Developing an Inclusive History Curriculum: An Overview of Current Initiatives in the UK

Author:  Demelza JonesUniversity of GloucestershireUK

As part of the CHIEF project’s work to date we have conducted a systematic review of secondary school curricula across social sciences and humanities subjects, as well as interviews with young people in schools and informal educational settings, and with educators and practitioners working in these settings. While the nine countries the CHIEF project is working in represent a wide variety of contexts, some key findings have emerged with broad applicability across the study. One such theme has emerged from our work on history curricula, which finds that the approach of national history curricula to ‘difficult pasts’ reflects tensions between narrow definitions of national identity and meaningful inclusion of a diverse population, as well as past and existing asymmetries of power. In the case of the Western European countries within the project, this theme is most apparent in treatment of violent colonial histories of conquest, enslavement and exploitation. In the project’s German case study for example, Germany’s history as a colonial power is not addressed in the Hamburg curricula that was the focus of the project’s analysis. Turning to the UK case study; while colonialism is included in some history curricula, it is treated as a historical event that is ‘in the past’: connections with contemporary issues of racism and inequality, immigration and multiculturalism are not directly addressed.

This observation has also been made by young people we have interviewed in schools and in informal educational contexts – particularly by young people from Black and Asian backgrounds whose own heritage and family stories are often directly interwoven with histories of Empire, the Commonwealth and migration. This has implications for these young people’s sense of inclusion within the national (and the broader European) story, and to their perception of the relevance and meaningfulness of the ‘official’ narratives of national identity, culture and heritage to which they are exposed. However, it is a mistake to draw the conclusion that the teaching of empire is only of benefit to young people from particular communities (important as this may be). This is history that has played an integral role in the development of modern Britain and continues to influence our society and public life today. It is relevant to all of our lives and our understanding of our nation’s past and present, regardless of our ethnicity or our family background. To give just one topical example; ignorance (or wilful ignorance) of the atrocities of colonialism and the ways this shaped Britain and its relationship with the world has allowed sections of the political class to evoke an ahistorical and jingoistic ‘imperial nostalgia’ in the ‘Leave’ campaign in the 2016 EU membership referendum, and in current attempts to convince the electorate that the UK can successfully ‘go it alone’ by leaving the EU with ‘no deal’.

The CHIEF project is not alone in highlighting these issues in the UK context. A 2019 report by the Runnymede Trust, an independent race equality think-tank, and the European Research Council-funded TIDE project (based at the University of Liverpool), calls on the government to mandate the teaching of migration, belonging and Empire in secondary schools and to provide teachers with ‘the practical support and resources necessary to equip them to teach these topics sensitively and effectively’ – a particularly important recommendation given the time and resource pressures facing teachers and schools. As the report explains:

“The National Curriculum explicitly calls for pupils to be taught ‘tolerance’, as part of the British values agenda. It calls for young people to understand their own and others’ cultures ‘as an essential element of their preparation for life in modern Britain’, in which ‘they understand, accept, respect and celebrate diversity’. Teaching the long, diverse, often-fraught history of migration, belonging, and empire would help to achieve this. To adequately prepare students to be tolerant, confident citizens, these topics must be understood as integral both to our history and to the richness of British culture. All children and young people need to feel a sense of belonging, and understand their identities. Migration and empire are not marginal events, neither are they of interest only to specific communities within British society. They are central to a shared national story, and as it stands, the story we are telling is incomplete.”

The report finds that while topics of migration, belonging and Empire can be taught as part of the GCSE curriculum in History and English, whether this happens depends on the selection of modules, themes and texts by individual schools. Consequently, there is wide variation in young people’s exposure to these topics – an issue intensified by the growing number of young people whose schools have been converted to Academies that operate outside local authority control and are not compelled to follow the national curriculum. Only 4% of pupils studying GCSE History undertake the ‘Migrants to Britain’ option (which also covers some material on Empire), while reforms to the GCSE English curriculum in 2015 moved its focus towards a more ‘traditional’ canon of mainly white authors and dramatists. Collaborating with other academic partners, the Runnymede Trust has aimed to address these gaps through the Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded Our Migration Story project, which provides resources for teaching migration within the GCSE History curriculum. More recently, and in response to research showing that 78% of surveyed teachers would welcome training on teaching migration and 71% on teaching Empire, the TIDE project has launched the Beacon Teaching Fellowship – a professional development programme for History and English teachers. However, the 2019 report’s recommendations for curriculum reform seem unlikely to be enacted by the present government, with Minister for School Standards, Nick Gibb MP, ruling out changes to the GCSE or A-Level curriculum at a Westminster Hall Debate in June 2019.

Image Credit: The Web of Empire: a Diary of the Imperial Tour of their Royal Highnesses the Duke & Duchness of Cornwall & York in 1901 by Wallace, Donald Mackenzie, 1841-1919 Hall, Sydney Prior, 1842-1922, ill Martino, Eduardo de, d. 1912 (1902).

Elsewhere, The Black Curriculum project highlights the persistence of racism in British society and points to the 20-year-old Macpherson Report’s recommendation that ‘cultural diversity within the curriculum is one of the ways to prevent racism’, arguing that: ‘when young Black people are not taught their history within Britain or when it is taught in a form that is not empowering, their sense of identity and belonging is negatively impacted’. The project argues that ‘Black British history is not merely a theme for October’ (the officially recognised Black History Month), and partners with schools to deliver an arts-based secondary curriculum ‘to provide a contextual, globalised history that roots the Black British experience in histories of movement and migration’. This critique of the ‘compartmentalisation’ of diverse histories notwithstanding, civil society groups and educationalists have campaigned for official national recognition of a South Asian Heritage Month, drawing attention to the absence of seminal events such as the 1947 Partition of South Asia from the British history curriculum. A concept launch took place at the House of Commons in July 2019, with speakers from initiatives such as The Grand Trunk Project, which aims not only to encourage wider commemoration and understanding of Partition, but to build opportunities for dialogue and the establishment of common ground between the diverse British Asian faith communities affected.

Of course, it is not only schools that have a role to play in providing young people with an accurate and inclusive understanding of the national story, and CHIEF is also working with civil society groups and in heritage sites to explore young people’s engagement with national cultures and heritage in the settings, and these settings’ own varied approaches to these themes. The role of museums and heritage sites in commemorating ‘difficult histories’ sensitively and inclusively is a pertinent issue across the nine national case studies of the CHIEF project – which as well as former colonial powers and colonies, also includes post-conflict and post-Soviet settings. In the UK context, initiatives to decolonise the museum and calls to return artefacts looted during colonial occupation are the subject of activism and intense debate – and will form the focus of a future blog post in this series.

About the author

Demelza Jones is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Gloucestershire. She holds a PhD and MSc in Sociology from the University of Bristol (UK) and an MA in Global Citizenship and Human Rights from the University of Nottingham (UK). Her interests include migration, (super)diversity, transnational and diasporic religion, the third sector and inequality and disadvantage. Alongside CHIEF, she is currently part of a team researching how ‘Brexit’ impacts Polish communities in Gloucestershire.