott 1963 and fight for the Race Relations Acts; as well as slavery and empire are key parts of our national story. There should not be an artificial separation between black and British history – this is the story of all of us. 

That’s why the content of the history curriculum is so important. It is important for accuracy – we should not be teaching a version of history which glosses over or ignores the painful or shameful parts of our story. 

It is important for cohesion, because we are bound together when we understand that none of us can say that our families were always here. And it is important for ensuring that our young people grow up, whatever their background, confident in their place in our communities. 

Like the young people from the Advocacy Academy have made clear in their representations to me and to the government, the best way to make sure this happens is in our classrooms.  

That’s why on October 23, 2019, I’m encouraging MPs to write to the schools in their constituency to gather examples of best practice directly from teachers to share with other schools, so we can move closer to teaching a fuller version of British history all year round.   

I know that many schools across the country, including some in my constituency, are already doing excellent work to teach what can sometimes be challenging topics, during Black History Month and outside of it.  

However, a report by the Runnymede Trust and TIDE project found that the extent to which these topics are being taught in secondary schools is unknown. There is space on the History and English curriculum to teach topics like migration, the British Empire and the slave trade but it is at the discretion of the school.  

When it comes to the slave trade, in 2014 the Department for Education admitted that it did not know how many schools were teaching the subject. Similarly, we know that around 4 per cent of pupils taking GCSE History are taking the ‘Migration to Britain’ option, with exam boards AQA and OCR. There is an urgent need for more research in this area.  

But it’s important to note that teachers, already under intense pressure, might need more support and resources so they feel confident covering these topics sensitively and effectively. The Runnymede Trust, University of Manchester and University of Cambridge project Our Migration Story, offering classroom ready resources for teachers, found in a teacher survey that 78 percent wanted training on teaching migration and 71 per cent on teaching empire. The government should look into how this demand can be fulfilled.  

The passion shown by the Advocacy Academy campaigners demonstrates the thirst for migration and empire to be properly recognised as part of our national story by students of all backgrounds.  

As the end of Black History Month 2019 approaches, I encourage all MPs to join me in writing to schools in their constituency and platforming the great work they do. Together, we can make sure Black history is recognised as it should be, as central to the making of Britain today.

Pic: The British West Indies Regiment on the Western Front in the Battle of the Somme (World War I) September 1916.
Pic credit: Wikimedia Commons

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