Helen Snelson

Helen Snelson, Secondary History Associate Consultant

Quite simply, diversity sits at the heart of good history teaching. The reasons for this need a bit of explaining for beginning teachers and for colleagues who have not studied history themselves.

Let’s start with the academic argument. School history in the UK is a study of the past. Again, that sounds a simple statement, but it needs explaining too. We cannot go back to the past. It is a hugely diverse place. Of course it is, it includes all the people who have ever lived and all their hopes, dreams and experiences. Because we cannot get back to it, we take the fragments that remain (the letters, the films, the tax records, the memories… the sources) and carefully use them as evidence to try to find out about the people of the past, what they did, what they thought, and the world they lived in. Who we are, and our present concerns, will shape the questions we ask and the way we interpret the sources to make meaning from the past. Depending on what questions we ask of the past, we will get different answers. ‘As a result, history is not a static, unchanging, fixed account of events. It is a living discipline that explores new avenues, that reviews and reinterprets the past.’ And so, we have a hugely diverse past and the questions we ask about it and the meaning we make of it are shaped by the diverse present.

School history is not just about learning factual substantive knowledge about what happened in the past. Facts are important, but on their own they leave us with inert knowledge and are only really useful for winning pub quizzes. School history is also about teaching students to create knowledge in the manner of a historian. That is, to learn how to craft questions, to interrogate fragments of the past in context, to weigh up the quality of an evidence-based argument, and to think conceptually about change, continuity, cause, consequence, similarity and difference. The arguments historians are having about the past should inform the study of school history. Most school history teachers are not researchers themselves, but they need to stay research informed to teach history well. And over the course of the last 70 years the horizons of historians have widened and the scope of their study has become much more diverse in every way. Historians use a vastly more diverse range of fragments of the past than they did before. They are harnessing new technology to interrogate these sources. And historians themselves as a community are much more diverse than they ever were. History ‘is the complex, layered understanding of all human life and experience and how they intersect.’ It will keep diversifying and its limits are those of our own imaginations.

So, diversity is inherent to the discipline of history. It is also a curricular entitlement for all our pupils. In modern Britain our pupils have incredibly diverse heritages. All the children who know Britain as home should see the richness of their past in the school history curriculum. I love the phrase ‘the curriculum should whisper to every child, ‘you belong’’ . This is both inclusive and challenging. A sense of belonging and of being nurtured and encouraged to be the best you can be in the world is not created if you never learn about your past in school history. Nor is it created if the past you relate to is only referred to when the country of your parents’ heritage was invaded, or people whose identity you share were persecuted, or perspectives that hide and negate experiences you resonate with are the only ones on offer.

We are also preparing our pupils for life in an ever more globalised world with complex challenges. Learning that the past, and how it is interpreted, is diverse is part of preparing to live in a diverse present. If pupils who live in richly diverse communities do not have a diverse history curriculum, I suppose one could argue that they will learn about present diversity in other ways, and about diverse pasts from community sources. But for pupils who do not live in such richly diverse communities, they may rely more on school to help them prepare to live in a globalised world. If school does not open their eyes to human diversity and widen their horizons, then they could be disadvantaged in their futures.

This more globalised, complex world is also one in which information and knowledge are diverse and plural. This presents opportunities and challenges. Technological changes mean that far more people are able to have their voices and perspectives heard. Pupils encounter, via social media, perspectives about the past that are not created using a verifiable evidence base. These may deliberately seek to distort and be untrue, rather than be contestable truths. If we are to support pupils to navigate, make sense of, and avoid being taken in by misinformation, then pupils need to encounter diverse sources and perspectives in history lessons and learn how to evaluate them.

There are many things written and said about diversity in school history and you can find some links at the end to help you take this further. But to finish this short piece, I want to focus on the young people themselves. When we listen to pupils and their concerns, then we find that they want to know more about how we got where we are. The topics that many pupils care deeply about, from the climate crisis to issues of social justice, all have pasts that are relevant and resonant. There are also many questions we can ask of the past to help us to think how to create positive change that recognises the diversity of us all as we shape the future. A school history curriculum that listens to pupil voice will inevitably be diverse.

Taking this further…
Where to start with diversity resources on the HA website.
A public historian’s perspective


[1] Diversity Steering Group: mission statement

[1] I am not entirely sure if this was first said by Christine Counsell, or Ben Newmark, or someone else, but it is lovely!

[1] No more ‘doing’ diversity: how one department used Year 8 input to reform curricular thinking about content choice – Catherine Priggs (TH 179) Historical Association, 2020.

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