The history curriculum has a Western bias – that needs to change

One of the striking omissions when I studied A-level history was the lack of opportunity to study anything of my own heritage or of other non-western civilisations. And in the few opportunities that there were, the story was always told from a western perspective.

This bias in history and across the curriculum has a profound effect on not only what you learn, but the lack of value you feel about yourself and the community you come from.

This can still be an issue for many minority ethnic pupils today. Schools have an important role in actively promoting community cohesion, particularly now that Article 50 has been triggered.

One way to achieve this is through the new GCSE history curriculum. Traditionally, history focused on western civilisations, with a limited foray into the teaching of other communities; Empire and migration have been curious absences. Most Britons know the country’s prosperity and global importance emerged from the era of Empire, but few have been taught the mechanics and features of imperial expansion, and fewer still have learned about the earlier movements in and out of Britain that shape contemporary society.

The teaching of migration has been, at most, an intermittent feature in British schools. From the 1980s onwards it found a more solid place on the curriculum. But still, when it has appeared, it has done so mostly as an under-integrated topic often connected to Black History Month and leaving out centuries of events and large chunks of the globe. It was confined to covering narrow aspects such as slavery, Nazi Germany or the US civil rights movement  Pupils were rarely given the chance to learn about the multifaceted reasons for different communities settling here.

UK Immigration, West-Indies

Local, independent initiatives – not least through weekend supplementary schools and the heritage sector – have long been strong, but it wasn’t until the 2014 history curriculum that the potential emerged to cover this material in a sustained way. Even this was far from smooth, with a large group of vocal and committed historians uniting to oppose Michael Gove’s draft curriculum, which explicitly aimed to promote national identity through focus on events that happened on “our island”.

As part of the new GCSE history syllabus introduced in 2016 by OCR and AQA, there are now modules on migration in Britain. This gives teachers the chance to sensitively explore that migration to Britain is not new, but the norm over centuries – largely because of the desire of humans to have a better life for themselves or, in many cases, to seek refuge from war or hostile situations.

The common experience of migration – the African presence of the 13th century; the Romani Gypsies in the 16th century; Eastern Europeans in 2004 – provides an opportunity for pupils to gain an insight to the human condition.

Some teachers find this a difficult topic to teach because of the negative profile that immigration currently has; others feel unsure they have the necessary knowledge; others that they lack the personal experiences to teach the topic confidently.

But more resources are becoming available. A recent collaboration between the University of Cambridge, University of Manchester and the Runnymede Trust has developed an excellent free resource (ourmigrationstory.org.uk) to support history teachers, featuring video and text summaries of significant events in each era, plus historical enquiries.

Other resources are the Migration Museum project (migrationmuseum.org), which provides audio and video resources; Justice to History (justice2history.org), which promotes history education making a difference to the diverse multicultural societies we live in and, finally, the Moving Here Schools website (webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk and movinghere.org.uk), which although archived, is still worth visiting.

What is needed at this time in our history (or her story) is for all pupils to understand the many reasons for migration over the centuries, so they gain a long view of history. As such they will be better equipped to navigate the future with compassion and mutual respect, rather than be divided along the lines of difference and separation.

Additional material from Robin Whitburn and Malachi McIntosh

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