How Africa Is Misrepresented In UK Schools And How To Start To Fix It

Despite, or perhaps because of, Britain’s long and close relations with Africa, representation of the continent in its school curricula remains outdated and sometimes problematic.

A report released today by the UK’s All-Party Parliamentary Group for Africa, in partnership with the Royal African Society and Justice to History, finds that many British children leave school with little knowledge or mistaken impressions about Africa. This can be damaging – to the children, to Britain’s diverse society, and to UK relations with Africa – and needs to be corrected. But the report also makes clear that this can be easily remedied with some simple actions taken by those most concerned – schools, teachers, exam boards, publishers, the regulatory body Ofsted, and the government.

The problems with the current curricula involve both a view of Africa – one that highlights poverty, slavery, and backwardness and leaves intact the image of the continent as an exotic and primitive place in need of Britain’s support – and the sidelining of the experience of Britons of African heritage in this country. Further, Africa is often discussed only in terms of its relationship with the West, and very rarely in its own right.

It is important for pupils of all backgrounds to have a more accurate picture of Africa, past and present, and a fuller understanding of the relationship between Britain and the continent in order to build a sound basis for relations in the future, both with the countries in Africa and – even more – within communities in the UK.

A proper understanding of the long and complex relationship between Africa and the UK needs to be consciously built into the curriculum. It is, for example, often thought that Africans arrived in Britain with the Windrush generation. In fact, Africans have been active members of British society since at least Roman Britain. Teaching in schools should include figures such as Joseph Emidy (1775-1835), the leader of the Truro Philharmonic Society who was a formerly enslaved Guinean, and the composer Samuel Coleridge Taylor from Croydon, who had star status in Victorian England and was of mixed Sierra Leonean and English origin. The contribution of African musicians to the musical culture of Britain long predates Osibisa in the late 1960s, including Henry VIII’s court trumpeter and the work of Fela Ransome-Kuti’s father, the Rev JJ, who recorded in London in 1922 on the Zonophone Record Label.

To explore these issues and present practical suggestions for educators and policy makers, the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Africa established a Committee of Inquiry, which I chaired, comprised of Parliamentarians from all the main UK parties. The Inquiry took oral evidence from experts and received dozens of written submissions from teachers, academics, students, policy experts, and activists. This evidence identified two key issues: that many people of African descent feel the present curriculum overlooks their perspective on Britain; and that people still have an outdated and incomplete image of Africa and its links to the UK.

Education is key to shaping and reshaping the relationship, and improvements have started to be made.

The report identifies many positive examples of innovative programmes run in a number of British schools. Institutions too have come a long way. Until 2001, the British Museum’s African exhibits had been on display separately in the Museum of Mankind as “ethnographic material”, whereas now they have been integrated into the museum with galleries devoted to African art and artefacts, and learning about African cultures and histories is being actively promoted. Existing projects for primary schools are being supplemented by new initiatives for secondary age students. Today, for example, the British Museum and Royal African Society will launch a workshop on teaching African history in schools through new teaching resources on pre-colonial African Kingdoms.

This is one way that institutions can help build teachers’ confidence and knowledge of Africa and make changes to the curriculum exciting and enriching rather than risky and unnerving. This should also involve teachers, scholars, and communities working together to prepare new curriculum programmes for the study of Africa and the Diaspora in schools.

A wider range of ready-made resources needs to be available so that teachers can access better information about Africa and on the African experience in the UK more easily. Publishers themselves can promote innovation by commissioning new textbooks on African history and geography for Key Stage 3 (when pupils are 11-14 years old). Public funds should be unlocked so that institutions can expand the resources available for teachers in the classroom beyond those currently available.

One simple but symbolic step would be to remove the citizenship requirement for authors in all English Literature GCSE courses to be from the British Isles, allowing some of the rich and remarkable literature in English from Africa to be included. Teachers should be able to choose novels and plays written by authors in English from any time period or region. Government and examination boards should also reform examination frameworks in Geography and History, including Africa in the “modern world” section of GCSE and A-Levels History courses and not confining it to be an aspect of “development” in Geography.

All these recommendations from the report are simple and practical to put into action. All that is needed is the willingness and determination to do it on the part of teachers, schools, examination boards, government, and publishers. Everyone will benefit, so we must get on with it. The APPG for Africa will remain engaged to ensure that words are followed by action.

I and Bim Afolami MP met with the UK Secretary of State for Education, Nadhim Zahawi, in the course of the publication of this report to share its emerging findings. The Secretary of State clearly understands the crucial role of his department if the UK’s stated commitment to both equality and global Britain agenda are to be effectively delivered. The government has since published “Inclusive Britain” which gives welcome recognition to the importance of enhancing the teaching of shared history.

The classroom experience of our entire nation’s youth and their encounter with the great African continent needs to reflect its richness, diversity, and the complexities and challenges of its interaction with Britain.

This report, with its call to action on the part of a range of partners in academia, publishing, teachers, schools, government, exam boards and communities, offers some practical suggestions as to how this might be achieved. They are readily implementable where there is the will to do so and to make some modest resources available to underpin them. The APPG on Africa intends to remain closely engaged with following it up.

The story of this ancient relationship is an ongoing and exciting one. Hopefully for both Britain and Africa the best is yet to come.

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