470/2 - History and Britishness: alternatives for school history

Robin Whitburn   

Institute of Education, London University, UK


Abdullahi Mohamud

Hampstead School , London, UK


Sharon Yemoh

Isleworth & Syon School , Middlesex, UK


Mots clés: Enseignement de l'histoire - Grande-Bretagne- Identité nationale.



Public debate about the school history curriculum in Britain often highlights its connection to issues of identity within British society and associated values, including social cohesion and patriotism.  Some commentators give central importance to heroic figures associated with the nation’s narrowly perceived triumphs (Gove, 2011).  The school courses discussed here bear the hallmarks of both ‘British History’ and ‘heroism’ but focus on history that seldom features in either political or academic debates:  the experience of Black and Asian peoples in Britain.  Rather than the veneration of traditional icons, the approach to heroism was for both students and teachers to encounter historical actors who can inspire their future conduct, particularly when they are hemmed in by constraining forces (Halpin, 2010). One was a public examination course for 16-year old students studied at a highly diverse multicultural comprehensive secondary school in north London, taught from 2004 to 2010.  The other is an historical enquiry for 12- and 13-year olds that has been taught in five different London schools and focuses on people of Somalian heritage who have been a presence in Britain for over a hundred years, but whose migration has changed in nature significantly in the past few decades.

Some people believe that there needs to be an exclusive focus on positive aspects of multicultural Britain in order to create social cohesion, but we considered such an approach unhistorical, and indeed unlikely to succeed, since our young people would be sceptical of an unconditionally positive picture.  Heroism of Black British people is sometimes presented in terms of personal struggles to emerge paramount in fields of sport and culture, but our courses involved socio-political communal struggles; students examined how the concepts of assimilation, autonomy and integration, were experienced and debated during the twentieth century.  In the British Somali enquiry the role of the immigrant workers in the nation’s struggles in two world wars was highlighted, and questions discussed about the way remembrance of their role had been largely ignored for so long. 

Two small-scale research projects examined aspects of the impact of these courses on students, and small groups of students were selected as samples to be interviewed.  The approach followed the idea of ‘Appreciative Enquiry’ (Ludema et al, 2006) and so concentrated on positive impact, rather than critique.  In both cases, the students talked in terms of the development of their appreciation of their nation and their heritages.  Studying the struggles of Black and Asian peoples in post-Imperial Britain had not been antithetical to giving them a confident sense of Britishness.



1. Multicultural curriculum development in history education in English schools’: two case-studies

The debates about the position of history education in Britain have frequently focused on its connection to issues of identity within British society and the constructive values that might be associated with those issues, including social cohesion, respect, tolerance, loyalty, and patriotism.  The terrorist attacks in London in July 2005 prompted particular anxieties about these issues.  In analysing the issue of history and citizenship education in the light of those shocks, in 2006 Britain’s former Prime Minister, Gordon Brown (2006), while he was still Chancellor of the Exchequer, described a rather dismal picture of Britain after 1945:

… in the years after 1945, faced with relative economic decline as well as the end of empire, Britain lost confidence in itself and its role in the world and became so unsure about what a confident post-imperial Britain could be…

With strong foreshadowings of statements from the current Tory-Liberal coalition, Brown proposed that Britain’s history curriculum could counter this and contribute to the development of a positive British identity:

… we should not recoil from our national history, rather we should make it more central to our education. I propose that British history should be given much more prominence in the curriculum, not just dates places and names, nor just a set of unconnected facts, but a narrative that encompasses our history.                                 (Brown, 2006)

Nonetheless, the actual narrative of post-Imperial Britain would almost certainly hardly feature in this, as is the case in more recent political and academic versions of Britain’s ‘Island Story’, such as the proposals of the Secretary of State for Education (Gove, 2011) and the Better History Group (Lang, 2011), respectively.

          The post-Imperial period included rapid developments in the formation of a more multi-ethnic British society, with more large-scale immigration from the world’s continents than Britain had experienced before, and British society began decades of challenges and struggles to establish a multicultural society at ease with that new level of diversity; the struggle continues. In more recent decades, there have been large groups of migrants from both Eastern Europe and Africa, including Somalia, arriving in the United Kingdom, and the nation has faced the opportunities and challenges of its multicultural diversity with renewed interest and anxiety.  It is clear that the processes of globalisation and the struggles for international human rights are demanding significant reflection on what it means to be a nation in the 21st century.  Both of the school history courses discussed in this paper were prepared by us as teachers who welcomed these challenges and believed that the curricula in schools can have a significant impact on the future generations of that increasingly diverse British nation.  The first of the two courses discussed was a major part of one school’s syllabus for six years, but is no longer taught as described here, due to changes in public examination arrangements.  The second of the two is a shorter six hour historical enquiry that has been taught in five London schools, and is scheduled for another two in the coming year.

