How has the Empire been taught in British Schools

How the Empire has been taught in British Schools
Teaching British Empire
Under One Flag
The Empire is a topic that motivates people from all sides of the political spectrum but often in contradictory ways. Those on the right have often used the topic as an example of British national pride and of British exceptionalism. Accordingly, the very existence of an empire is proof that the British were a uniquely creative, dynamic and modern force in World history. The prominence of the Union Jack fluttering over all the corners of the globe played well to ideas of national vigour and strength. Those on the left have tended to emphasise the subjugation and force required to take and hold an empire. For them, the empire is a negative force denying colonised peoples a voice and political rights. It has often been characterised as an economic system designed to benefit the rich mercantalists or industrialists at the expense of peasants and workers all over the world. In short, the empire is a controversial topic that has been used and abused by politicians and educators for as long as there has been an educational system to speak of. This article will track how attitudes to the empire have been reflected by teachers, schools and politicians from the 19th Century to the present day. The one thing that should be clear is that the debate over what should or should not be taught in British schools is still a ferocious one and not likely to die down any time soon.
The Nineteenth Century
Teaching British Empire
The Schoolmaster
In the first half of the Nineteenth Century, there was little controversy over what was taught as most young people did not attend school and those that did were either attending very expensive private (public) schools or just learning the rudimentary 3 Rs (Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic) until the age of 11. If you went to the former, you were more likely to study Greek or Roman history than you were any British or Imperial history. But of course, the Greek and Roman historical experiences were often used as a substitute and learning aid for the leaders of what would become the British Empire. Parallels were often drawn between the experiences of Roman Consuls and Emperors and those of British politicians and Civil Servants. Greek and Roman theories of government were the only form of political discourse entertained for younger minds.
Teaching British Empire
The Schoolhouse
The British Empire was regarded as being the heir to this classical tradition. However, it was hoped that by studying the two classical civilisations, the British might learn from their mistakes and keep their own Empire flowering and make it an even more successful empire than the Greeks and Romans had managed with theirs. It was no accident that British colonial architecture and art was far more likely to be influenced by these Mediterranean Civilisations than from any local or indigenous cultures that the British came in to contact with. The British Empire was evidence of a Classical Renaissance to Britain's ruling elite.

Those who were not fortunate enough to receive a private education would probably not receive any meaningful education at all. There were some private local village schools that could provide a basic education for a modest fee. Churches could provide subsidised education as they were keen to ensure that the population could access the Bible and understand Christian ideals. However, even these schools often asked for contributions from parents. Both of these kind of schools were only interested in teaching the basic 3 Rs and often had multiple ages within a single classroom.

Another possibility was to gain a scholarship to a local private (public) school. In fact, this is the reason for the confusion of the names in the British educational system. These private schools were supposed to make places available to the public through scholarships based on merit - hence the name 'public' school. However, the vast majority of students were always fee-paying and most were full time boarders. The schools were often in imposing buildings away from large towns and cities.

Another option was in the form of the grammar schools. These were also fee paying, but could be attended by non-boarders. There would still be a fee, but it was nowhere near as high as the private (public) school fees. These were for post 11 age ranges and did provide a broader curriculum often teaching more advanced maths, literature, science and humanities. They were still more likely to study Greek and Latin than French or German as they aped the educational standards of the private (public) schools.
Teaching British Empire
Interior of a Village School
These schools appealed to more upwardly mobile families. It is in this category that the kernel of a meaningful history curriculum can be found. These sons, and occasionally daughters, were expected to fulfil the managerial and functionary jobs of empire. They might become NCOs or junior officers of less famous army regiments or perhaps in the Royal Navy. They might have gone on to run the train stations, stores, post offices, telegraph stations, etc... These would become the middle class over time but it would be a painful and time consuming process. But it is in these grammar schools that the idea of teaching a national story came to have some prominence.

Teaching British Empire
School is Out
The national story was a very simplistic and basic one. It would largely involve Kings and Queens, important battles and a positive spin on Britain's achievements to date. It was meant in no way to challenge the ruling classes and system in place, rather it was designed to support the system and explain why the country was the country that it was. Chronologically, this simplistic and non-controversial history would start to push further and further from the Saxons, through the Normans, to the Tudors and Stuarts to the Glorious Revolution and then into the era of Empire itself.
Teaching British Empire
A Blue Coat School
Generals and Admirals like Drake, Wolfe, Nelson and Clive were emphasised as heroes of the ongoing national story. The Revolution in the 13 colonies was portrayed as an aberration due to a dangerous slide to tyranny (a la the Roman Empire) by George III and his Prime Ministers. The Napoleonic triumph was used to contrast this slide to tyranny and demonstrate that Britain thrives when it pursues ideas of liberty and freedom. It was all very simplistic but also very compelling and easy to teach. It is no accident that the popular presses of the late 19th and early 20th century thrived on stories of imperial adventure and endeavour. This popular press became the spokesmen for imperial intervention as most of the 'educated classes' would have been taught little else to oppose those ideas.

