Getting on my academic high horse

Finally, the people responsible for writing the National Curriculum have seen sense. As of this academic year, Key Stage 3 History (that’s 11-14’s) will include the British Empire.

I appreciate that I may be a bit biased when it comes to this particular bit of history as I happen to have an MA in Imperial & Commonwealth history, but in reality, how on earth could such a massive chunk of British history be ignored until now??

When my parents were at school their classrooms had a map of the world of which one-third was coloured pink. The empire was just beginning to be dismantled, but in the 50’s and early 60’s Britannia still ruled the waves. By the time I got to school, there was virtually no mention of it at all. In fact, I got through secondary school history (GCSE & A-level) without ever having learnt more than that there was some kind of link between slavery and the empire. History went from Romans to WW2 during primary school, then back to Romans again in year 7 with a miraculous teaching of the Victorian era which at no point mentioned the empire.

The thing is (and this seems to be what the government’s finally realised) that the empire affected everything – from our domestic culture to the development of vast swathes of the rest of the world and international relations.

Our vocabulary includes words like pyjamas or gymkhana because of the Raj in India.
Rugby, Cricket and football are played internationally because the colonialists exported it.
The US insists it’s not empire-building (despite the small matter of Puerto Rico and Hawaii) because of the negative connotations of European expansion.

It seems that in the past, the British Empire has simply been labelled as a bad patch in our history and thus ignored because it’s too complicated to teach and it makes the British look really bad. But in a society that is made up of immigrants from across the Commonwealth it really cannot be ignored. Don’t children deserve to be taught the history of how their ancestors came to be here? Besides, I personally think it’s totally fascinating to see how the empire grew & grew and then got taken apart country by country. But then I would, because I’m a little bit of geek like that.

I’ll spare you a discourse on why missionaries were not political agents for the empire, for now. But who knows, should work reach a suitable level of tedium in the next few weeks, you might be in for a real treat.


  1. In comparison to the Portuguese, the Brits were saints when it came to Empire Building. They left infrastructure. The President of Mozambique famously said to Mandela at independence from Apartheid in 94 “At least they left you roads.”

    We learned about the British empire as examples of what NOT to do. But it looks like we’re not following our own advice. Typical Americans…. grrr

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