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The Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities Report and the geography curriculum

The CRED Report proposes that the geography curriculum be used to teach a “unifying sense of Britishness”. Here, Decolonising Geography educators argue that we should focus instead on how places have been shaped by competing dynamics of power, resistance and agency

The report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities argues that a “well-sequenced, knowledge rich curriculum based around subject disciplines, can help students to acquire a sense of place and a framework for understanding cultural diversity” (pg 92). The purpose of the curriculum as presented by the report ought to be to represent the past and the present in such a way that it creates “a sense of belonging amongst pupils” by ensuring that “children acquire a proper grounding in the national story, including its multi-ethnic character, in secondary school”(pg 89).

The report supports this assertion with a quote from the work of E. D. Hirsch Jr to support this perspective. From Hirsch’s book How to Educate a Citizen, it draws the following: “the key practical matter to settle is determining which are the specific elements of knowledge about … [listed ethnic groups] and other minorities that need to be shared going forward” (pg 89). This suggests that teaching about the diversity of British society can be accomplished by drawing up lists of core knowledge about different ethnic groups and then ensuring that this core knowledge is packaged into the curriculum in such a way as to ensure that all students “can identify themselves as part of British history” and can link “the story of different ethnic groups to a unifying sense of Britishness” (pg 89). This framework places responsibility on curriculum makers to decide on what is needed, or more importantly, not needed, and leads to bigger questions about the purpose and definition of UK children ‘understanding cultural diversity’. Should the role of education be to promote homogeneity and unity, or should it be to support young people in recognising, acknowledging and living with difference?

Teaching a ‘unifying sense of Britishness’ – The geography curriculum and urban change in Liverpool

The report highlights two case studies of lesson resources that illustrate how this “unifying sense of Britishness” might be taught in schools. One of these, produced by Oak National Academy, is a set of geography curriculum resources, and it will be our focus here.

The report notes that “Oak National Academy is the government-backed online academy created to support home learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.” The authors state that Oak “has been creating high-quality material and lesson plans for use online for free” (pg 90). As we seek to show here, based on the specific resources identified it is difficult to argue that the resources will enable students to develop the “proper grounding” in Britain’s “multi-ethnic character” that the report supposedly desires.

The report describes Oak’s resources on “Urban change in Liverpool” as being “an invaluable example of how the story of the modern UK can be taught through the prism of local areas,” and as being “a particularly effective example of teaching the impact of migration and diversity of the UK through materials, facts and historical accounts of a city or region.” Furthermore, the report suggests that “this material could be replicated for all regions and cities” in future. As a group of geography educators, we take issue with this assessment, and with the broader understanding of the relationships between education and racialisation put forward in the report. Below we outline a number of criticisms of this specific approach to teaching urban change in Britain:

1. The lessons fail to properly present a rounded picture of what we know about the relationship between urban change in Liverpool and processes associated with race, racism and racialisation

The Oak National Academy lesson entitled ‘Location and Importance of Liverpool’ does consider the historical significance of the city through the reference “the ports played a role in the growth of the British Empire” however this statement avoids and understates Liverpool’s centrality during the slave trade and British Empire which gave way to significant urban change within the city. The city derived great public and personal wealth from the slave trade which laid the foundations for the port’s future growth. It is astonishing, then, that this trade is not mentioned. The slave trade provided many jobs in Liverpool, there were many factories making chains, anchors, copper, iron and brass goods for the slave ships. Nor was Liverpool’s importance just about the trade in enslaved people. Hall et al (2014, pg 89) have shown, in their important book on the Legacies of British Slave-Ownership, that by the 1830s Liverpool was “the financial centre of the global slave-cotton industry.” No wonder, then, that Liverpool takes a prominent place in Sven Beckert’s (2014) Empire of Cotton: A New History of Global Capitalism. Beckert (2014, pg 200) argues that Liverpool should be understood as the “true centre of the world” in the 19th Century, and that its centrality was premised on “perilous, backbreaking labour” by dockworkers, many of them migrants from Ireland.

As a consequence of this labour, “Liverpool’s port was the epicenter of a globe-spanning empire,” and at the centre of that imperial network sat Liverpool’s cotton exchange (Beckert, 2014, pg 200). From here, Liverpool merchants made economic decisions the ramifications of which radiated out around the world. The slave trade, as well as the global trade in commodities produced using enslaved labour such as cotton and the wood that Liverpool’s ship-builders used to construct the ships that sustained the circum-Atlantic trade (Rediker, 2007), were thus at the heart of the flows of capital, goods and labour that drove urban change in Liverpool. Underplaying this leads the lessons to fundamentally misrepresent the history of urban change in Liverpool.

