Britain’s history, and the ways in which we commemorate it today, is often presented as a battleground. Yet the findings from a pilot project conducted with two secondary schools, featured in Part One of this blog post in 2021, offers a possible route through these choppy waters.

Making Britain’s annual tradition of remembrance more inclusive, by highlighting stories of the contribution made by black and Asian soldiers in the Second World War, can have a powerful effect across an unusually wide range of audiences. Ethnic minority participants felt a greater sense of inclusion and belonging, and welcomed the recognition of their ancestors’ service and sacrifice. But the project also reached and resonated with a very different audience too – those who feel most anxious about the diversity of modern Britain.

(Students from Eden Girls Waltham Forest interview one of the community participants. Image courtesy of British Future.)

The Remember Together project, coordinated by the integration thinktank British Future, worked with students from Falinge Park High School in Rochdale and Eden Girls Waltham Forest, a Muslim girls school in East London.  It set out to uncover new history and heritage from within the schools’ local diverse communities.

Calls went out via students’ families and other networks such as local mosques, community organisations and local media, asking local black and Asian people to share the stories of their family’s involvement in the Second World War. The students then conducted filmed interviews with family members and documented these stories online with video, family photos and medals and other memorabilia. British Future helped to bring these stories to a wider audience through national and regional media and in online films shared on social media.

(Amin Janjua from Rochdale displays his father's Second World War medals. Image courtesy of British Future.)

The students said that the project helped bring history to life and made it more interesting, helping them develop new skills and confidence. Some of the students even discovered a family history of WW2 service that they hadn’t know about before. But more importantly, the project also changed the way they felt about identity and belonging in Britain.  Some of the East London students felt this particularly strongly:

 

“It makes you feel proud of your culture, of where you’re from and that your ancestors helped to make Britain what it is today.”

-Student, Eden Girls Waltham Forest.

 

“It strengthens your bond with the country that you live in. It feels more like a place where you actually belong. It helps you feel more connected.”

-Student, Eden Girls Waltham Forest.

(Shere Muhammad served in Burma in the Second World War. The London students interviewed his grandson, Rehan Ashraf.)

Community participants were pleased to have an opportunity to share their relatives’ stories. These were often a source of family pride, yet some participants felt that this history was ignored or overlooked – or that they had not felt fully invited to take part in traditional remembrance activity.

“I’m glad you’ve given me the chance to show to the world that our people, my dad, they fought for their lives, for Britain.”

- Amin Janjua from Rochdale, who was interviewed about his father Fazal Karim

 

It brings more people together during remembrance because now it's not just about remembering white soldiers who fought in the war, it’s about remembering all those from different backgrounds, cultures and ethnicities. It makes Britain a more united nation.”

- Mubarak Amidu from east London, who was interviewed about his grandfather Henry Braimah.

(Henry Braimah was born in Ghana and served in Burma in the Second World War. His grandson was interviewed by students at Eden Girls school.)

Previous research by British Future has found that communicating stories of shared history, and shared pride in its commemoration, can help build common ground and shift attitudes towards diversity and perceptions of minority groups. This was confirmed by our 2021 evaluation.

ICM took a representative sample of 2,000 people and showed half of them a video of the Remember Together project. All were then asked a series of questions about integration and diversity. Those who watched the video were more likely to agree with positive statements about diversity and less likely to disagree; there was also less support for negative statements.

For example, respondents were asked if they agreed that ‘Having people of many different ethnic and faith backgrounds in our society makes Britain a better place to live.’ For those who did not see the video, 55% agreed and a fifth disagreed (20%), a net score of +35. Agreement was significantly stronger among those who saw the video, with two-thirds (65%) in agreement and 13% saying they disagreed: a net score of +52, showing an attitudes shift of 17 points.

We also measured whether watching Remember Together content affected agreement with a negative statement, ‘Immigration has been bad for Britain because it has diluted our British identity.’ Some 36% of those not shown the video agreed while 41% disagreed (net -5). Among those who watched the film, more people disagreed (48%) and fewer agreed (29%) – a net score of -19, showing a shift of 14 points.

What was perhaps most striking, however, was the project’s impact on people who held the least positive attitudes to diversity and migration. Watching Remember Together video content had a more significant impact on this group, moving them 30 points on the positive statement and 25 points on the negative statement above. 

Further research would help to isolate what aspects of the video content had this effect and why. But these initial findings do suggest that inclusive remembrance may have the rare ability to connect with ethnic minority citizens who feel overlooked by the way British history is typically presented; and also with groups who feel least positive about diversity, but have strong feelings of pride and patriotism associated with our past. Inclusive remembrance can be common ground that they share.

(Mir Sultan Khan, from Pakistan, served in Burma. His grandson Muhammad Tanveer now works for the British Army in London. Image courtesy of British Future.)

This broad consensus in support of inclusive history is  also evidenced by quantitative research. A 2021 ICM poll for British Future found that 70% of white respondents and 82% of ethnic minority respondents agree that ‘It would be good for integration today if children in every school were taught about the shared history of multi-ethnic Britain.’

So what should happen now? More schools could replicate the oral history approach piloted by Remember Together, uncovering more stories in communities across the UK. Civil society, academic and heritage partners could offer support to schools and other youth organisations, at local or national level.

There are growing calls for better teaching of black, Asian and ethnic minority history in our schools, with footballer Troy Deeney recently adding his voice on this issue. The Department for Education and individual exam boards could all play a part in expanding the curriculum to better tell our national story in a way that feels relevant to students of all backgrounds.

As Yasmine Dar, one of the Rochdale participants says,  “I think it’s really important that this education is provided to all children, especially from BME communities, who will have this sense of pride and belonging, that this is our country and where we belong.”