1.1.The GCSE course on ‘Multicultural Britain since 1945’

‘Multicultural Britain since 1945’ constituted a General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) unit taught to sixteen year olds at St.Mary’s High School in Hendon, a highly diverse multicultural London comprehensive school, from 2004 to 2010 ( Whitburn and Yemoh, 2012). The course was set up by Robin in response to a change in the available GCSE units, with an awareness that it would complement the rest of the school’s work on Black History (Whitburn et al, 2012). The course was developed entirely within the school, with no textbook, nor curricular advice from outside authorities.  Its focus was the challenges that people faced in forging a multicultural society in Britain since the end of the Second World War, and how the concepts of assimilation, accommodation, and integration, were experienced and debated through the decades. Students regularly discussed the extent to which the two concepts of assimilation and integration were developing through the key events and circumstances that they were studying.

          The course began with the Caribbean arrivals on the SS Windrush in 1948, and their thoughts about Britain as the ‘Mother Country’. The students then studied discrimination in housing and the ‘colour bar’ in the 1950s; the Notting Hill Riots, Kelso Cochrane’s murder and the Oswald Mosley election in 1958-59; the Bristol Bus Boycott and other forms of direct action campaigning. Heroic activism was explored through various case-studies, including: Claudia Jones, the editor of the West Indian Gazette and a founder of the first London carnival in the early 1960s; Paul Stephenson and Guy Bailey in Bristol and the Bus Boycott of 1963; Jayaben Desai and the Asian women involved in the Grunwick trades union dispute of the mid-1970s; and Bernie Grant, the political activist who became one of the first four Black M.P.s of post-Imperial Britain in the 1987 election. The unit culminated in a coursework assignment that focused on ideas of assimilation and integration, and examined an interpretation of James Walvin (1984), which said that ‘the concept of assimilation was flawed’. We had a special opportunity to learn about the impact of our work from a dedicated research project undertaken by Sharon, the school’s first student teacher in history education for over ten years, in 2010. 

1.2. The British Somali History Project

This developed over the course of a year (2012-13) through the work of two of us (Abdul and Robin) who decided to research the histories of the Somali people in Britain. It introduces the students to the longevity of a Somali presence in Britain, and gives some understanding of the rapid growth of British Somali communities in the last thirty years.  The key concepts of the work are assimilation and autonomy, which were linked to the socio-cultural ideas of nomads and settlers, drawn from the lived experiences of Somali people themselves in their homeland and in the diaspora. The work began with the most meagre of resources. We initially had: two photographs from Cardiff in 1950 that showed Somalis in a traditional setting in the mosque and in a westernised setting in a house; some information from a small number of books and internet sites; and Abdul’s knowledge from his British Somali community in North London.  The connection with Cardiff prompted a visit to the city and we discovered a volume of photographs and testimonies from Somali elders, which gave us enough material to set up a full six-hour enquiry for students, investigating the decisions and lifestyles of those men.


It is an enormous undertaking for teachers to take up the challenge of developing such innovative and less conventional histories, with no folders of university notes to rummage through for knowledge and no textbooks to inspire thinking, let alone to furnish entire schemes of work.  The present History National Curriculum in England (QCA, 2007) encourages teachers to select aspects of diverse histories, particularly reflecting the different cultures and ethnicities in contemporary Britain, but it is very challenging for them to develop this work when their subject knowledge is quite limited. Over a decade ago, Grosvenor (1999) exhorted teachers to take steps to ensure that, regardless of any constraints of National Curriculum frameworks, our students in school are engaged in a broad and diverse history curriculum:  ‘… it is teachers who make the difference not centrally directed structures.  ‘We cannot leave it to chance’’. Teachers have to decide to take up this challenge and develop new and initially meagerly resourced courses in school, taking an approach to their professionalism as history educators that takes them far beyond the prescribed elements of a school’s job description for its staff.  The commitment is a personal as well as social one; teachers do have the capacity to transform the experiences and learning of their students if they are prepared to set the highest of expectations not just of the latter but also of themselves.  The three of us have come through a range of different personal contexts and circumstances that have determined our commitment to transforming school history in a UK context, and aim to ‘do justice to history’.

