History is – the saying goes – written by the victors. So how can we ensure that students learn the rich and compelling histories of those who have been marginalised and silenced?

Scrutiny of history curricula at both school and university level has intensified in recent years, driven in large part by the Royal Historical Society’s (RHS) report that drew attention to the damaging implications of a narrow and exclusive history curriculum for students. Among its key recommendations were that that absences of Black British history and BAME historians from reading lists should be addressed as a matter of urgency. It is also suggested that greater attention is paid to wider connections and comparisons in all topics and world history courses do not exclusively preside over European imperial histories

Obviously, race and ethnicity are not the only lenses through which to view the history curriculum. The nature of the subject means that equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) can be understood in more expansive terms to embed the perspectives of underrepresented or marginalised groups in society - not only in terms of race, ethnicity, and religion, but also in terms of gender, sexuality, class, and disability.

This presents both opportunities and challenges for future curriculum development in school history. Disciplinary fields such as cultural history are becoming increasingly prominent and have produced valuable research about migration, experiences of empire and identity. However, any attempt to incorporate recent academic thinking in to school history must take account for the risk of making the size of the curriculum overly burdensome for teachers. Broadening the scope of the curriculum involves making difficult decisions about which history that is currently taught is de-emphasised or excluded altogether. Put simply, it is far easier to determine would should be added to a history curriculum than to decide what should be removed.

History teachers will be a valuable resource in deciding what goes in to the curriculum in future. As reported by the recent 2021 Historical Association Secondary Survey found 83% of schools have made substantial changes to their Key Stage 3 curriculum in recent years to address issues of inclusivity and diversity. However, making wholesale changes at Key Stages 4 and 5 – where teachers and schools are subject to accountability measures – carries greater risk. Teachers often choose, understandably, to focus on well-known and well-resourced topics at GCSE and A-level. Therefore, in creating new and revised topic areas, exam boards have an important role to play in providing training and support to teachers in preparation for teaching new histories and perspectives at later Key Stages in future.

British history, depending on how it is conceptualised, may offer a route for diversifying the curriculum. The current DfE subject content for GCSE History defines British History with reference to ‘British history and/ or the history of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland.’ However, as far back as 1975, J.G.A. Pocock sought to replace the national histories of the four nations of England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland with a new understanding of ‘British history’ as a product of the broader ‘Atlantic archipelago’ that stretched from the ‘banks of the Mississippi to those of Waimakiriri.’[1] Later historians have built upon this approach, placing the histories of the islands of Britain and Ireland in the context of wider thematic, imperial, or transnational forces, to break what Lidher, McIntosh, and Alexander term the “artificial barriers between ‘Britain’ and ‘World.’”[2]

The call to ‘rethink the borders of British history’ offers one potential route to add greater breadth and diversity to the curriculum, allowing  for different historical perspectives and experiences to be explored. As long as any such developments in the history curriculum are incorporated in a way that does not de-professionalise teachers or overload the size of the qualification, they offer a real opportunity to improve the current Key Stage 4 and Key Stage 5 curriculum for students.

[1] Pocock, J.G.A. (1975), ‘British History: A Plea for a New Subject,’ Journal of Modern History 47, no. 4: 601-21

[2] Lidher S., McIntosh M. & Alexander C. (2021), ‘Our migration story: history, the national curriculum, and re-narrating the British nation,’ Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 47:18, 4221-4237, DOI: 10.1080/1369183X.2020.1812279; see also Vernon, J. (2016), “The History of Britain is Dead; Long Live a Global History of Britain.” History Australia 13 (1): 19–34.