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How is the British Empire and its legacy being taught in schools?

Researchers at UCL and the University of Oxford seek insights from current and past teachers across England, to map how empire and interrelated topics of migration and belonging are approached in English secondary schools.

Young Black female teacher demonstrating with a classroom globe. Credit: Tima Miroshnichenko / Pexels

The history of the British Empire casts a complex and often contested legacy across modern day British politics, culture and public discourse. Recent years have seen a growing interest in and debate about Britain’s imperial past and in response, attention has turned to what children are taught about this history. 

In June 2020, for example, 268,772 members of the British public signed a petition to ‘teach Britain’s colonial past as part of the UK’s compulsory curriculum’, which was debated in Parliament the following year. Both teachers and their students have called for greater attention to be paid to how the nation engages this past within its classrooms and curricula and a 2019 report published by the Runnymede Trust identified a real need for targeted professional development support in this area.

A new research project, funded by the Pears Foundation, responds directly to this call. Critically, the project team note that, to date, no large-scale research has ever been conducted to understand the extent to – or manners in which –  secondary students are taught about this history, if at all. The project aims to build a robust and nuanced evidence base to better understand the range of teacher’s experience, practice and perspective in this area, to identify the challenges or concerns most commonly encountered, and the most important and appropriate opportunities for future professional development support.

“A portrait of the teaching of the British Empire, migration and belonging in English secondary schools” is a collaboration between academics at IOE, UCL’s Faculty of Education and Society, and the University of Oxford’s Department of Education, led by Co-Lead Investigators Dr Alice Pettigrew and Dr Jason Todd.

The team is conducting a national survey of secondary school teachers, and invite teachers to share insight, experience and opinion across a range of previously unexamined areas of practice. 

The project team commented: “We acknowledge that when we discuss the terms ’empire,’ ‘migration,’ and ‘belonging,’ there’s a lot of complexity, nuance, and potential for disagreement involved. It’s crucial to grasp the significance of these terms because they are closely connected to the beliefs, values, practices, vision, and historical understanding of a nation’s citizens, including young people.” 

The project draws on the success of the UCL Centre for Holocaust Education’s work transforming teaching and learning about the Holocaust across the country through an extensive programme of professional development support for teachers and learners, all built directly upon a strong foundation of empirical classroom research.

How have you approached empire and migration in your lessons?

The survey is open to all secondary school teachers in England, including those with no previous personal experience teaching in this area and irrespective of subject background. It might, however, be of particular relevance to teachers of History, English, Geography, Religious Education, and Citizenship.

Take the survey by 30 April 2024 


Contact the research team at

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