2. Mohamud, Whitburn and Yemoh: professional and personal identities and motivations in curriculum development

London continues to grow as a vastly diverse global metropolis, connected to the forces of British Imperialism across the centuries and to the more contemporary features of globalisation in the post-Cold War era.  Our work has been rooted in that metropolis, although we are committed to taking it beyond those bounds in future.  We are proud Londoners, and our commitment to history education and our identity as educators is intimately connected with that.  The importance of culture in learning has been widely recognised in the last fifty years (Bruner, 1996), and in the USA a good deal of work has been developed on the notions of culturally-relevant pedagogy (Ladson-Billings, 1995).  Ladson-Billlings’ work with successful teachers of African-American children in challenging environments led to the conclusion that teachers had to be very knowledgeable about their students’ communities and cultures, and some of the most successful were indeed part of those communities outside of their schools, although not initially from them.

          As typical Londoners of the twenty-first century, we all have backgrounds beyond Britain’s shores, giving us complex connections with British identity, and perhaps a greater ease in embracing the notions of diversity and multiple identities that we see as vital to the learning of history.  We have enjoyed a fluidity in aspects of identity and welcome the opportunities of culturally relevant education in our diverse classrooms. Robin’s ancestors are Celtic, from Scotland and Cornwall, but both his parents were born in Britain’s imperial territories (father in India, mother in New Zealand) and he himself was born in Canada.  It was following involvement in a church in north-west London that he became deeply connected to the African-Caribbean communities of the area, and came to appreciate the glories of African history and the strong stories of resistance within the African Diaspora.  Since the 1980s he has been researching and learning ‘Black history’ with a focus on developing school curricula that bring that history to all London students, and particularly those of more direct African heritage.

          Sharon was one of the students who was able to learn from Robin in St.Mary’s High School, North London, and went on to study history at university and train as a teacher.  As a woman of Ghanaian heritage, born and raised in London, she emphasises the importance of being able to ‘see oneself in the past’ in order to engage and connect with the study of history.  She describes this issue of identity as an essential ‘humanising process’ whereby the culture of the education that a person is meeting in school has to reflect something of the culture that she personally knows she identifies with from her personal background. Until she experienced the history curriculum of secondary school, Sharon had seen nothing of herself as a Black African child that made her feel included in history. The positive impact was affirming intellectually, empowering her to value herself as a learner and engage in the study of a range of other histories.  This later had a significant impact on her classroom practice as a history teacher. 

          There were similar challenges for Abdul in his experience of education in London and his challenging path to becoming a successful secondary school history educator.  Born in Mogadishu, Somalia, he joined the London school system in the early stages of primary education, and was never motivated by school history until his final year of secondary school.  Despite being personally interested in political and historical issues, he had found nothing that stimulated him in school until the Advanced level course on the history of the Crusades presented him with the opportunity to study something that connected to himself as a Muslim. As a result of the disappointment of university education he resolved to become a history teacher in schools like his own in the belief that he could make history relevant in a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural classroom. 

Having engaged personally in historical enquiries that connected with histories of diverse peoples nationally and globally, we had each developed a Deweyan ‘felt difficulty’ (Dewey, 1933) that had captured both minds and hearts in searching for historical insights into our evolving nation, and its capital particularly.  We had also been very conscious of the debilitating impact of the absence of any such enquiry into diverse British and global histories, so we could see the need to pursue further studies with a sense of purpose that was vocational; as Dewey stated: ‘The difficulty may be felt with sufficient definiteness as to set the mind at once speculating upon its probable solution’. Each of us made a personal and professional commitment to pursue this ‘felt difficulty’ within the field of secondary school history education, and have now come together in partnership to effect wider change within our field.


3. ‘Doing Justice to History’ in the context of contemporary British schools

It is difficult to escape the imperatives of schooling that emphasise performance results, particularly in terms of public examination grades for students, which of course are of vital importance for the futures of our young people.  Unfortunately those imperatives may have worrying implications for history educators, particularly those who see the importance of all students having the opportunities of studying history throughout their secondary schooling (Harris et al, 2012). The arrival of the ‘English Baccalaureate’ (DfE, 2012) as a measure of performance may have asserted the importance of history as a course of study for students, but it may make the subject the exclusive preserve of those who can secure a high grade in the course, ignoring the wider values of learning history for young people’s growth and development. Whether or not such an outcome would represent the total disappearance of values appropriate in history education is debatable, however, such an outcome undoubtedly represents a narrowing of values; we need to consider the wider significance of the history education we offer our students, if teachers and students are to enjoy a more profound and meaningful experience in our classrooms than one that merely pursues ‘raising’ examination performance.

