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Last Updated: Monday, 12 March 2007, 12:39 GMT
School history 'must diversify'
By Lord Adonis
Schools minister

Slavery, as depicted in BBC programme Breaking the Chains
Children should learn about issues such as slavery, it is argued
I believe passionately in the benefits of historical study.

As an historian myself, I recognise that the discipline teaches respect for values that lie outside personal experience.

It fosters humility through encounters with human endeavour that confound preconceived ideas.

History is truly a subject that expands our horizons and fires our imaginations.

Black History Month is now an annual fixture in this country. Each October museums, local councils and a host of community and arts bodies organise events demonstrating the cultural richness of the peoples who make up our society.

'Common roots'

These exhibitions and performances reveal the distinct contributions of many ethnic groups to our common identity - not simply in terms of immigrant communities from the recent past but through centuries of contact.

Meanwhile, countless lessons associated with Black History Month take place in our schools, exposing young people to the heritage of their fellow pupils and our common roots.

This is clearly welcome and helps to put our modern culture in context, especially the hybridised language and music in which many young people now revel.

Lord Adonis
This country's black past precedes the Windrush generation by several centuries
Lord Adonis

However, the government is determined that this healthy learning experience is not merely an isolated exchange every autumn.

For while the flexible national curriculum encourages teachers to choose content likely to resonate in their multicultural classrooms, in practice some have found it difficult to do so.

There are several reasons for this, from the relative familiarity of traditional subjects to the fear of misrepresenting certain topics clouded in controversy.

Yet the benefits of exploring such issues as the transatlantic slave trade - and Britain's considerable role in both its expansion and final closure - are manifold.

That is why the Department for Education and Skills is backing initiatives to support teachers as they introduce pupils to these very issues.

We have funded a Historical Association project, set to report next spring, which is exploring ways of teaching complex and emotive historical subjects to children of all ages.

Slave trade

These might include past perceptions of Islam and the causes of genocides, as well as the slave trade.

Similarly, the government is currently considering how to commemorate next year's bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade in the British empire.

Educational programmes are obviously central to these discussions. In the meantime, DfES and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport are assisting teachers in this area by funding the Understanding Slavery initiative.

This is a partnership involving museums in Hull, Bristol, Greenwich and Liverpool, which encourages teachers and pupils to immerse themselves in this complex subject through their collections.

The initiative - and its excellent website (see link, right) - is particularly useful for students undertaking related work at Key Stages 3 and 4 of the national curriculum.

In the longer term, our goal is for teachers to feel confident enough to introduce their students to a broader range of black historical experiences.

After all, this country's black past precedes the Windrush generation by several centuries and the African past precedes the continental havoc of the slave trade by millennia.

The teaching of history has never stood still.

These days, it must be driven from the bottom up - reflecting the personal histories and curiosities of our diverse population.

What do you think of the comments made by Lord Adonis?

Children should learn about slavery, afterall Britain was very involved in it, there were not as many black slaves in Britain as there were in America but we did kidnap/steal indigenous peoples from Africa and transport them to "the colonies". It was a shameful episode in our history and the history of mankind and therefore should NOT be overlooked.
Denise Wilden, Maidenhead, Uk

Speaking as an Anglo-Norman-Celt (most of whose ancestors were here before William I), I enjoy Black History Month each year, as the displays and exhibitions put on (by Birmingham any way) are always very interesting and enlightening. The British have never had a very good idea of what was going on in the rest of the world before they got there!
Janet, Brum

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