Schools are naturally conservative institutions. As we have seen so clearly during the pandemic, while smaller, more agile organisations might adapt instantaneously to the unexpected, schools need time and space to evolve and adjust to new priorities or ways of working.
We value stability and tradition for good reason: they help provide our pupils with solid, clear and consistent foundations upon which they can grow. The relentless rhythm of the academic year leaves little space for innovation, experimentation or failure. We like to focus on what we know and trust.
I vividly remember crying with laughter the first time I came across ‘1066 and all that’. Having been brought up on Ladybird history books, Sellar and Yeatman’s pastiche of English history struck a chord, brilliantly lampooning a story of ‘One Hundred and Three Good Things, Five Bad Kings and Two Genuine Dates’. And yet, almost a century after it was written, it feels as though the school history curriculum still bears too many similarities to their intended target.
Four out of every five teachers believe we can do more to celebrate diverse cultures, people and experiences in our education
It is still England first, then Wales, Scotland and Europe (and then the rest of the world if there is time). It is still a story dominated by elite, white, heterosexual men; if we do look further afield, it tends to be from a British perspective (India or Africa are relevant only in so far as they interacted with Britain, imperial ambition, etc).
In recent years, Black History Month and LGBT History Month, among others, have captured our consciousness for brief periods, but we too often revert back to the tried and tested narratives that have dominated for so long.
Preparing pupils to inhabit a global workplace
Yet, in 2022, we are preparing young people from all backgrounds to inhabit a global workplace – to move seamlessly between cultures and continents and to respect and understand the incredible differences that exist within our society and planet. Are we doing this well enough? According to a recent poll, four out of every five teachers believe we can do more to celebrate diverse cultures, people and experiences in our education.
This is not merely a challenge in this country, either. It transpires that Whoopi Goldberg’s ignorance of the Holocaust is something shared by a swathe of Americans possessing a disturbing dearth of awareness of historical events that should be universally understood.
The challenge exists, of course, for all subjects to broaden their scopes of study to recognise the fact that our pupils are diverse and that they are the true future citizens of the world. Literature, geography, foreign languages, art, music and drama must embrace this change, but history, in particular, can do so much to broaden minds.
The role of history in broadening young minds
We can transport pupils to completely different times and places. We can meet a range of the most improbable role models to inspire us and warn us. We can ‘usualise’ vastly differing cultures, both enjoying our own differences and yet seeing beyond difference to those human patterns that recur regardless of time and place.
Last summer, for obvious reasons, and probably for the first time in centuries, we did not run internal examinations in years 7 and 8 at my school. Suddenly, we had the most precious commodity of all – time. There were no repetitive revision lessons, no time lost to silently scribbling in sweltering classrooms, no time spent going back over past papers, correcting details or honing exam techniques (as if perfecting one’s exam technique in a year 7 history exam will somehow enhance your A-level grades or your employment prospects).
What to do with the time? We decided to get out of Europe and into Africa before the European slave trade, to discover the world of West African Empires and Mansa Musa, then to understand the impact on this world of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. We moved to India before the arrival of European colonialism, to the world of Mughal Emperors Akbar and Aurangzeb. Rather than studying these worlds through the lens of the British empire, we consciously chose to explore them in their own right.
… we too often revert back to the tried and tested narratives that have dominated for so long
We all learned so much in those weeks. Besides just learning a lot of amazing history, we made connections and comparisons with the European history we had previously studied, seeing similarities and differences across continents and cultures. Personally, I learned that getting out and learning some different history was infinitely more valuable and enjoyable than any summer examination. But what struck me most was just how much my students enjoyed and engaged with it.
Every pupil should be able to see themselves in our story
Naturally, they had relished every minute spent on the Counter-Reformation or the Protectorate Parliaments (honestly), but they really came alive as we explored the Underground Railroad or the challenges of ruling a sprawling empire across 17th-century India. Many did their very best work of the year, including some who had never looked like the most natural or enthusiastic students of history.
History is endless and there is only a finite amount we can choose to study. The curriculum cannot realistically be rewritten every year and there should inevitably be a core of British history that must be covered. However, there is so much more that needs to be done to ensure every child sees themselves among the actors we study. Even a cursory look at examination syllabi at GCSE and A-level, will give a striking indication of how little women feature, and how much our children are missing as a result.
When do our LGBT students have any opportunity to see themselves in our story? It may emerge that some of the lesser Kings of England were gay, but is this likely to reinforce self-confidence or self-awareness, when in fact there is evidence of homosexuality and transsexuality throughout history in many varied contexts and cultures that could, if we chose to study it, provide insight and understanding?
Delivering equity as well as equality in education
Neurodiversity and disability never seem to feature in our curriculum either, but they so easily could. This all tends to be discussed in PSHCE (Personal Social Health and Citizenship Education) and yet every child could have the chance to see themselves among our antecedents, especially if we have come to understand the need to provide equity, rather than mere equality, in our education.
Good teachers do this instinctively when acting in a pastoral capacity, but now is the time to move more purposefully to a curriculum that highlights, celebrates and embraces our diversity.
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