Other aspects of the role of racism and racialisation in urban change in Liverpool are equally ignored. For example, there is no mention in the lessons of the racially-motivated rioting that occurred in 1919. As Jacqueline Jenkinson (2009) shows in her tremendously important book Black 1919, Liverpool along with other port cities around the UK experienced racially motivated rioting and violence by white communities who perceived those racialised as Black to be an economic threat. Jenkinson shows that police officers handling the disturbances focused their response on the Black community, often taking people into custody based on their skin colour alone. Jenkinson shows that the belief that the Black community was responsible for the violence extended from the Chief Constable down to officers on the beat.

The events in Liverpool were amongst the worst racially motivated riots of that year, with many members of the Black community attacked and their homes vandalised. The Black community was made to carry documentary proof of residence even when they were British subjects on British soil, a practice that, as Laura Tabili (1994) shows at length in her book We Ask for British Justice: Workers and Racial Difference in Late Imperial Britain, was expanded nationwide following the passing of the Coloured Alien Seamen’s Order (1920). As Nadine El-Enany has argued, the term ‘alien’ itself became central to the “racial architecture” of British immigration policy through the first half of the 20th century as it was developed through successive instances of state legislation as a tool for racialising and othering communities across Britain, working to racialise communities as non-white, non-British and ‘other’, irrespective of whether or not those being defined as such were considered British subjects by virtue of having been born in a colonial territory (El-Enany, 2020, pg 36-72). What’s more, one of the primary responses by the government to these episodes of white rioting was to seek to repatriate members of the Black community to the colonies in the aftermath, with Liverpool only one amongst a number of cities where repatriation committees were established to carry out this work. The impact of the riots themselves radiated out across the African diaspora. For example, as Dave Featherstone has recently highlighted, a commission of enquiry into anti-colonial protests and rioting in Belize in later 1919 reported that an article in the Belize Independent on the racialised rioting in Cardiff and Liverpool that year was one of the motivating factors for unrest in the colonies (Featherstone, 2018).

Another instance of the failure to properly integrate processes of racialisation into the story of Liverpool’s urban change occurs in the coverage of the 1981 Toxteth riots. The lesson on ‘challenges of urban change within Liverpool-part1’ reduces the causes of the 1981 riots in Toxteth to economic factors. Again, this goes against some of the scholarly discussion of these events. For instance, John Belchem (2014) in his book Before the Windrush: Race relations in 20th-century Liverpool makes clear that the causes of the 1981 riots cannot be reduced simply to deprivation. As he writes, “other areas of Merseyside … endured worse levels of deprivation but had been riot-free” (Belchem, 2014, pg 254). Dianne Frost and Peter North (2014, pg 130-139) make a similar argument in their book Militant Liverpool: A City on the Edge. Heavy handed policing and racism played a role alongside economic factors in the events leading up to the riots, which lasted for nine days. Indeed it was Leroy Cooper’s arrest that lit the fuse for what was to follow. At that time, Merseyside Police had a reputation in the locality for stopping and searching Black youths under what was known as the ‘sus laws’. White and Black community leaders in Liverpool blamed the riots on police harassment and over-policing of the youngsters, and deep divisions existed between Black residents and police forces (Kaufmann, 1981). Furthermore, the chief constable at the time, explained away the events as ‘a crowd of Black hooligans intent on making life unbearable and indulging in criminal activities’ (Belchem, 2014, pg 252). Thus, to reduce the causes of the riots down to material deprivation is not only a gross misrepresentation but also fails to equip students with the knowledge to navigate the urban landscape of Liverpool today. 

