How can we improve diversity within history education?

In the wake of Black Lives Matter, diversity in history teaching has come under increased scrutiny. Six experts consider how the study of the past can be made more inclusive 

Hiring more black academics “to teach all sorts of histories” is key to instigating real change in university history education, lecturer Charlotte Lydia Riley argues. (Photo by Shutterstock)

Christienna Fryar: “A history that cannot explain what Britain was doing in its empire has little to offer to students” 

There are a few ways to think about diversity in history education. As a historian of Britain and the Caribbean, my emphasis is on race and empire. Howev- er, this argument extends to other marginalised histo- ries, which all need a greater presence in history curricu- la. One definition would be a more representative curriculum that connects, in one way or another, British history to the heritages of all students, while another approach might focus on increasing the number of BAME teachers in schools and BAME historians in universities. 

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These are not distinct projects. The 2018 Royal Historical Society report Race, Ethnicity & Equality in UK History notes that fewer BAME students in Britain opt to study history at the next level (GCSEs, A-levels, and university) than their white counterparts, and the pattern continues when history undergraduates consider postgraduate study. This is what the organi- sation Leading Routes calls “the broken pipeline”. When primary and secondary-school history introduces students to stories about a past that seems relevant to their lives, those students are more likely to continue studying history at more advanced levels. 

The most straightforward and effective way to do this would be through rewriting the national history curriculum. Such a rewrite should move away from exceptionalism and towards a more complex and accurate rendering of Britain’s past. Some might argue that it is more important for children to develop pride in their country. However, this pride cannot be founded on misinformation. A history that cannot accurately explain what Britain was doing around the world and in its empire has little to offer students of African or south Asian heritage. 

This kind of rewrite may be unlikely, in the near future at least. Writing the national curriculum, especially for history, is a political act, orchestrated by politicians rather than educational professionals. In the meantime, the close collaborations between teachers and academics that are already happening should continue as a way to embed these histories, even within the limits of the national curriculum. 

Christienna Fryar is a lecturer in black British history at Goldsmiths, University of London 


Pritipuspa Mishra: “Studying the history of the other from the other’s perspective will train students to be better global citizens who will be more able to function in the increasingly globalised world” 

In the heyday of the British empire, India was called the ‘jewel of the empire’. As a new university lecturer in the UK who had only recently emigrated from the US, I expected to find undergraduate students who were very aware of the history of India and the British empire. It was their history, after all. Instead, I found students who had very little training in the history of British activities in India during their early education. 

On reflection, I think that my assumption was wrong in a very crucial way. I had expected students to know the history of the non-western world because it was part of their history. However, if we truly want to introduce diversity into our school and university history curricula, then we need to address these histories in their own terms. Rather than looking at the history of India, Brazil or China as part of the history of European imperialism, we need to introduce young people to the history of non-western lands and peoples through lenses of their own making. A quick look at the GCSE syllabus shows us that this kind of approach is already in effect for the history of the US. However, there is very little Asian, Latin- American or African history that goes beyond the story of European imperialism or global historical events such as the Second World War. 

Why is it important that students study the history of the other from the other’s perspective and from outside the framework of the European/non-European relationship? This type of learning will train them to be better global citizens who will be more able to function in the increasingly globalised world. It will help them to understand that empires, transatlantic slavery and economic ex- ploitation of large tracts of the world was not historically inevitable. These peoples and nations were already on a trajectory of their own which was disrupted by the intervention of European imperialism. Learning about the history of India or China in the time before empire can allow students to see this more clearly. 

During this pandemic, we need this perspective more than ever. As we come to realise the whole globe is in this common struggle, we are also coming to realise that any long-term solution will need to be based on a recognition of cultural and social diversity across the world. 

Pritipuspa Mishra is associate professor of south Asian and post-colonial history at the University of Southampton, and author of Language and the Making of Modern India (Cambridge University Press, 2020) 


Peter Frankopan:“We need to teach global history by linking all peoples, cultures, continents and periods together, rather than cherry-picking good stories” 

One of the biggest challenges for historians is how to open up the study of the past beyond the narrow geographic and periodic tram- lines that have shaped history education for too long. Diversity is not just a goal in itself: it is fundamental to how we look at history – but also how we look at the world around us. 

History should engage, provoke and open up new pathways for pupils, students, teachers and general readers to better under- stand the worlds of the past. At the younger end of the scale, an obvious and critical problem comes from the lack of really good history books that are entertaining, readable and accessible. Young adult fiction is booming in the UK, but non-fiction has conspicuously failed to keep up, with one or two notable excep- tions (such as Horrible Histories). 

Having said that, I never cease to be amazed and impressed at the inventiveness of schoolteachers in finding new materials and fashion- ing them into resources that help in their classrooms. But they have to work harder than they should because of the lack of texts that could
– and should – be available. 

When it comes to diversity in general, we need to be constantly challenging the narrowness of a curriculum that exists for little more reason than to streamline testing. That limits educational engage- ment in history to the familiar terrain of Britain, western Europe, a dose of the US, and a highly selective – and usually extremely negative – introduction to other parts of the world which rarely prompts further investigation. When students learn about China, Russia or the Middle East, it is invariably in terms of revolution, violence and failure rather than contextualising their achievements. 

And of course, vast regions are left out altogether. It is perfectly possible, for instance, to gain a history degree without ever having heard the words Champa, Moche, Songhai or Srivijaya, let alone having studied these empires. 

Diversity means providing a joined-up story of a global past that provides perspectives and sets humanity, for good and for bad, in contexts that explain how and why things happened. That means teaching global history as a way of linking all peoples, cultures, continents and periods together, rather than cherry-picking good stories. It is not easy to do well. But it is not impossible. 

