Diversifying the History curriculum at school?Busting Myths

By Fariha Munim

During my third year of university, I took the carefully debated decision to enter into a career I had originally put off. This was because I grew a strongly held belief that teaching History at secondary school involved molding my students to believe stories only about British greatness.

When I began university and took one of my first modules on the British Empire, my eyes were opened to the ‘darker’, and what seemed like, unexplored archives of the past. This was the legacy of Britain’s empire, where the existence of our present today was literally built on the bones of a brutal past, which stemmed from Britain’s control of 1/4 of the world. I was outraged that none of these stories were explored, or even mentioned to me at school. Why was it that I was never taught about the Amritsar Massacre? Why was it that I was never taught about Britain’s supposed Gulag’s in Kenya? Why was it that I was not taught about the reason why Hitler’s racial theory came into existence in the first place? It angered me,that the educational system that I had succeeded in was partly through weaving my way through what seemed to be a lie told to me by the educational establishment.

I blamed the lack of diversity in the history curriculum and vowed that I could never go into such a career like teaching History and tell these ‘lies’.

Fast forward three years later, and I am currently completing the TeachFirst programme, teaching History at a mixed secondary school in North London. My original motivation to enter teaching during my third year of university was for a range of reasons but curriculum-wise, I wanted to investigate the History curriculum, and the rationale behind why History at school is constructed the way it is for many as a story of the greats, with less room for the stories of the marginalised voices who form the majority of classrooms in London.

I was surprised to find that my assumptions gained from University about the history curriculum, had little resemblance to the actual reality of History teaching as a discipline in school.

One of my first assumptions about teaching History was that it was a subject heavily politicised by the current government in power. People shivered at talk about Gove’s reforms on education, myself included. I assumed that the state of political ignorance throughout the country was to blame on the governments, past and present, for failing to talk about the nuances of Britain’s recent past starting with the British Empire.

I was wrong.

Myth 1: The government controls everything to do with History education in the country.

Historical education is complex. There is a process that has to be followed, if children are to make sense of the past in their brains. There must be coherency within the History curriculum for children. If the past doesn’t make sense for students chronologically, the entire discipline of History fails. By the time a student reaches university to study History, they have made sense of History a lot throughout their entire school career. A student is ready for progression in History- which means they are ready to advance onto the next, higher level stage which is degree level thinking. Here, it is time for students to critically think about History and its many nuances.

History in school is about deconstructing that level of knowledge, which has been gained at degree level so that an 11 year old can make that same path of progression in history education that, an 18 year old leaves school with. To do that, historical educators must be able to slowly introduce students to concepts. Some historical concepts are more suited for a child’s cognitive abilities at one stage than another.

Some historical topics are built with so much nuance that it is cognitively too much for a child to process this information, without getting the basics of a historical skill correct. For example, introducing topics such as genocide and war, or famine and war, to children in Y7 or Y8 will overload students existing understandings of history at that stage. These students do not know what it means to understand what a ‘change’ is in history properly, so it makes no sense to even branch out into anything more complex without a set route to get them there.

Other topics present a better opportunity to chronologically make sense of the past first, in order to understand the present. A commonly taught topic to Y7’s across the country is on the Norman conquest of England. After the Norman conquest, these students then chronologically progress to the next stage of historical thinking built off the knowledge they have gained with the Norman conquest. A common example could be the topic of life in the Middle Ages, followed by looking at the Tudors and so on. In each of these topics, there is an underlying historical skill that teachers are required to get students to master in order for their understanding of what ‘history’ is to increase. These skills are specific skills that are designed to help students eventually reach the level of criticality and nuance a student will begin university level history with at the end of their education.

This is not understood enough in POC (people of colour) activism circles when there are talks about diversifying the curriculum. The curriculum needs to be diversified, but at the correct time and place within school. Students can not cognitively understand without having the basics of a skill set in stone first. Without historical skills being mastered, students will not be equipped with the tools to understand the nuances diversifying a curriculum brings.

Myth 2: Children aren’t taught properly about the British Empire because it’s still as story of white men saving the day.

A common sore point for many when it comes to diversifying the curriculum are related to questions children are asked on topics such as the British Empire. From university level eyes, we look at the question of ‘Was the British Empire good or bad?’ as sometimes illegitimate. This is because for us, the question seems invalid to even ask because of our knowledge. However, if we are to just teach students beliefs that hinge on the negative of Empire (which do outweigh the positives for many), then we do a disservice to our students as teachers. This is because we have already mastered the skill of weighing up evidence as history students, and that was learnt at school. Our students though, have not. This is why such questions open up their minds to being able to debate evidence (and the other skills needed for progression). Instead of being condemned as illegitimate questions, such questions are opportunities to progress in historical thinking so our students arrive at the same level of criticality we entered university with. If that is taken away from them, then the skill of being critical in history is being taken away too.

Myth 3: History at school is always a story of white men saving the world to make things better.

The other idea of ‘progression’ in historical education has been attacked a lot, and rightly so. Why is it that at school, children are taught that things inevitably get better when the reality as we learn at university is much more jaded and complex? The answer to this is similarly, displaying a sense of ‘progression’ in history, rests on working with the existing knowledge and skills students have when they enter secondary school. Learning takes place in chunks for it to be successful. Focusing on the ‘bigger pictures’ thematically such as the Romans, Saxons, Tudors, Empire, War, Cold War and Civil Rights presents coherency for our students cognitive abilities at this stage. If there is no visible progression- we have no opportunity to challenge it at a later stage. This is all dependent on building historical skill up first.

Myth 4: Why was my curriculum at school so white?

Lastly, one thing I absolutely stood by was of the notion of how curriculums always seemed to be a story of white, middle class men saving the rest of the world. I assumed that schools were forced to teach this. I was wrong.

The history curriculum in the UK is one of the most flexible in the world when it comes to teaching. Apart from a few mandatory periods which must be taught (such as the Holocaust, a period of British history and Empire), teachers have autonomy over their departments as long as students master the historical skills they deserve to do well in their GCSES, A levels and progress onto history at university.

The question then that we should perhaps ask ourselves is not ‘why is my curriculum white?’, and blame the establishment but the question of ‘why are there not more teachers who want to make the curriculum diverse?’.

Alternative structures are present to the ones many schools use for their historical curriculums. It is more than possible to paint a sense of coherency for students with looking at the topic of migration, slavery, civil rights, interpretations of the empire, WW1 and WW2, the Cold War and then choosing GCSE options that build on this with topics on migration, empires and Civil Rights. It is not up to the establishment to decide if that is taught- its is up to departments in schools.

The need for diversity in school history can come from those who chose to enter the field, where the opportunities to teach what you wanted to be taught at school are present, but are not taken advantage of because of the lack of representation from POC in schools. A recent report by Royal Historical Society said only 11% of History students at university come from BME backgrounds. This makes the face of historical education in schools also look bleak if we are to talk about truly diversifying our historical curriculum.

I want to ask the question of if we are to truly diversify History, then should we start with diversifying those in a profession which has been stereotyped as the playing field of someone much more male, white and middle class?