The British Empire isn't the 'fantasy villain' of history teaching, study finds

13th September 2016 at 00:01
Michael Gove claimed that history teaching was informed by post-colonial guilt. But, new research says, that does not reflect how the British Empire is really taught in classrooms

Reports of the death of the British Empire in schools have been greatly exaggerated, a new study suggests.

Not only is the empire regularly taught in schools, but it is also not taught through an anti-national, post-colonial lens, according to Terry Haydn, professor of education at the University of East Anglia.

Michael Gove condemned teaching of the Empire,just months before he became education secretary, claiming that teachers were painting “an anti-national and inaccurately damning picture", and that “too much history teaching is informed by post-colonial guilt”.

Others, such as the historian William Dalrymple, said that Britain’s imperial history was not taught in schools at all.

'Positive and negative'

But, in a review of curriculum specifications, textbooks and history-education websites, Professor Haydn showed that the sun has not yet set on the British Empire: the topic has been an integral part of the national curriculum in England since 1991. The current curriculum states that pupils should be taught about “ideas, political power, industry and empire: Britain, 1745-1901”.

Commonly used textbooks for Year 9 – the last year of compulsory history study – also tend to cover the British Empire, Professor Haydn will tell the British Educational Research Association conference in Leeds today.

He will  argue that – contrary to Mr Gove’s belief – neither history textbooks nor major history-education websites include an anti-national slant to the teaching of Empire.

“A not-uncommon approach is for textbooks to examine both positive and negative historical sources, opinion and commentary,” his paper states.

'Fantasy villain in black'

In addition, Professor Haydn surveyed 15 heads of history, asking them whether they taught the Empire as “a good thing” or “a bad thing”. Only one respondent taught it as a bad thing, saying: “We treat it as a study of exploitation."

Thirteen of the remaining teachers said that the question was one to be explored with pupils.

One head of department said: “It is not to be taught in a manner of triumphalism. It deserves to be balanced, though, and not [treating the Empire] as some fantasy villain in black, mightily oppressing the good guys.”

Professor Haydn said: “The data emerging from the study does not support the claim…that the British Empire is taught in a negative and anti-British way.”

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