This Country Is Finally Teaching Students About Its Ugly Colonial History

“We’re not just using words like ‘equality’, ‘diversity’, ‘inclusion’. Warm, fluffy words that nobody would disagree with. We’re talking about racism.”
June 9, 2021, 1:57pm
A member of the public attempts to clean graffiti from the Robert Dundas 2nd Viscount Melville statue in Edinburgh, Scotland. Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Schools in Scotland will be urged to teach children about the country’s colonial history as part of a drive towards anti-racist education.

Demands to tackle discrimination through education have grown globally over the last 12 months, energised by the murder of George Floyd and wave of racial equality campaigning that followed. In the UK, a petition calling for the compulsory teaching of Britain’s role in colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade got 268,772 signatures – well over the 100,000 needed for the topic to be debated in Parliament.

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Scotland has an ugly colonial past. It was a ready participant in Britain’s blood-soaked global empire, profiting hugely from the transatlantic slave trade and other imperial atrocities. Its citizens amassed huge fortunes, rapaciously drawn from the cotton, sugar, tea, and tobacco fields of America and the West Indies. This revenue was funnelled back home, fuelling the nation’s industrial revolution and march towards modernity.

Centuries on, signs of Scotland’s ill-gotten gains are hard to miss. They’re in the glittering Georgian facades of Glasgow and Edinburgh, paid for by plantation profits, and etched across cityscapes in the street names and monuments that pay homage to men enriched by human suffering. 

And yet, the country’s inglorious colonial involvement is not known or discussed widely enough, campaigners say. This is something that must be addressed where knowledge begins: the classroom.

In the recent elections to the Scottish Parliament, the governing Scottish National Party (SNP) ran on a manifesto crediting the Black Lives Matter movement for shining a spotlight on “the need for countries to face their colonial history”, and promising to develop a programme of anti-racist education in schools.

Modelled on the Time for Inclusive Education (TIE) campaign – which, in 2015, addressed issues of LGBTQ visibility in Scottish schools with bespoke teacher training – the new approach will draw on the expertise of education and racial justice stakeholders, including young people.

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Professor Rowena Arshad, Chair in Multicultural and Anti-Racist Education at the University of Edinburgh, has been calling for a “decolonised”, anti-racist curriculum for decades and is now advising the Scottish government on curriculum change.

“We’re not just using words like ‘equality’, ‘diversity’, ‘inclusion’. Warm, fluffy words that nobody would disagree with. We’re talking about racism,” she says.

“Previous attempts at curriculum change have perhaps shied away from that, and have generally been done by the teachers and the adults. This time we’re hearing from a far wider selection of voices, including young people of colour.” 

“When school children learn about ‘sleeping sickness’, for example, they are taught that the tsetse flies carry the disease and this was in Africa. Africans knew to avoid farming in areas where there was a tsetse fly problem,” Arshad says.

“What is not taught is that when colonists arrived, they took good land away for building roads and railways, and local people were forced onto land where the disease was most prevalent. This triggered modern day epidemics, famines and other crises.”

“Because the lesson hasn’t been contextualised – or decolonised – it gives a negative view of a particular place. In this case, west and central Africa.”

Education is devolved in the UK, with the government of each country setting policy. In Wales, the government announced in March that it will be mandatory to teach children about racism, and the contributions of Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities. Welsh education minister Kirsty Williams said this is to help pupils become “informed citizens of the world”.

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However in England, UK education secretary Gavin Williamson has rejected calls to “decolonise” the curriculum, saying that the British Empire is already taught and that “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.” Williamson recently found time to condemn students at Oxford University who took a photo of the Queen off of their common room wall, calling the move “absurd”.

The plans in Scotland have not been met without criticism. Chris Whatley, professor of Scottish History at the University of Dundee, says, “My worry about the SNP’s proposal on colonialism is that it’s a bit empty, a bit hollow, even a bit hypocritical to be sitting in a very comfortable modern Scottish society enjoying the benefits of modernisation, which was to a large extent built on the back of the slave trade.”

“It’s important that young people understand both sides of the story, including the benefits of Scotland’s modernisation, but recognising too the enormous human costs of what we once thought of as a benign process” he says.

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Experts say that the success of the programme will also depend on exactly what is taught. Sir Geoff Palmer, a human rights campaigner and professor emeritus at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, says, “School children must be taught in no uncertain terms about the ‘chattel slavery’ that Scotland was involved in – the commodification of people that denied their right to life.”

“They have to learn that individuals from Africa were treated as property, that their children also became property that could be bought and sold.”

“Only when that’s truly understood will we be able to address the modern day consequences of colonialism and slavery, which is racism,” he says.

However, structural issues in Scottish education will not be solved overnight. According to official figures, minority ethnic people make up just 1.6 per cent of the Scottish teaching profession, despite constituting 4 per cent of the total population.

Lavinya Stennett is founder of The Black Curriculum, a social enterprise that helps schools deliver a more diverse history syllabus, which will run its first class in Scotland in September, says having BAME teaching staff is important. “This really impacts engagement around issues of race,” she says. “Not having a representative workforce in schools can make it harder for children to connect with the person teaching them, which can affect their attainment and future ambitions.”

Schools in England currently have the freedom to teach more diverse history lessons if they want to, but they are disincentivised from doing so. Michelle Codrington-Rogers, the first Black national president of the NASUWT teachers' union, which operates across the UK, says: “If teaching a decolonised syllabus is going to harm a school’s place in the league tables because it’s out of step with assessments, it’s going to be very difficult for teachers to adopt change, however much they want it.”

“We’ve got schools out there doing the work, we’ve got colleagues who’ve been doing this work for years, but they are always going to be worrying: ‘will it get us the results we need?’.”