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Teaching of slavery in Scots schools branded tokenism

SCOTTISH pupils should be taught about the country's historical associations with the slave trade as part of moves to tackle modern-day racism, according to a leading human rights campaigner.

LOOKING FORWARD: Professor Sir Geoff Palmer, pictured at a statue of a freed slave in Old Calton cemetery, Edinburgh, says Scots don't see themselves as oppressors.    Picture: Murdo Macleod
LOOKING FORWARD: Professor Sir Geoff Palmer, pictured at a statue of a freed slave in Old Calton cemetery, Edinburgh, says Scots don't see themselves as oppressors. Picture: Murdo Macleod

Sir Geoff Palmer, OBE, Scotland's only black professor, said current materials for schools on the subject produced by curriculum body Education Scotland were not comprehensive enough.

And he also questioned how thoroughly the subject was taught at both primary and secondary level under the new Curriculum for Excellence (CfE).

The issue of slavery can be covered in different areas of CfE, including Modern Studies and religious and moral education, but study often depends on the particular focus of the teacher.

Another concern is that history courses tend to focus on the role of Scots in the abolition of slavery, rather than earlier exploitation of the practice.

Sir Geoff, Emeritus Professor at Heriot-Watt University, in Edinburgh, believes that issues of modern racism cannot be fully addressed until Scotland acknowledges its prominent role in slavery.

He said: "Scotland's involve-ment in slavery should be a detailed study in itself and not just something that is fitted into other subjects. The materials that are available are welcome and many schools do teach the subject, but it is not enough at the moment to challenge and change attitudes of racism.

"Education Scotland needs to have another look at this important subject because at the moment what is available does appear to be a bit of tokenism."

Sir Geoff said proof that education was currently not tackling issues of racism lay in the proliferation of race laws.

"We keep producing more legislation around this issue, but we are not changing attitudes," he said.

"Scots tend to see themselves as victims of oppression in the past through the Clearances, but not as perpetrators and if we can change that then we have a better chance of producing a fairer society because it will be seen as some-thing that has to be addressed."

Professor Tom Devine, who is regarded as the leading authority on the history of modern Scotland, agreed with Sir Geoff, however, he said the current situation had arisen because the subject has only begun to be researched in recent years due to what he describes as a national "amnesia".

He said: "It is only very recently that academic research on this subject has developed. People have looked at the colonial trades but overwhelmingly they were interested in the economic history. The result of that is the material available to schools has been extremely limited.

"The reason for that is a very long story, but one of the root problems was that quite rightly Glasgow and Scotland in the 19th Century saw their role in direct slave trading as limited so it was quite easy to get off the hook.

"What was then forgotten, of course, was the fact that these economies which were so vital to Scottish development could not have functioned without slave labour."

Mr Devine says there are other reasons for what he describes as a collective "amnesia" over the issue of slave labour.

One is that sophisticated modern Scottish historiography only dates from the 1960s and there were many other challenges for Scottish historians to address on the domestic front, before getting to the Empire.

Another element, he said, was that Scotland started to see itself as a colonised and victimised society, making it was difficult to see the Scot as "imperially rapacious". Also the narrative that Scots were, rightly, influ-ential in the abolition of slavery clouded their involvement.

Mr Devine, who is working on the first full-scale academic analysis devoted to the subject - entitled Scotland, Slavery and Amnesia - said the subject in schools was too dependent on the individual teacher.

He also believes the revised Higher, which has a compulsory section on Scottish history, could deal with the subject in a broader way because the most relevant topic only starts in 1850.

"Although the Scottish Government and the education authorities have done well in providing these more in-depth studies of Scottish history, in this particular respect, the start date is too late," he added.

"It is a dramatic aspect of the nation's past which allure school-children and it is a tailor-made subject with contemporary relevance."

A spokeswoman for curriculum body Education Scotland said the role of slavery in Scotland could be covered across various subjects such as history, literature and religious and moral education.

She said: "We encourage schools and practitioners to discuss these issues and reflect on how this has shaped the world we live in.

"We are continuously reviewing and evolving our resources and aim to ensure teachers have access to the tools and support they need to engage and educate pupils, including in relation to this important part of Scotland's history."

In 2011, Sir Geoff became the first and only black professor in Scotland. He specialises in grain science, but is also a prominent human rights activist.

Contextual targeting label: 
Education

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