What is Impact of Omission?
Impact of Omission is an initiative that started with a survey trying to ascertain the true degree to which British colonial history is taught in schools, and evolved into a campaign to back a petition hosted on the parliament petition website: “Teach Britain's colonial past as part of the UK's compulsory curriculum”. Although, that is not all we do - we also provide letter templates that use the data from the survey as proof in demanding change from schools and from MPs. And, as of the 15th of June, we have collaborated with The Black Curriculum on a new survey that looks at the place of Black history in our education system in increased depth from our original survey.
Do you mind introducing yourselves and your involvement in the initiative?
Our names are Esmie and Nell. We met at secondary school and are currently at separate universities studying a BA in English and Classics and a BSc in Biology respectively. We are co-founders of the Impact of Omission, one of many similar initiatives with the ultimate goal of decolonizing the curriculum in the U.K.
Can you tell us a bit about your process of building the Impact of Omission?
After the death of George Floyd, we had a conversation discussing racism in Britain, and both agreed that there was an initial lack of acknowledgement of the systemic racism and history of colonisation in the U.K. From this conversation, we both had the same thought - that an awareness of the problem starts with education. We realised that neither of us was taught in-depth about slavery and colonisation by our primary or secondary schools. We wanted to see if others felt the same way, and thus created the Impact of Omission survey. Following its incredible and overwhelming response, we realised that this problem was felt and seen all across the U.K., across many social groups and ages. We decided to kick it up a notch and build the Impact of Omission website, this has letters to send to MPs and Schools, with results from the survey, calling for change. We had also initially wanted to send out a petition, but this had to pass government checks first. On the 10th of June, it was approved and on the 11th, a Thursday, we shared it publicly. By the end of the weekend, it had over 200,000 signatures.
What are some interesting facts, or facts that you found shocking from your survey?
Although we did believe that the results of the survey would show a difference in what was being taught, we didn’t think the gap would be so large. The fact that 72.1% learnt about the Battle of Hastings, whereas only 9.9% learnt about the role of slavery in the British Industrial Revolution is shocking, especially since industrialisation is a very popular topic at A-Level. This again suggests a purposeful omission of topics that paint Britain in a (deservedly) bad light.
You have had INCREDIBLE success with your survey and ongoing petition, how have you managed to do so?
A lot of it was down to luck, especially on Twitter, where Esmie’s initial tweet was retweeted by famous figures such as Irvine Welsh, and Emma Watson. The response from everyone on there was very positive and spread surprisingly wide. On that note, the hugely positive response we got was not exclusive to Twitter. Our friends all shared the petition on Instagram and Facebook, spreading the survey and petition far and wide through group chats, and familial circles. We’re so grateful to everyone who signed, completed, and shared everything we’ve put out - the response wouldn’t have been nearly so incredible without them.
Who would you say is to blame for the lack of a holistic curriculum?
Micheal Gove and Dominic Cummings. They are the ones who actively decided to remove it from the curriculum - Gove in his capacity as Secretary of State for Education, and Cummings as his ‘special advisor’. Gove’s reforms have allowed teachers who don’t want to breach topics such as colonisation and slavery to avoid teaching them completely. However, it is also largely a fault of the society we live in. Many teachers today were also not educated on these topics, so may not feel they have the facilities to teach them themselves - especially if they have no concrete resources to help them. This has created a positive feedback loop whereby the topics can be avoided more and more.
What would be your ideal history curriculum?
Ideally, it would be one that just tells the truth. That is all we are asking for - that the purposeful omission of the contribution and atrocities faced by BAME people at the hands of the British is undone. This does not mean completely removing what is already taught. Instead, adding to and augmenting it to fit the truthful order of events. For example, adding more concrete lessons on the slave trade to industrialisation modules.
On your website, you mention Gove's decision to revoke the compulsory study of Britain's history of colonisation and slavery, what are your thoughts on the removal of statues?
We fully support the removal of monuments to white supremacists. It is a disgrace that they still stand. They should have come down a long time ago. Additionally, their life aside, the majority of statues commemorating success are of white men. This creates a very exclusive atmosphere, especially in large cities such as London which are meant to be centres of diversity and inclusion. In fact, the idea of a statue is actually quite an outdated one. These bronze figures were erected before the concept of fame and the internet could even be imagined. They’re there to make sure these people aren’t forgotten but now with the internet, all information about them can be found with a simple search. We think the taking down of these statues creates the space for a new type of immortalisation/memorial. What does the concept of a statue translate to in 2020? Art, media and technology have come on so far, and these empty spaces could become something really beautiful.
Why do you think the government decided to omit, except for 'post-colonial guilt,' the compulsory study of Britain's history of colonisation and slavery?
Systemic racism. The current curriculum teaches a history where groups of white men built the country up themselves. They want to highlight the role of British thinkers and not “taint” their reputation with the atrocities that made their work possible. A lot of this does come from feeling post-colonial guilt and not wanting to admit that anything in Britain’s history was wrong.
What do you think is the impact of omission for our generation and the next?
We firmly believe that the impact of these omissions lie at the foundation of the way that racism works in this country. You have EDL members in Trafalgar square saying that BAME people should be grateful to Churchill for ‘killing Hitler’ because Hitler and the Nazis wanted to throw BAME people in concentration camps. They obviously do not know that Churchill had no qualms about throwing BAME people in concentration camps, especially Black people - as evidenced by his concentration camps in Kenya in 1952. By educating the youngest generations on the atrocities of the past, they can better understand the world today and help push towards a better future.
What are your next steps?
Our main aim is for both schools and the government to play an active role in changing what is currently taught. With our petition out and the letters on the website, we are hoping that individuals will take interest and help us push these institutions to make this change.