Toppling Edward Colston's statue taught people more about slavery than UK schools ever will – unless we decolonise education

Let’s be honest, many people had to do a Wikipedia search after viewing the images of the statue of Edward Colston being toppled and plunged into Bristol’s harbour.

Even then, the symbolism of dumping the bronze structure into a harbour from which many slave ships had sailed was lost on a basic internet search.

Of course, the crimes of Colston, the horrors of his Royal Africa Company, the lives of the hundreds of thousands of men, women and children who had their chests branded with ‘RAC’ should mean something to us all. We should know how many human beings perished and were thrown into the Atlantic during the perilous crossing from Africa to The Americas.

We should recognise that Colston was far from the only perpetrator of such horrific crimes against humanity with many others immortalised around the country with their own monuments or buildings or street names. In our schools there is little or no mention of colonialism, of slavery, of man-made famines in Bengal, of the Amritsar Massacre, the Mau Mau Uprising or concentration camps in South Africa.

However, walk through many schools and it won’t be difficult to find representations of a history that is thought of in bland and domesticated terms, with the extraordinary violence of Britain's imperial past airbrushed away.

The wealth of this nation was built on slavery, colonialism and brutality. The failure of the government to educate its children about this means that all children have been taught a distorted narrative of Britain which is far from honest.

This should be to our national shame. Is an education an education at all if we are not taught the truth?

This failing cannot be laid at the door of our educators, our teachers nor our teaching assistants, who do their utmost to provide a broad and balanced education despite a ruthless accountability regime, narrowing curriculum and climate of continuous funding cuts.

The blame here lies solely with the policymakers.

Teacher autonomy and professional control is something that has been continually chipped away at for decades.

What our children are taught in schools continues to be dictated by parliamentarians who often have little or no background in the classroom. The National Curriculum of 2014 was the product of Michael Gove and his then special advisor, Dominic Cummings – neither of whom, I believe, are educationalists of any sort.

To get to a point where all young people are given an honest education, we must first recognise that we need to “decolonise education and fundamentally shift the power relations in education. We need to shift the decision-making for what is taught, and how it is taught, out of Whitehall and put it in the hands of educators and our communities.

The decolonising agenda is something I am proud the National Education Union has been able to mobilise hundreds of educators around in the past year. We know we are not the only ones who believe children should be taught the realities of history.

Following the demise of the Colston statue, MPs such as Zarah Sultana called for the truths of colonialism to be taught in schools along with over 200,000 people signing a petition calling for the same. However, to fundamentally decolonise education, we must embed antiracism at every level of education.

This means organising for black history and achievement to be celebrated in schools all year round, and not just one month in October. This means organising for a profession that is truly reflective of the communities they serve. This means we must all have difficult and honest conversations as a society about how we can all be better.

Following the horrific murder of George Floyd, we have seen protests on a global scale involving millions of people. This should be a turning point in the fight against racism.

I believe an anti-racist majority exists in this country who, through our collective endeavour, can make sure we finally teach the truth on Britain’s past.

Daniel Kebede is a teacher and senior vice president of the National Education Union

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