Early Twentieth Century
Teaching British Empire
Boys of the Empire
Nationalism and patriotism began to reach its hallmark in the Edwardian period when schools were encouraged to extend the leaving age. In 1902, the Balfour Act took control of all Grammar schools for the first time. Up until this time, they had been charitable or locally provided schools. Local Education Authorities were set up to systematise the provision of education - although most students still left school at 11 and with very little historical education at all. But more did stay on, some went to higher elementary schools to learn more maths and science but the number who went to grammar schools increased too. The curriculum was now supposed to be under the control of these LEAs but they tended to keep and maintain the patriotic elements of the old charity schools.

Teaching British Empire
Grammar School
1904 saw the creation of Empire Day by Lord Meath as a way of popularising the concept of Empire. It was to be held on Queen Victoria's birthday, despite the fact that she had died three years earlier. It was actually an idea taken from the dominions - Canada had been celebrating her birthday since 1845. Teachers and headmasters were encouraged to develop assemblies and lessons with pan-imperial themes. The students would then be rewarded with a half day off to celebrate the institution. This showed that the government was happy to patronise and expand on imperial themes especially in the aftermath of the Boer War but also with the rising Empire of Germany to face. Educational policy and popular culture were being harnessed to help foreign and defence policy.

Teaching British Empire
Empire Day
The popular reaction to the outbreak of World War One can be seen as evidence that the schools had done little to train critical faculties. Rather, the patriotic curriculum delivered exactly what was required of them, wave upon wave of volunteers for the armed services. In 1914, Britain was alone of the major protagonists to not require conscription. So many volunteers heeded Kitchener's Call to Arms that conscription could be put off until as late as 1916 as they struggled to train, uniform and arm the plethora of volunteers. Even then, it was largely due to the efficiency of the Killing Fields in France that more manpower was required and not lack of enthusiasm from the population at large.

The national response to war also led to a national interest in the provision of education. As the state took more and more control of the levers of industry and services, so it increased its participation in the provision of education. In 1918, the Fisher Act took educational responsibilities for Secondary Education away from Local Education Authorities and put it directly in to the hands of the central government. It also increased the age of leaving for all students to 14. The British government had been impressed with the calibre of German soldiers who had been taught far more systematically and for longer than the British soldiers had been. It was also felt that the modern battlefield and economy would require better skilled and trained people to man them.

Teaching British Empire
The Spirit that Won the War
However, despite attempts to take more control over the provision of education, the effects of the Great War would be long lasting and traumatic for many years to come. Few families in Britain had not been touched by the war and a generation of teachers would enter the profession scarred by memories of the war, whether directly or indirectly. Many teachers vowed to veer away from unthinking patriotism and began to teach a more critical approach to the 'national story'. Although not a British book, Erich Remarque's 'All Quiet on the Western Front' published in the 1920s gives a nice example of this transition when German soldiers recall the proud patriotic history taught to them by their teacher and compared it to the horrors that they actually faced on the battlefield. This kind of transition was happening across Europe and also in Britain with plays like R.C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End or Siegfried Sassoon's Memoirs of an Infantry Officer.

Teaching British Empire
Cable Street
Furthermore, the development of left wing politics in the Post-Great War period saw the rise of a new dynamic in the teaching profession. Socialists and Communists were less interested in the roles of individuals, kings and generals. They were interested in the history of the working classes and of the oppressed. Some teachers began to teach a bottom up approach to history. In an imperial context this meant that they were more likely to sympathise with the aspirations of the colonists rather than the colonisers. It is no accident that Gandhi was greeted like a hero in the East End of London in 1931. Class consciousness brought a new way of looking at Britain's 'national story'. It was heightened by events in Europe as Communists took control in the Soviet Union and Fascists in Italy and Germany. There seemed to be evidence of powerful forces in action; the idea of stages of historical development and that the imperial stage may well be ending soon. The Spanish Civil War would seem to provide evidence that the stakes were increasing. An unthinkingly positive portrayal of imperialism was no longer adequate. British ideas of liberty, fairness and democracy (for themselves if not for everyone else) would need defending. Pacifists were equally adamant that war was not the answer to the world's problems. The thirties would see the passive distribution of an agreed story challenged like never before.

The Impact of the Second World War
When war did break out in 1939, the country gave a much more thoughtful and pragmatic response than it had 25 years earlier. There was not the unthinking patriotic response to the call of arms. Rather, volunteers steadfastly and earnestly reported for duty with the vast majority aware of what was at stake and what they were fighting for. In the early stages of the War, Britain appeared to be fighting both totalitarian ideologies after the Nazi-Soviet Pact. It seemed as if the democracies were taking on the autocracies in a war of virtue.

