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African Kingdoms:How history A-level is changing perceptions

KINGDOM OF TIMBUKTU: The area, now in the West African country of Mali, was a flourishing trade centre

FED UP of a generation of young people viewing Africa as a place of victimhood, a leading exam board last year introduced four of the continent’s ancient kingdoms to the A-level history curriculum.

OCR’s new course – taught this academic year for the first time – explores the kingdoms of Kongo and Benin, and the empires of Songhay, Dahomey and Oyo, all of which had great wealth and power in the 15th Century.

It came as a result of a government policy change which urged educationalists to broaden the syllabus and extend itself in terms of geography and time.

Speaking in 2014, OCR’s head of history, Mike Goddard, said its unique offer would “help young people to become more sophisticated global citizens with a broader understanding of the world.”

As well as inspiring pupils with fresh subject matter, course leaders believe the new elements will help students’ applications to stand out on UCAS forms. It could also lay the foundation for a new generation of scholars who can go on to specialise in pre-colonial African history.

The shake-up, reported in The Voice in May 2014, is enjoying huge success even in schools where the student body is predominantly White British.

Julie Curtis, head of history at The Piggott School in Berkshire, said: “Students have been surprised to discover examples of Africans being in charge, for example, [and] how advanced the Songhay Kingdom, part of the Mali Empire, was during the 15th and 16th Centuries.

“Parts of Africa were more developed than most of Europe – in fact European scholars travelled to the University of Timbuktu to study.”

She praised the topic for challenging negative perceptions of Africa.

“It gives us the impression of a people more in charge of their lives and not as victims, which is the stereotype. We also are used to seeing Africa as one country, but the truth is very different and this topic challenges that view,” she added.

“In the West we have a preconception as Africa being poor where the people are passive – whether becoming slaves, being colonised or receiving aid.”

Former history teacher Grant Robertson, who recently joined OCR as a specialist subject expert, said the exam board was excited by the positive response to the course, devised in partnership with King’s College lecturer Dr Toby Green.

He told The Voice: “We wish we could do the whole of Africa but the four kingdoms we chose are really exciting.

“This topic generates debate and challenges students. Timbuktu, for example, was a huge centre for learning and many may not know how important it was to the world development of law and economies. It has many parallels in Western Europe and even goes beyond that in terms of innovation.”

He added: “It’s an opportunity to move away from the transatlantic slave trade that African history has been consigned to in many ways. History is not just Western culture. To understand the full picture of where we are today, you have to understand Africa and what was happening 500 years ago.”

Robertson said exact figures on take-up would not be available for the next 18 months.

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