2. The lessons present too many moments in the history of urban change in Britain in a ‘race free’ manner

The lesson on urban change considers challenges faced by Liverpudlians across education, housing, unemployment and health. However, at no point do the lessons engage with how these impact differently on racialised groups. The use of the 1981 riots in Toxteth as a ‘challenge’ facing the city for example, makes no reference to the ethnic make up of Liverpool 8, as it is known amongst locals and nor does it reference how unemployment had a disproportionate impact on minority groups.  Andy Beckett (2015) in his book Promised you a miracle, states that “a 1989 report on race relations in Liverpool by Lord Gifford, a radical QC, and Wally Brown, a well-informed Toxteth Black activist, concluded that for much of the 1980s, ‘the real Black youth unemployment figure in the Liverpool 8 area [was] 70–80%. The figure for young Black men – the least favourite recruits of employers in the city – was almost certainly even worse.’” The inner-city in the 1980s was increasingly seen as a racialised space where ‘riots’ and ‘race’ were linked, and this paved the way for increasing policy intervention. The inner-city was seen as a ‘problem’ area that needed to be controlled. Race and space are then linked not only in terms of how these spaces are imagined but also how these places are constructed. It is then misleading that the Oak lessons fail to include the vital role ethnicity played and continues to play in urban change in Liverpool.

The failure to reference slavery is evident, once again, in the migration lesson. We recognise that very few of the early Black settlers were enslaved. However, the slave trade undoubtedly played a large part in the build-up of the early Liverpool Black community, both directly and indirectly. The lesson states “The UK’s oldest Black community is found in Liverpool with roots dating back to at least 1730,” however, fails to mention where members of the Black community came from and why. Early arrivals ranged from freed slaves and black servants, to the student sons of African rulers.  Neglecting to mention the slave trade as the key driver of flows of people presents the migration of the Black population as independent of the events of the time.

3. The lessons fail to equip students to navigate ‘fake news’

A key skill in geography is giving students the means to think critically whilst applying their geographical knowledge. Critical thinking is a crucial skill to equip students with the know-how to ‘navigate fake news’. But in line with critical thinking skills, students need access to the full range of perspectives available in the current stock of knowledge before they can learn how to argue, evidence and engage in the knowledge they are taught.  ‘Knowing information’ is important. However when this information is  presented in isolation then context is lost, rendering students unable to make links between content and context. For example, in the lesson on Liverpool’s importance it is noted that the docks have been given UNESCO world heritage site status. However, no mention is made of the reasons why this status was awarded. How then are students able to explain the importance of Liverpool in an international context, as is required in a later task, when they have not been presented with various interpretations of the why?

The Liverpool city-scape is often referenced in an overly romanticised fashion. We have already noted the ommitance of the slave trade from the way that the lessons present urban growth and change. Instead, the lessons euphemistically describe the city as an  “important port”. They also note that “in the 1840s and 50s Irish migrants arrived due to the famine in Ireland” (lesson 2). However no mention is made of the fact that Liverpool’s Irish community was often amongst the worst paid and treated of the working classes, often in and around the docks where they provided one of the flows of labour that drove forward the flows of goods and capital in and out of the city. Liverpool’s experience of deindustrialisation and decline is thus framed exclusively in a race free manner diminishing the roles played by different racial and ethnic groups as simply ‘present’ but not active.

4. The lessons are not politically impartial, but are instead politically biased

A failure to mention the experiences of different demographic groups results in students of geography having a limited and flawed understanding of the challenges posed by urban change. The aim in the study of geography is not just equipping students with the skills to compare and contrast different places but also identifying and analysing how the urban landscape impacts on the experiences of different groups within these places, including themselves and their own communities. Furthermore, urban-change is not an accidental process; government policy, intervention and governance is reflective of how these spaces are perceived. The absence of racial injustices and racial inequalities of the past and present means that students are ill-equipped to understand and contextualise these issues in the future.  Instead students are left with a “comfortable” narrative which is politically biased which may also bear no resemblance to their own experiences.

While the lessons neglect to make references to racial and ethnic conflict, segregation and inequalities, there is reference to the ‘opportunities’ brought by cultural mixing in the lesson on ‘opportunities of  urban change.’ ‘Ethnic diversity’, the resource states, ‘has brought a range of foods, festivals, and cultural experiences to the city which attract tourists and visitors.’ This reminds us of the argument that too much of the debate around multiculturalism centres on ‘steel bands, samosas and saris’ (Troyna & Ball, p. 166), and not enough about the complex dynamics within and between different communities and groups in place. Such a focus plays into present political debates about the importance of cohesion and integration in a post-racial society which too often imply that the choices of minority communities are responsible for any tensions or ‘challenges’, whilst the ‘opportunities’ brought by the presence of these communities stems merely from the cultural products they have provided for the White majority.

