University of Leicester
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How Britannia Ruled the Waves: Teaching the History of the British Empire in the Twenty-First Century

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posted on 2017-12-04, 09:42 authored by Adam David Burns
Over recent years there has been a great deal of discussion and public debate in the UK about the type of History that students should learn in English schools in the twenty-first century. The history of the British Empire – as a subtopic – arose frequently in such debates, as figures from the right and left of the political spectrum voiced concerns that through studying British imperialism, students might be inculcated with specific, unified perceptions about their national identity, modern Britain and its place in the world. Using questionnaires, focus groups and one-on-one interviews, this study brings the big questions that arose from the national debate back into the classrooms of England via students and their teachers. The findings of this study suggest that perhaps the national debate has been premised on shaky foundations, by accepting that the content that one studies has a significant, formative impact on how one comes to view the history of British imperialism. This study does not suggest that content has no impact, but rather that a range of other factors, particularly factors from beyond the classroom, are more significant in determining students’ broader perceptions of British imperialism. The findings presented here also suggest that the study of British imperial history is important and significant in the English classroom of the twenty-first century, in the eyes of both students and teachers. Though the study indicates that the content studied does not result in unified perceptions of British imperialism, the majority of participants in the study, both students and teachers, felt that coverage of the topic was essential for young people to be able to contextualise and inform their independently forged perceptions about modern day Britain, its place in the world and their place within it.



Wood, Philip; Woodhouse, Joan

Date of award


Author affiliation

School of Education

Awarding institution

University of Leicester

Qualification level

  • Doctoral

Qualification name

  • EdD



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