          Within the loose frameworks of the National Curriculum programmes of study and the syllabuses of the public examination boards, teachers have vital decisions to make with respect to curriculum, pedagogy and assessment.  It is all too easy for teachers in schools to abrogate their decision-making powers in resignation to the alleged ‘constraints of the syllabuses’, and the lack of innovation within school history is partly the result of lacklustre thinking by teachers. Such approaches, we would argue, fail to ‘do justice to history’.  In making necessary selections of the historical situations that students will study, and of the pedagogical approaches that seek to develop their historical learning, teachers are necessarily involved in political and moral decisions connected to the values that they and their schools believe important.  ‘Justice’ is an idea that can often emerge in discussions of the history curriculum, either in evaluating the choices of teachers in their teaching, or in the actual learning processes within their classrooms, or indeed in both.   The teachers behind these two courses believed that issues of justice should play a key role in the histories that our students studied, and echoed the thinking of Barton and Levstik (2009) that one of the criteria for curriculum selection in history:

      … should be the extent to which given topics promote consideration of the common good.  Toward that end, students should be exposed to historical topics that force them to consider issues of justice – the impact of racism, for example, or gender roles, dictatorship, warfare, colonialism, economic relations, and so on.

We shared Amartya Sen’s (2010) argument that the idea of justice is necessarily concerned with injustice as much as with the presentation of an ideal position of justice itself. In considering the history of diverse peoples in Britain, the experience of racism by the migrant newcomers, from the 1919 riots in port cities onwards (Fryer,1985), and the struggles of resistance by the ‘arrivants’, was a key feature of the courses discussed in this paper.

          Nonetheless, the teachers were very conscious that there is a danger that if all the attention is focused on the righting of injustice through the history classroom, we could lose sight of the complex processes of what it means to ‘do justice to history’.  It has been clearly and soundly established in secondary schools that history lessons should be as much concerned with the historical thinking and processes that the students are engaged in as it is with the particular content studied.  We echo Christine Counsell’s (2000) exhortation that to separate the conceptual thinking and the subject knowledge is ‘distracting’, and we would always want to keep both in mind in our planning and development. So, the work on diverse British communities is treated with the same concerns for disciplinary thinking as any other part of the history National Curriculum.

          Back in 1971 James Banks emphasised the importance of a rigorous disciplinary approach to history in the promotion of the new Black Studies curriculum in the United States:

… the main goal of Black history should be the same as the goal of the social studies program: to help students develop the ability to make sound decisions so that they can resolve personal problems and shape public policy by participating in intelligent social action.  Higher-level interdisciplinary knowledge, social science inquiry, and value inquiry are necessary for sound decision-making.                                   (Banks, 2006a)

Banks warned that without this disciplinary approach and a new pedagogical approach from teachers “Black history will become just another fleeting fad” and this can surely be recognised by those who observe a rather tired and predictable approach to Black History Month in many schools and communities across London. Although the pioneering inspiration and impetus of Black History Month in Britain, beginning in the late 1980s, was invaluable in bringing diverse histories to the attention of teachers, and prompting curriculum change, the latter was seriously truncated, and almost universally limited to the history of Black peoples in the Americas, and occassionally in Africa itself.  Moreover, within the celebratory framework of an annual month-long focus, there was little scope for critical intellectual study of Black history for the students. We were clear that the work we developed had to have integrity within the disciplinary approaches to historical study, as well as focusing the spotlight on unjustly hidden histories of diverse British peoples.

          In considering the value framework of the history curriculum work at St.Mary’s, as well as that of the British Somali History Project, Abdul affirms the integrity of the approach of the teachers involved in these innovations to the histories of diverse global civilisations and peoples. As a recent ‘arrivant’ himself, his perspective offers a critical perspective on the efforts of established institutions that consider diverse histories. For him, the key factor that distinguished the department's set of values was the fact they were not imposed externally but rather grew from the culture and values held by the students. The notion that to ‘do justice’ to the students and the history required appreciation of students’ heritages and a reflection in the syllabus was prominent. Although he was a trainee teacher, Abdul was not new to history departments and what struck him most about the teachers’ approach to this type of history was the fact it was not 'gimmicky'. It clearly factored into all the thinking, and the appreciation of values permeated every step of the planning process. The history of the newcomers to Britain was complemented by studying the histories of their original homelands. It was remarkable that all the members of the department were born and raised in the United Kingdom, but held the values and traditions of the African, Caribbean and Asian histories of their students in the highest regard, a level of appreciation that could only be described as reverence. There is the sense that if the teachers were not seen to be upholding this type of history in reverence then it can be all too easy for the children to ignore or lose sight of its value.

