Schools minister rejects lessons about colonialism and slave trade in case they ‘lower standards’

Petition condemning curriculum for failing to teach ‘Britain’s role in colonisation’ is rebuffed

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Thursday 25 February 2021 19:30 GMT
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Schools minister rejects compulsory lessons on colonialism and the slave trade

The schools minister has rejected compulsory lessons about the Empire and the slave trade by claiming they would risk lowering “standards”, triggering criticism.

More than 268,000 people have signed a petition condemning the curriculum for failing to teach students about “Britain’s role in colonisation” and the shame of trading in slaves.

But the call has been rebuffed by Nick Gibb, the schools minister – who said the government did not want to “pile on” more topics that curtailed teachers’ freedom to choose.

“Every time you do that, you chip away at that professional autonomy,” he told a Commons inquiry.

“The danger is that it does detract from that professional normal autonomy, and it is that professional autonomy that is driving up standards,” Mr Gibb added.

Cat McKinnell, who chairs the petitions committee, suggested the comments betrayed that “this just isn’t a priority for the government”.

“I think many people watching this session will be very disappointed by the answers that you’ve given today,” she told the minister.

They would feel “the government doesn’t recognise the level of dissatisfaction that there is with the current curriculum and how it’s being taught,” she warned.

The petition, drawn up by students Esmie Jikiemi-Pearson and Nell Bevan, states: “Vital information has been withheld from the people by institutions meant to educate them. 

“By educating on the events of the past, we can forge a better future. Colonial powers must own up to their pasts by raising awareness of the forced labour of Black people, past and present mistreatment of BAME people, and most importantly, how this contributes to the unfair systems of power at the foundation of our modern society.”

The Department for Education insists teachers can teach the subjects if they wish – but critics say this ignores that there is little space outside what is compulsory.

In GCSE history, schools tend to focus on what has been dubbed “Hitler and the Henrys” – the Second World War and the Tudors – while, in English literature, white authors such as Shakespeare are compulsory 

Mr Jikemi-Pearson said, last month: “For my English literature A-level, I was taught Jane Eyre, Sense and Sensibility and a contemporary text by an Irish author.

“Throughout my entire A-level and school life, I never got to read a book with a person of colour in it.”

Yacoub Yasin, who drew up a similar petition, dropped GCSE history because “the only time I had ever heard history of where I was from being spoken about was the British Raj and the element of being subservient”.

But, turning down the petition, Mr Gibb argued: “The more prescriptive you are, the less professional autonomy you are unleashing.

“The rising standards that we’ve seen since 2010 are multifaceted, but one of them, I believe, is that we are encouraging that professional autonomy.”

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