Ending invisibility

Helen Hayes on the Windrush scandal and reforming the history curriculum

My constituency has a strong and direct connection with the arrival of the Empire Windrush in 1948. Around 200 Windrush passengers came to the Labour Exchange on Coldharbour Lane, finding work and settling in the surrounding area of Brixton. The Windrush generation has helped to form and sustain the identity of our part of south London, working at King’s College Hospital, on London Transport, starting many local businesses, churches and community projects.

As a consequence, when the Windrush scandal broke in 2018 – the same year that we celebrated the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush – many of my constituents were affected, facing demands from the Home Office for proof of their right to be in the UK which they could not possibly meet, and subsequently with the threat of deportation, loss of employment, housing and benefits. It is impossible to overstate how deep the impacts of the Windrush scandal run. For people who had come to this country as British citizens, at the invitation of the British government – to contribute in multiple different ways to our economy and communities, who had made their lives and their homes here, paid taxes and brought up their children here – to be told they were no longer welcome represented the most profound and hurtful rejection.

Much has been written about the scandal itself and the government’s response, and we are still battling for justice and compensation for many Windrush citizens. It is important to me that, as well as seeking justice for all those directly affected, we reflect on what the Windrush scandal tells us about the state of our national identity and we think practically about how we can stop such a thing from ever happening again.

One of the most shocking aspects of the debates which followed the Windrush scandal was the basic lack of understanding of some members of the Tory government of the implications of the 1948 British Nationality Act which extended British citizenship to Commonwealth citizens. So many times in the House of Commons the plight of Windrush citizens was inaccurately presented as a visa problem rather than a wrongful denial of existing citizenship. At the same time, the narrative around the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush all too often characterised this event as the arrival of the first black people in the UK, when in fact we know of black Britons as long ago as Roman times.

That led me to reflect on how our basic understanding of our national identity could have become so distorted and inaccurate. British history is a history of migration: whether our ancestors were Roman, Norman or Viking invaders, Huguenots fleeing persecution or Irish immigrants fleeing starvation, whether our family story is rooted in the shameful history of colonialism, whether our forebears came to the UK as freed slaves in the 19th century or as Commonwealth citizens after WW2, we can all find our story in the history of migration.

More than one in six children aged 0-15 in England and Wales are from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. BAME young people make up more than a quarter of state-funded primary and secondary school pupils in England, but despite Britain’s increasingly diverse classrooms the history taught in schools remains focused on narrow and celebrated accounts of “our island story” or “the Tudors and the Tudors and the Tudors” which are inaccurate and incomplete.

Data reveals that this narrow curriculum is struggling to engage students from all backgrounds. Research by the Royal Historical Society highlights a low uptake of history for both GCSE and undergraduate study by BAME students. Students understandably struggle to place themselves within the narrative of British history or contextualise their studies in the wider global story.

Racial and ethnic inequality affects history more acutely than other disciplines. What we were taught in school has a huge impact on our understanding of history, yet history is not a science; it is never complete and it is never completely objective. Sources and perspectives matter. Whose story is told informs our understanding of who was important, who were the heroes and who were the villains. A partial telling can leave people and communities entirely invisible and leave stories that affected hundreds of thousands of people completely untold.

Our understanding of history in turn informs our sense of national identity and our understanding of the word “British” – of who is included in that term. Too often, what we are taught in school can inform a characterisation of Britishness which is only partial, and therefore inaccurate.

The current history curriculum offers some opportunities to teach migration and modules are available within the GCSE syllabus of two examination boards. However, the optional nature of this content means that it is currently taught to less than 10% of students. Innovative work has been carried out by the Runnymede Trust, the Black Curriculum and others to engage young people and teachers with more expansive, representative and inclusive histories of Britain. The lesson from this work is that there is strong appetite from young people and teachers from all backgrounds for history teaching that reflects a broader range of voices and experiences. Yet, there is also a lack of confidence, support and resources for teachers who want to embed these histories in their classrooms.

In our society, which is both diverse and divided, we need the teaching of history to be inclusive, to allow everyone to find their place in it and have an inclusive understanding of “Britishness”. That means not only making migration content available but signposting it effectively and making more of it compulsory. It also means making additional training and continuing professional development available to teachers to equip them to teach new material. It means working to realise a vision in which everyone, whatever their heritage, can say with pride: “Our history is British history”.

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