This approach is itself bound up with a particular set of racialising strategies. We should be clear that choosing to frame the lessons around ‘opportunities’ and ‘challenges’ is a strategy that originates not with Oak, but with the framework established in GCSE geography specifications that themselves, all too often foreground whiteness in their curricula framings. But the lessons then choose only to present a shallow ‘steel bands, samosas and saris’ vision of the opportunities, neglecting and underplaying the active role of racialised communities in shaping and re-shaping the city, whilst leaving out any of the challenges associated with Liverpool’s historical geographies of racialised violence and inequality. This presents young people with a narrative of urban change that does little to enable them to understand how processes and strategies of urbanisation shape places, and are themselves re-shaped over time through changing relationships of power and resistance across geographical space. Instead, what young people are presented with is a post-racial urban geography that inadequately explores the entanglements of race, power and place.

Teaching an “inclusive curriculum”

The Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities recommends encouraging young people to “appreciate the past, and see themselves in it, rather than reject it as exclusionary” (p.91). They put forward the idea that an ‘inclusive curriculum’ might be helped by a centrally-created teaching resource entitled “the Making of modern Britain” (pg 8). This would equip pupils “with a wider understanding of the UK” (pg 55), but it aims to do so with a limited view on British history and oppression. The Report states that the proposed teaching resource is a response to “negative calls for ‘decolonising’ the curriculum”. This grossly misrepresents and swiftly dismisses an important movement within education that seeks to challenge the prevailing power relations through which curricula have been constructed. To reduce this movement, as the Report portrays it, to simply demanding “the banning of White authors or token expressions of Black achievement” (pg 8) demonstrates a lack of research or willingness to understand the complex propositions of the movement. No evidence of “the banning of White authors'' is presented in the report, but the authors do accomplish their own feat of recategorisation when it comes to the question of authorship when they put the London-born writer Andrea Levy in the category of “writers in the Commonwealth … steeped in British cultural traditions” (pg 91).

In their only direct mention of imperialism in the report, the Commission states that “British history is not solely one of imperial imposition”, but also a period when “cultures mixed and positive relations formed” (pg 91). This sentiment is further reflected in a description of one of their recommended resources which presents “the slave period not only being about profit and suffering but how culturally African people transformed themselves into a re-modelled African/Britain” (pg 8). While including positive and celebratory stories of integration and cultural diversity can foster engagement with an ‘inclusive’ curriculum, the report carefully sidesteps recommendations to teach critically about the shadow of British colonialism, the slave trade and struggles by migrant communities. This same tendency is, as we have shown, on display in the geography curriculum resources cited by the Report. However, favouring cheerful stories of cultural exchange without also facilitating understanding of the uncomfortable context which shaped these stories devalues the historical and continuing marginalisation of ethnic groups in the UK and former colonies and their place within it today. The asymmetric power relations of colonialism are routinely excluded in the report, which focuses upon the cultural “inflows and outflows of the British Empire'' without referencing the power held by Britain over these flows, which not only encompass culture and ideology, but resources and people.

Embracing difference: From “inclusive” to decolonised curricula

Accounts of urban and cultural change in the UK are misleading and ahistorical when provided without the unsettling context of colonialism and migration. Nor does it do justice to the complex geographies of urban change to present these histories and geographies in terms of a “unifying sense of Britishness.'' Understanding the place of racialised violence and oppression in the historical and contemporary geography of urban change will be crucial to any attempt to overcome it. Herein lies the problem with an ‘inclusive’ curriculum; it reinforces the knowledge of the powerful by obscuring the power structures framing ethnic groups' lived experiences of racism and exploitation. Rather than proposing a plan to properly integrate the lasting effects of colonialism and migration (in the UK and globally) into the curriculum, prioritising positive stories of cultural diversity leaves pupils without the knowledge and the conceptual vocabulary to make sense of historical and contemporary inequality and oppression.

Moreover, an ‘inclusive’ curriculum suggests that ethnic groups could be incorporated into the ‘modern’ story of Britain, rather than being part of the UK’s core social and economic history. After all, ethnic minorities did not only migrate to Britain after Windrush and Britain’s wealth is historically dependent on the exploitation of the countries it colonised. The narrative around inclusion would change if, as Sanghera argues, “what if this ‘national identity’ embraced a simple truth: that Black and Asian people had been made citizens through the imperial project?” (Sanghera, 2021: 76)

Instead, we argue for a ‘decolonised’ curriculum which allows every young person to learn about the uncomfortable events in UK history and the agency ethnic groups have in challenging racism and Empire. Decolonisation challenges the power structures which marginalise and underrepresent the experiences of ethnic groups and centres colonialism as the driver of urban change and cultural change in the UK.

