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History Blog

Towards a connected curriculum
By Martin Spafford
18 Oct

The history we think we know depends on where we look and the questions we ask. Ask new questions and we gain new understanding that can lead us to us rethink a big story. 

Big histories hidden in plain sight

In 1914 how did the British Expeditionary Force play its part in stopping the German advance, while its mainly volunteer army was being trained?  Britain brought over its strongest, best-trained standing army from India.1 The part Indian troops played wasn’t a sideshow; telling their story isn’t a case of box-ticking ‘diversity’: it is essential to understanding that crucial point in the war’s early months. 

Where did the wealth come from that made medieval Church and monasteries so prosperous in the 14th and 15th centuries and enabled monarchs to fight in France? The trade in woollen cloth that brought England’s economic boom was kickstarted by immigrant weavers from the Low Countries, many of them refugees. Thanks to the University of York’s England’s Immigrants project analysing tax returns, we know they were dispersed all over the country.This was one of many cases in our history of immigration enabling an economic boom. 

School textbooks about the Second World War stress the importance of the Atlantic convoys to Britain’s survival. What about the lives of the working-class men who served in the merchant ships? White mariners from our port cities worked alongside men from Yemen, Somaliland or Bengal who sometimes formed the majority of the crews: all of their stories throw light on the role played by the Empire in the fight against Nazism.3

New technologies, fresh understanding

Archaeologists and scientists studying skeletons’ mitochondrial DNA and dental traces have established the presence of African women, men and children in places as far apart as Sussex, Warwickshire and York around 1,700 years ago. Science is revealing the depth of Britain’s Black history.

Micro stories, macro significance

Black, working class, queer and micro histories are becoming more common in academia and popular with general readers. A very particular story can sometimes illuminate the bigger picture. Learning about gay communist African American Bayard Rustin who organised the 1963 March on Washington, and is believed to have persuaded Martin Luther King to adopt nonviolence, can lead us to think about strategies, tactics and logistics – as well as the pressures on vulnerable individuals – and take us beyond the headline figures and speeches. 

Our understanding of the beginnings of English involvement in the Caribbean changes when we know about Sir Francis Drake’s alliance against the Spanish with the Cimarons (a community of free Africans in Panama), brokered by Diego (a black man who then accompanied Drake on his voyages) and commemorated in a jewel the Queen gave Drake.4 Drake is wearing the jewel, showing an African and European side by side, in one of his most well-known portraits: another story hidden in plain sight.

A criticism levelled at this way of thinking about history is that it can emphasise ‘identities’ at the expense of a bigger picture. But whether we are dealing with excluded minorities or actual majorities (women, the whole non-European world) on the margins of power, that exclusion affected their reality, the events in which they were participants and our perception of them. If we are not careful, our belief in what is ‘good history’ can be based on the selective nature of wisdom, perpetually reinforced by reliance on sources that perpetuate a two-dimensional story – with a bias towards the powerful.  

School histories

We should ask how far these issues are reflected in school curricula or the textbooks that feed them.  ‘History months’ enable new stories to be told, events to be held and research to be done that would not otherwise happen. They can foreground the long and permanent presence of people of colour and various sexual orientations in our history. They can also, however, reinforce the sense that these are add-ons to the bigger stories and remain absent for the rest of the year. Seeking ‘diversity’ in the curriculum can ensure a wider range of lives and voices. However, it can open us to the charge of cherry-picking or even inventing a false significance. 

Both ‘history months’ and diversifying are valuable first steps, but we need to move towards a history curriculum that connects the social and political, the personal and public, the local and global, the macro and the micro at all points in the course: an honest portrayal of the past, so our students will recognise and embrace the complexity and range of experiences and get closer to a more rigorous history recognising the multiplicity of lives in the past. A truly knowledge-rich curriculum will be one that keeps asking the questions that lead us to a fuller knowledge of the past, with particular attention to untold lives and experiences, whose exclusion makes history knowledge-poor. 

In its 2018 report the Royal Historical Society made recommendations that we must accept the existence of systemic racism, recognise that curriculum content affects inequalities and adopt an intersectional approach.  We need to read, gather evidence, work collaboratively and improve training. This can and should apply to all aspects of how our curriculum excludes and marginalises. The 2019 TIDE-Runnymede report on the teaching of migration and empire recommends the setting up of a centre for research and teacher training.6 As writers, teachers, examiners and curriculum planners, we need to be up to date with scholarship and review all our existing content for diversity and inclusion, where historical research can support this. 

If teachers feel confident in connected histories, they will teach them. There are examples of excellent practice in many schools. I know of a school looking at the migration history of students’ home towns; one getting Year 7 students to consider medieval attitudes to race; and another approaching the history of the world wars through the story of the West Indian Regiment. A year ago, I interviewed black students in several London schools about how they had learned about the British Empire in history lessons. Their feelings about very varied experiences reminded me how the stories we choose to tell in the classroom, as well as the way they are told, have a significant impact on young people’s sense of themselves and their place in the narrative of our nation and our world. As one said:

‘That’s why history is important, because you see yourself through history.’

Whether or not we think the question of relevance is ‘good’ history, the reality of what actually happens in the classroom is that young people look for a personal connection with the past we share with them. This happens whether or not we address it. If we don’t, some (or even many) will feel that history does not speak to them. A history-poor society is one at greater risk of calamity. A connected curriculum would begin to meet that need by linking ever more deeply with the range of identities and experiences in the past. We would create courses rich in experiences close enough to the learners for them to feel that connection, and wide-ranging and different enough for them to be intrigued and excited. It would be a curriculum that is both inclusive and truthful. Many textbook writers seek to achieve this but there is still a long way to go.

As the writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says, there is never a single story. (Watch the TED Talk here).

Martin Spafford was formerly a Head of History in Waltham Forest, East London. Now retired, he still runs workshops in schools and with trainee teachers. Martin co-authored the textbooks Migrants to Britain for the OCR GCSE B spec and Migration, Empire and the Historic Environment for the OCR GCSE A spec. Chair of the Journey to Justice charity, Martin has also helped with the Runnymede Trust’s Our Migration Story website and with the education work of the Migration Museum.


1 See, for example, David Olusoga, The World’s War (2014)
3 Rozina Visram, Asians in Britain (2002)
4 Miranda Kaufmann, Black Tudors (2017)
5 Race, Ethnicity & Equality in UK History (RHS 2018) - https://bit.ly/2yncqKt 
6 Teaching Migration, Belonging and Empire in Secondary Schools (2019) https://bit.ly/2pf4n0s
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