The war itself was very disruptive to the teaching of history. Technological changes would allow for an attempt to remedy the fact that students might be scattered all over the country thanks to evacuation or that their teachers had joined up and gone to war. The radio was used to produce educational programs that could be transmitted to students wherever they were in the UK. This innovation would put imperial topics into the context of a war for survival. The empire was portrayed as a source of strength and pride although it was hard to hide from the facts of defeat in places like Singapore and North Africa. Despite these inconveniences, the airwaves were used as a way of promoting imperial unity but it would also tackle ideas of the colonies being rewarded for the sacrifices and the help that they were providing. In a way, these ideas and concepts would soften up and prepare the population for the post-war decolonisation period.

Once again, war saw a centralising tendency in government. The fact that it was a coalition government with significant Liberal and especially Labour input meant that proposed changes to the educational system were to be profound. The 1944 Education Act transformed the educational landscape in Britain with a massive expansion of secondary education. There were to be three types of schools, grammar schools, technical schools and secondary modern schools. The students were to be assessed for the most appropriate level by means of an exam called the 11+. All students were to stay in school at least until the age of 15 which was later raised to 16. The effect was to democratise the educational system to a remarkable extent. Large sections of the working class and especially young girls would attend school for far longer and reach significantly higher levels of education than any previous generation had managed to achieve. The impact on history teaching was that its value was often used as a differentiating topic. It was portrayed as and perceived to be a more intellectually demanding topic and so was promoted heavily in the grammar schools but left to founder in the technical and secondary modern schools -- where more vocational topics were thought to be more appropriate. Those who could attain high grades were encouraged to take O-levels at the age of 16 whilst the remainder were offered CSEs - a lower level certificate or dropped the subject altogether at the age of 14.

Teaching British Empire
1950s History Lesson
The content of history lessons in the post war period reflected the growing ambivalence to Britain's empire in general. As Britain abandoned India and saw nasty wars for independence in Palestine and Malaya, the unalloyed positives of empire were hard to keep portraying. There were certainly many teachers who tried to teach about the traditional role of empire, but it was proving harder and harder to maintain the fiction of Britain's pre-eminent position when it was clearly suffering decline - especially compared to the new superpowers of the Soviet Union and the United States of America.

There is a common misconception that history lessons were delivering a constant diet of imperial tub-thumping lessons for much of the Twentieth Century. David Cannadine and the Institute of Historical Research have conclusively provided enough evidence to show that this simply was not the case. Of course, some teachers did try and go back to the old traditional 'national story', but plenty of other teachers did not. Cannadine's research suggests that it was much more varied. In the days before a National Curriculum in Britain, teachers did have a lot of freedom to decide the content of courses and lessons for themselves. Lessons across the country were incredibly diverse; some did Medieval, some the Tudors, others concentrated on Nineteenth Century domestic politics and plenty went back to the Greeks and Romans again. In short, there was no 'agreed' formula or syllabus. What did change in the post-war years was a move away from content driven lessons to skills based ones. This was characterised as 'New History' teaching and became all the vogue in the 1960s and 70s.

'New History'
Teaching British Empire
Comprehensive School
The 'New History' ideas emphasised the importance of transferable skills. So analysing sources or tracking data became the focus of lessons. It also emphasised the idea of 'empathy' and 'sympathy' to those who had traditionally been ignored or sidelined in history. In short, it valued a 'bottom up' approach rather than the traditional 'top down' one. Social history took central stage and Kings, battles and generals were downgraded in relevance and importance. Old-fashioned lessons were thrown out and new ideas, concepts and areas were brought in. The new comprehensive schools replacing the tiered educational system used since 1944 and their more democratic and equal nature seemed entirely in keeping with this new dynamic force. Old fashioned 'content' lessons were fast being phased out or portrayed as 'boring', 'irrelevant' and 'old hat'.

Consequently, imperial history began to become highly unfashionable - with the exception of slavery. Slavery fit the bill for being a bottom up, experiential and empathetic subject. Nearly all other imperial topics were sidelined, dropped or downgraded. In a post-colonial and, from 1973, a newly 'European' nation empire was seen to have become an irrelevance - worse than that - an embarrassment. If it appeared in schools at all, it was portrayed as a source of shame or revulsion. Patriotism and nationalism similarly became unpopular as Britain tied itself in knots with angst about how much show of pride in British achievements was too much. The changing ethnic make up of Britain also helped complicate these emotions as multi-cultural ideas were balanced against charges of patronising attitudes or downright racism. It is ironic that the reason for why Britain was becoming a multicultural country was being removed from the classrooms just as the sons, daughters, grandsons and granddaughters of empire began attending those same schools. By the 1980s, empire was a dirty word.

