A portrait of the teaching of the British Empire, migration and belonging in English secondary schools

I am working on a research project aiming to provide an empirical portrait of current teaching and learning around the interconnected themes of empire, migration and belonging in England’s secondary schools. This project’s aim is a simple one: to support teachers with the teaching of the British Empire, migration and belonging. 

Histories of empire and migration are fundamental to understanding modern Britain including how we make sense of issues of belonging and identity. Recent events, from Brexit in 2016, to the Windrush Scandal in 2018 and the Black Lives Matter activism of 2020, have drawn attention to the interplay between the past and the present in dramatic ways, highlighting not only the salience of these histories but also their contested nature.

Despite its importance, there is a shared acknowledgement at the heart not only of recent campaigns from organisations such as the Runnymede Trust and Black Curriculum Project  but also emphasised within the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report, that there is currently no credible, comprehensive evidence base from which to reliably judge the extent to which today’s secondary students are being taught about the history and legacies of the British empire at all, let alone what they are being taught, in what manner and why. There is however evidence that teachers themselves have identified the need for targeted professional development support and training in this area

It is precisely in response to this demand that I, as lead author of the 2020 Times letter, reiterated the TIDE-Runnymede recommendation that the government invests in better supporting teachers to confidently tackle these complex and potentially contentious themes.  Both the Times letter and TIDE-Runnymede campaign made explicit reference to work from the UCL Centre for Holocaust Education’s internationally renowned and distinctively research-led approach to transformative teacher professional development. The Portrait of the teaching of the British Empire, migration and belonging research project was thus conceived as a crucially important intervention towards ultimately supporting teachers by first providing a much needed, robust and comprehensive, empirical evidence base.  Our survey is one tool we are using to examine issues associated with teaching the British Empire, migration and belonging in schools and we encourage teachers of all subjects to complete it. https://redcap.idhs.ucl.ac.uk/surveys/?s=L33D9YEX7KRET3EX

We think that this project represents a tremendous opportunity to understand and shape the way young people engage with the enduring legacies, and ongoing debates, regarding the British Empire. Given the complexity of the topics, and the contested nature of many current debates, our desire is to offer nuance and illumination.   

You can find out more about this project on our website https://portraitemb.co.uk/ 

These potent legacies shape the lives of millions, deeply affecting our sense of identity and belonging. It is critical that we forge paths towards better collective understanding of these subjects, however controversial. Confident and informed teachers are, of course, central to this.  


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