Is Black History Month still relevant in British schools today?

jesse owensBlack History Month found its way to the UK in 1987 following its successful implementation in the USA and Canada. Its role was to celebrate and inform the public about all aspects of black history and culture. In the early days, primary schools usually marked the event through a series of assemblies focusing on some significant black individuals like Mary Seacole and Jesse Owens or events like the Windrush.

Since then, a great deal of work has been done to educate and support teachers in looking at black history, not just as something to be celebrated in one month but throughout the year. The inspirational work of Hilary Clare and pioneering groups like the Northamptonshire Black History Association led to the introduction of enlightened schemes of work written on such topics as black migration and on significant figures like the black professional footballer Walter Tull. With so many advances taking place, is there still a place for Black History Month? Talking to primary teachers the initial reaction is no. They hold the view that it is far more important to have black history threaded throughout the topics we teach rather than a tokenistic annual event. However it would appear that there is a strong lobby saying that enough is still not being done. An e-petition set up earlier this year on making the study of black history in schools compulsory gained over 43,000 signatures.

My first reaction was to agree that Black History Month was no longer relevant, but then I began to consider how the 2014 changes to the history curriculum might have had a negative impact on the inclusion of black history. The strong emphasis on pre-1066 at KS2 could have a significant impact. Yes, Seacole is recommended at Key Stage 1 and the transatlantic slave trade in KS3 is a suggested topic, but is their inclusion merely to appease those who were concerned about the absence of black history in the first draft? These suggestions could hardly be seen as a purposeful thread running throughout the curriculum and so does this mean the changes will have resulted in a reversal of all the hard work undertaken in schools? References to the contribution of the black community could now be confined to just a few passing references within units, as in pointing out that some black soldiers served in the Roman army.

To remedy this problem, the post-1066 study at KS2 would be the ideal unit to look in greater depth at an area of black history and culture. Suggestions from teachers include a study of migration, possibly with a local theme or a theme of music and culture with potential links to protest.

Key Stage 1 would appear less problematic if choices of focus are enlightened. The study of significant individuals continues to offer many opportunities and even the list of suggested figures includes some black individuals. History within living memory has the potential to focus on family and grandparents and to look at the culture and heritage of the ethnic groups within the school and local community. One teacher working in a predominantly black area chose to look at ‘Carnival’ as part of local history, and this could also link into national events.

Responding to celebration and commemoration of anniversaries also provides opportunities to focus on the contribution of the black community. Most primary schools are marking the centenary of the First World War in some way. The contribution of black troops is a strong area of potential focus. There is a wealth of resources now available on the black professional footballer and first black officer, Walter Tull. Also, an event such as the sinking of the troopship the SS Mendi in February 1917, carrying a contingent of the South African Native Labour Corps, could be studied. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission has some excellent resources on both the Mendi and Tull.

Could black history feature within your locality study either at KS1 or KS2? A possible area would be to include black figures in a study of individuals who shaped the local community. The excellent mylearning website offers many ideas for this focus. One is the study of George Africanus from Sierra Leone, a black entrepreneur who lived in Nottingham in the late 18th–early 19th century.

What is happening in your school in October to mark Black History Month? A government spokesman responded to the e-petition by saying, “Black history is firmly in the curriculum.” Would you agree? If so, does this mean Black History Month is no longer relevant?

Here are some ideas for resources if you would like some help getting started either in integrating black history within your curriculum or as part of Black History Month.

  • The tragedy of the SS Mendi lesson pack -  a resource for KS3 that could be adapted for KS2.
  • An excellent DVD, ‘Let Us Die Like Brothers’, is available free to order from CWGC.
  •  has a specific area with resources related to Black History Month.
  • has a ‘Diversity’ section that provides ideas for remembering the contribution of all soldiers in past and present conflicts

Bev Forrest has taught in primary and secondary schools in the North of England and now trains primary teachers. She is a member of the Historical Association primary committee and is on the editorial board of Primary History. She is also a quality mark assessor for history.

Bev was also the history consultant of Voyagers, an exciting new history and geography resource for primary schools. Find out more here.


English and Literacy, Geography, History, History and Geography, Voyagers

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