The growth of 'New History' also accompanied another technological change that would have lasting consequences for the study of history; television. More and more programs were created for schools and for the public at large. Programs such as 'How we used to live' took a fictional family and imagined how it may have reacted or been influenced by the historical events around them. This experiential approach was widely used by schools across the country. One of the problems of the approach is one that would also afflict various historical and Hollywood films, namely that it took liberties with stories and fictionalised large swathes of the storyline. It became harder and harder for students and teachers alike to tell what really happened and what people thought may have happened. A 'good yarn' or an 'enjoyable lesson' became more important than truth or even an attempt at truth. Historians and politicians began to question the increasingly content free nature of history lessons. By the 1980s, some felt that the pendulum had swung too far away from knowledge.

The National Curriculum
Teaching British Empire
Margaret Thatcher
Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s introduced a 'National Curriculum' in order to try and bring some standardisation across all subjects taught in the country. Up until this point, it was pot luck how much history was taught and what periods were taught. O-level papers and CSEs had dozens of questions from all sorts of obscure periods in the hope that someone might be able to answer at least two or three of the questions asked. The National Curriculum would change all that. It was at this time that the history teaching profession rose up to protect its profession and to prevent having an overly prescriptive syllabus forced on them. History teachers knew the dangers of brainwashing and indoctrination and fought a painful rearguard action to prevent the Conservative Party writing an overly proscriptive curriculum for the entire nation. Margaret Thatcher in her memoirs actually claims that she found the battles with historians and history teachers over the content of the National Curriculum as being the most difficult of her entire career. She said that she found it easier fighting the Argentinians in the Falkland Islands than she did dealing with the history profession. The end result was a compromise, history teachers were the last to concede the idea of a National Curriculum but insisted on a wide range of topics and periods to counteract any suggestion of a simplistic island nation story being imposed from above. A chronological order became the bedrock of the new Curriculum, but there was some freedom for what could be taught within the chronologically based topics. British history became pre-eminent once more, but the empire failed to follow it in any meaningful way. The only exception, once again, was slavery. This was portrayed as a way of incorporating a historical narrative for the descendants of many Afro-Caribbeans who were now attending schools in Britain. However, the descendants of Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis, amongst others, were not to be systematically taught the connections between their ancestors' countries of birth and Britain. An opportunity to re-introduce imperial topics in a meaningful manner had been lost.

Teaching British Empire
Extent of Empire in 1915
Which brings us to the modern day. The latest 2013 iteration of the National Curriculum has made it possible to include a few imperial topics although these are at the discretion of the teacher and school concerned. It is not mandated and alternative topics could be taught instead of the imperial topics in the curriculum. It is still surprising that an institution that lasted half a millennium, involved millions upon millions of people, that was responsible for some of the biggest population shifts and technology transfers in history and influencing nearly every corner of the globe should be largely ignored or consciously side-stepped by the British political and educational establishments. Many of the world's current borders were drawn by imperialists and many of today's geo-political problems have roots to the imperial age in one form or another. The empire does not need to be taught in an overly hagiographic or overly critical way, but it should be taught, debated and discussed nonetheless. If the increasingly multi-cultural population of Britain is to understand what it means to be British in the modern world then they need to understand what role the empire played in that story. The empire was a vast institution that touched so many peoples' lives both positively and negatively. Imperial history should not be ignored, it should not even be an optional extra, it should play a fundamental role in the educational experience of every child in Britain.

Teaching British Empire

How We Used to Live
Preston's Empire Day Celebrations
One Family
The Red Bits are British
Jeremy Paxman on Empire
Institute of Historical Research
Further Reading
Boys of the Empire
Ed by Edwin J Brett
Empire in Question: Reading, Writing, and Teaching British Imperialism
by Antoinette Burton
The Right Kind of History: Teaching the Past in Twentieth-Century England
by David Cannadine
Victorian Education (Victorian Britain)
by Peter Hepplewhite
Ghosts of Empire: Britain's Legacies in the Modern World
by Kwasi Kwarteng
The Imperial Curriculum: Racial Images and Education in the British Colonial Experience
Ed by J. A. Mangan
Education and Empire: Naval Tradition and England's Elite Society
by David McLean
Empire: What Ruling the World has done to the British
by Jeremy Paxman
All Quiet on the Western Front
by Erich Remarque
The British Empire Article: Themes and Perspectives
by Sarah E. Stockwell
The Downing Street Years
by Margaret Thatcher

Armed Forces | Art and Culture | Articles | Biographies | Colonies | Discussion | Glossary | Home | Library | Links | Map Room | Sources and Media | Science and Technology | Search | Student Zone | Timelines | TV and Film

by Stephen