Peter Frankopan is professor of global history at the University of Oxford, and his books include The Silk Roads (Bloomsbury, 2015) 


Kehinde Andrews:“Where we view society from matters. The view from oppressed people shines a necessary light on inequality” 

Given the distinct lack of diversity of aca- demic staff in university history departments who create the knowledge that trickles down to primary and secondary schools, it is no coincidence that most students still learn from a narrow white curriculum. But too often discussions of diversity focus on the people who are employed as educators. We must remember that it is not just the face of history that needs to be changed, but the nature of it. We rely on eurocentric ways of understanding the world that maintain the myth that western civilisation is superior. 

The main reason we started Black Studies at Birmingham City University was to offer a different perspective. By viewing the world through the experiences, contributions and perspectives of Africa and the African diaspora, we present a different outlook on society. Histories of empire, legacies of slavery and continued racial inequality become focal points for understanding the world, rather than merely being supplements that are eventually discussed at a surface level if there is ever enough time. Where we view society from matters, because the view from those who are oppressed is clearer and shines a necessary light on how inequality is embedded into every area of life. 

For instance, one of the principal flaws in mainstream history is viewing Britain through the lens of the four nations on the British Isles. This creates a narrow version of history, about who has contrib- uted and has a stake in the nation today. But Black Studies organically understands that Britain was only great as a vast empire, and that the subjects in the colonies contributed their blood, sweat and labour to as great an extent as anyone in the mother country. If we understood Britain in its true, broad, imperial sense, then the ‘Little England’ mentality that is leading public policy could simply not exist. 

Kehinde Andrews is professor of Black Studies at Birmingham City University. His books include Resisting Racism (Trentham Books, 2013) 


Charlotte Lydia Riley: “We cannot improve diversity by simply tweaking at the edges. Instead, we need bold, systemic change” 

For too long, universities have ignored the question of diversity, or have merely fiddled around at the edges of it. Voices calling for diversity have been patron- ised and dismissed. The people doing the work to try to improve the diversity of our history departments and of the history explored within them have been marginalised, and their work has gone unrewarded. New initiatives, like the Black Studies BA (Hons) offered at Birmingham City University (see left), and the MA in Black British History at Goldsmiths, University of London, should be championed and learned from. But all history departments in this country need to diversify, as well as doing the deep systemic and structural work that might be included under ‘decolonising’. 

There are a number of things that universities could do to push for more diversity in history departments, many of which were highlighted in the excellent work of the 2018 report, Race, Ethnicity & Equality in UK History. Proactive student recruit- ment from BAME communities, including offers based on contextual data that take into account 

the fact that these students are likely to experience racism in the school system, would be a start. There also needs to be proactive hiring of BAME academ- ics, to teach all sorts of histories. And BAME people in universities need to be supported economically, politically and emotionally. 

Of course, we need to address the curriculum too – but the solution is not merely more diverse histories taught by more white lecturers. And we cannot fall back on global histories to fulfil a quota of diverse stories. We need to teach more black British history, and we need to hire more black historians. We cannot improve diversity by simply tweaking at the edges. It needs bold, systemic change, and it will require action from the very people who are invested in the system continuing as it is. 

Charlotte Lydia Riley is a lecturer in 20th-century British history at the University of Southampton. Her book on Britain’s relationship with empire, Imperial Island, will be published by Bodley Head in 2022 


Jason Todd: “Teachers need to be wary of stereotypes so that we don’t force one topic or individual to do all the work of representation” 

The long-term response to the question of improving diversity in education is structur- al. The immediate prospects of diversifying the teaching profession, especially in history, remain grim: the 2018 report (see Christienna Fryar’s piece) revealed chronic under-rep- resentation in UK history departments of BAME students and staff, persistent discrimi- nation, and narrow curricula. 

A starting point, then, is the curriculum. A broader curriculum will offer all young people the opportunity to understand the dynamic world they live in, and will better serve all history teachers coming into the profession. Teacher training and development is key, too. All trainee teachers bring their own identities into the classroom, and they must be aware of how their identity impacts on young people’s learning experience. However, for many teachers who have a limited experience of diversi- ty, thinking through the issues is a challenge. This is exacerbated by a narrow curriculum, structural inequalities and a cultural bias where dominant society – in the form of books and media – reflects the norms of the majority culture. Richard Harris and Gill Clarke’s work with trainee history teachers suggests that a good starting point is getting teachers to think about their purpose, the reasons for teaching history and the place of diversity within this. This means thinking about history not just as a body of knowledge, but as a form of knowledge. 

We also need more explicit references to race as part of the curric- ulum. Teachers need to be wary of stereotypes so that we don’t force one topic (typically slavery) or individual (often Martin Luther King) to do all the work of representation. Instead, we need to find both agency and complexity in the way that we represent experiences. This means appreciating racial cultures not as bounded entities, but in a dynamic dialogue with a wide array of other influences and across a longer span of time than the 20th century. Teachers will need support, not hectoring, through access to academic scholarship and empirical research in the form of meaningful professional development. 

EH Carr argued that history is a continual dialogue between the past and the present. Understanding how stories about the past are constructed offers students opportunities to critique mainstream accounts, as well as to construct their own narratives – this is where the emancipatory potential of history lies. The recent debate on statues, for instance, offers an educational opportunity for examining how societies then and now ascribe historical significance, and to consider various interpretations. History as a subject would benefit from this approach, too. According to the 2018 report, “The intellec- tual dynamism of history as a practice feeds on a substrate enriched by multiple, often disputing voices.” Improving the diversity of our curriculum to include multiple perspectives is to enrich history. 

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Jason Todd lectures in history education at the University of Oxford. He is co-author of the 2019 report Teaching Migration, Belonging, and Empire in Secondary Schools