Written by:
Debbie Weekes-Bernard

Whose history, whose story? Is our school history curriculum fit for purpose?

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Britain is increasingly diverse, as we all know. According to the 2011 Census, 20% of people in England and Wales identify themselves as being other than ‘White British’ – and schools even more so.  Black and minority ethnic (BME) children make up 23.2% of state-run secondary schools and 27.6% of those at primary level.

Given this diversity, a school curriculum that reflects the multitude of ethnicities, nationalities and languages spoken in British schools should be of great importance, but Runnymede analysis of the new history curriculum has suggested otherwise. The revisions to history taught to children aged between 4 and 14 provoked widespread controversy around what British history is, who gets included in this story and how best to engage young people in increasingly (super)diverse classrooms. Runnymede’s History Lessons and Making Histories projects, covering 5 cities, 210 pupils and 30 history teachers, illustrated the challenges that remain for teaching professionals wishing to teach pupils about the many migration stories that have contributed to the British story.

The new history curriculum provides both opportunities and constraints on addressing issues of equality and diversity, but how this is put into practice in an increasingly fragmented school system is less clear. The national curriculum is only ‘national’ for schools under local authority control; academies and free schools do not have to follow it. It is therefore less likely that children will be given the opportunity to learn about the diversity that exists within the current curriculum. Pupils attending schools situated very close to each other, though with a different status could either learn all about diversity in their history lessons, or learn nothing diverse at all.

Also, challenges remain about the extent to which teachers feel able to teach diverse curricula. Our recent report, Aiming Higher, found that history teachers are often worried about teaching diversity in their subject for fear that it will ‘patronise’ their students while for others, wider pressures relating to assessment and workload create very little time to develop diverse lesson plans, which may be outside of existing expertise. Further, the workforce itself suffers from a clear lack of diversity. The numbers of students of BME backgrounds choosing to specialise in history on teacher training courses is extremely low. Few students from minority ethnic backgrounds are choosing to study history at undergraduate level – in 2012/2013 only 8.7% of those studying historical and philosophical subjects were BME. The impact this will have on a future history teaching workforce is worrying, particularly when BME children and young people are failing to see people like them represented in the history profession within their schools and colleges.

Finally, our research further reinforces our view that the teaching and learning of diverse histories in innovative ways is not an activity solely to encourage the interest of disengaged BME pupils. It should however be seen as a way of developing a subject that engages all students, regardless of ethnic background, in order to prepare children for life as adults in an ethnically and culturally diverse Britain.

We therefore feel that there are number of points of research and policy intervention that could address the issues raised:

Diversity training should be compulsory on teacher training courses and form part of teachers’ Continuing Professional Development.

  1. University admissions offices should strengthen their practices regarding access and widening participation to address the poor rates of application, and acceptance on, to undergraduate history degree courses by BME students.
  2. Issues of equality and diversity need to be placed at the core of school curricula, and our national debate about British identity must critically reflect on the extent to which it either includes or excludes groups by virtue of diversity deemed ‘acceptable’ or not.
  3. Links should be made between universities, civil institutions and teachers so that educational resources which reflect the needs of the workforce, while building on current research and the wealth of material held in museums and archives can be developed and held centrally.
  4. And finally the national curriculum should be one that applies to all schools, regardless of status, to prevent some from ‘opting out’. This would enable all children to learn about the historical diversity that has contributed to our understanding of the story of Britain.

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