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Oxford research: changes to history teaching to address diversity

Isaac Ettinghausen looks at new research from the Universities of Oxford and Reading.

87% of England’s secondary schools have made changes to their history curriculum to address diversity, according to a survey by the universities of Oxford and Reading.

The report – which surveyed 316 teachers from a variety of different English schools – states that “the most important reasons cited for making changes to the curriculum were a sense of social justice, to better represent the nature of history and the stimulus of recent events.”

While subjects such as the triangular trade have been featured in history classrooms for years, several respondents to the survey pointed out their choice to reframe these narratives to provide a more diverse education. 

In Key Stage 3, schools have given equal weight to narratives of resistance by enslaved people as well as abolitionism in England, and have widened the geographic scope of study to the Caribbean as well as the American South. 90% of those surveyed reported teaching in such dimensions.

Dr Katharine Burn, one of the report’s authors and Fellow of St Cross College, said that one of the “most encouraging findings is the evidence that schools are now paying attention to the history of migration to and from Britain and to the diverse experiences of those who settled here.”

73% of the schools that responded to the survey reported some teaching of migration. This was most commonly focused on post-war migration, such as the history of the ‘Windrush Generation’, but a significant proportion of respondents also reported teaching on 17th century Black British experiences.

While the report shows promising signs in the teaching of Key Stage 3 history, Burn said that “if we want to achieve more genuinely inclusive approaches to history teaching, then reform of GCSEs is the most urgent priority”. 

Most schools surveyed did not teach what the report terms ‘diverse units’; 54 of 92 schools teaching AQA GCSE history did not select any of these units. 

The survey overwhelmingly suggests that the GCSE syllabus is ill-suited to teaching a more diverse history. 71% of respondents disagreed with the claim that their exam board made it possible to include the study of the history of Black and Asian British people. This figure was even higher for the history of LGBTQ people (87%) and disabled people (88%). 

The report also points to a disparity in terms of subject uptake: only 65% of schools report a close match between the ethnic profile of their cohort and of those taking A-level history, although only one respondent attributed the lack of take-up among BAME students to the curriculum. 

Despite the apparent concern over the syllabus, only 32% of teachers indicated that they were ‘contemplating or had set in motion some changes…in order to improve the diversity of the curriculum that they offered’

The report also suggests a lack of diversity in teaching staff, with 96% of the report’s respondents identifying as white. The authors “acknowledge that representation of the views of those from a Black or Asian British background or from other minority groups is limited’. 

Earlier this month, education secretary Nadhim Zahari acknowledged that “there aren’t enough black headteachers…schools and their leadership teams should reflect their communities and their pupils and I’m absolutely determined to see improvements”.

Image credit: It’s No Game/CC BY 2.0 via flickr.com

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