In the kind of inclusive education put forward by the Report, it is possible to present the story of modern Britain as one defined by the unceasing progression towards a cohesive society, albeit with a few ‘challenges’ along the way. This is a model of education in which a “unifying sense of Britishness'' prevails and is experienced by all. If this sounds like a fairy-tale picture of the country we live in, then that’s because it is. This supposedly-inclusive picture of our unified national story ought to be rejected. In its place we must build decolonised narratives of modern Britain which pay proper attention to the role of historic and contemporary relations of power in defining Britain’s place in the world. Our curricula must look at how this place in the world has changed over time as flows of people, goods, capital and ideas have shifted and been redefined. They should choose not to ignore the various ways in which diverse communities have been racialised and exposed to differential conditions of existence, but take this seriously and attempt to engage with, rather than ignore, the racialised nature of violence and power in contemporary society. Doing so requires also that our educational system treats the members of racialised communities as themselves actors in this story, free on some occasions to embrace Britishness and their undeniable part in it, but on just as many others to call out the colonial legacies, the inequalities and inequities that remain at its heart.

The purpose of the geography curriculum is not to evoke a sense of patriotism; nor does the teaching of geography in the way modelled by the Oak Lessons help to evoke a sense of “Britishness.”   We reject the claim that the lessons are “an invaluable example of how the story of the modern UK can be taught through the prism of local areas” (pg 90). A unified ‘national identity’ cannot be gained through presenting past, present and future geographies in a race-free way. Teaching biased accounts of urban change and the processes which impact and shape our landscape does a great disservice to the students we teach. We agree with the authors of the Report that “empowering young people with a greater understanding of the past is seen as required and long overdue” (pg 89), however this should be undertaken through incorporating and contextualising complex geographical interpretations and giving students the skills to critically evaluate them.

Similarly, we reject a centrally controlled approach to managing an ‘inclusive curriculum’. The report recommends that “[The] DfE, supported by the panel of experts, should design and produce a credible, high-quality, online national library that is continually updated” (pg 93). Instead, resources would be better invested in upskilling all teachers through providing them with the training, time and resources they need to collaborate together and plan lessons for their own students. Surely the purpose of teaching geography, and other subjects, should always be to continually gain and develop knowledge and understanding about our world in a purposeful way, and in doing so to ensure that we can play our part in challenging inequalities and inaccuracies along the way? The more of us involved in this process, the better.


Beckert, S. (2014), Empire of Cotton: A New History of Global Capitalism London: Penguin

Beckett, A (2015) Promised You a Miracle: Why 1980-82 Made Modern Britain London: Penguin cited in Beckett A (2015)  ‘Toxteth, 1981: the summer Liverpool burned – by the rioter and economist on opposite sides,’ The Guardian, September 14 2015.

Belchem, J. (2014), Before the Windrush: Race Relations in 20th-century Liverpool Liverpool: Liverpool University Press

El-Enany, N. (2020), (B)ordering Britain: Law, Race and Empire Manchester: Manchester University Press

Featherstone, D. (2018) Politicising in/security, transnational resistance and the 1919 riots in Cardiff and Liverpool. Small Axe, 22(3(57)), pp. 56-67

Frost, D. and North, P. (2013), Militant Liverpool: A City on the Edge Liverpool: Liverpool University Press

Hall, C., Draper, N., McClelland, K., Donington, K. and Lang, R. (2014), Legacies of British Slave-Ownership: Colonial Slavery and the Formation of Victorian Britain. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Jenkinson, J. (2009), Black 1919: Riots, Racism and Resistance in Imperial Britain Liverpool: Liverpool University Press

Kaufman, M.T (1981), ‘In Liverpool many blame the police, not poverty conditions, for unrest’, The New York Times. July 18 1981. Available at accessed 07/04/21

Rediker, M. (2007), The Slave Ship: A Human History London: John Murray Press

Sanghera, S (2021), Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain Dublin: Penguin

Tabili, L. (1994), “We Ask for British Justice”: Workers and Racial Difference in Late Imperial Britain London: Cornell University Press

Troyna, B. and Ball, W. (1985) ‘Styles of LEA Policy Intervention in Multicultural/Antiracist Education’ Educational Review, 37 (2),165-173