4. Impact on identity – the problems of easy assumptions and the ‘faux pas’

Creating an inclusive curriculum for students from a variety of backgrounds offers many benefits and opportunities; it also comes with its own set of pitfalls. When the aim is to make students feel valued in a history classroom the imperative is to ensure that the history chosen to create this feeling does not in itself have negative ‘baggage’. An example of this is the teaching of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade to students of African descent (Traille, 2007). It is not uncommon to hear well-meaning history teachers justify the inclusion of this topic in their curricula through the perceived positive impact it will have specifically on the children of African descent. A short conversation with any of these students will quickly expose the error of this logic; namely that although they are interested in learning about their heritage they are not interested in learning about it exclusively through the short period their ancestors were the brutalised chattel of Europeans.  The little research that has been undertaken into the learning of Black history in Western schools confirms this (Traille, 2007; Epstein, 2009). This particular faux pas is not one that is likely to be committed by teachers with an understanding of the dynamics of the urban classroom. However, when engaged in the process of creating new curricula for the same purpose there are precautions that need to be considered, especially with regard to the easy assumptions we all make.

          The underachievement of Somali students is a serious problem within the London school system (Kahin, 1997). The problems they face are numerous and well documented, foremost amongst these being a lack of belonging to wider British society, a feeling that is closely connected to self-esteem (Ma, 2003). Whilst teaching the history of the Somali people in Britain, Abdul and Robin were surprised by how little some Somali students in those lessons participated compared to the non-Somali students. More surprising was that these same students always expressed satisfaction with the lessons in the research interviews. When questioned about this incongruity some expressed the fear they held that the lessons would bring up aspects of their history that they may have difficulty taking pride in or that could make them the focus of ridicule and it was only at the end of the six lessons that they realised this was not the case. The cause of their reticence in class related directly to the dominant news agenda concerning Somalis at the time: piracy. Their anxieties, it seems, were further compounded by the fact that the lessons were deliberately constructed to maintain intrigue and to allow for development through the disclosure of information in stages. This had some of these students afraid of the next slide of the PowerPoint; would it be a hostage taking pirate? A malnourished child or some war-torn landscape? Although our aim was to use current news items as a means of engaging students in the positive history we were to explore later, in the words of Sam Wineburg ‘taking them from the familiar to the strange’ (Wineburg, 2001), we were in fact at risk of opening up a Pandora’s box of social and cultural anxieties. Such hazards are difficult to avoid, especially in London schools where up to fifty languages can be spoken in one school. It then becomes even more important for us as educators to be both students of our discipline and of the students we teach.

5. Researching the impact of the Multicultural Britain GCSE course

The P.G.C.E. assignment that brought the initial collection of data on the impact of this course was undertaken in the summer of 2010, prompted by the inspiration that the course gave to Sharon as a student teacher, not just in terms of the content and subject but also the pedagogy that underpinned it.  PGCE students were charged with investigating the wider impact of history education, and what engaged her thinking most at this time was the political discourses surrounding history teaching that often manifest themselves in the debate on the subject’s role in fostering a sense of a common identity and the concept of ‘Britishness.’  She was curious about how those who studied the course perceived it and the impact it had on their learning, particularly as an aim of the course was for the students to critically evaluate multiculturalism and the concept of assimilation.  Six students from St.Mary’s who had studied the Multicultural Britain unit in the autumn term of that year, were selected as a sample to be interviewed about their thoughts on the course and studying history in general; they were chosen to represent the range of ethnicities in the class. Students were asked what the course was about; what they found most interesting; whether they related it to the present; whether the course was valuable, and did their personal identities link with the course; how history is valuable and why they chose to study it for GCSE.

5.1. Intellectual identity

It is too easy to focus almost exclusively on historical content when considering issues of identity; the pedagogy in the history classroom is as important for identity.  The approach to history education that emphasises the disciplinary curriculum processes of the subject as much as the curriculum content would work well to effect this transformative approach. The intellectual identity developed by the course was an important outcome for the students.  As well as what they were taught, the students also picked out the importance of how they were taught, in the development of their identity:

Here you can have your own opinion and discuss things. You do have to learn the facts too, but I like the way it’s taught here. It’s not just piles of facts or dates. I didn’t expect it to be this good. Every lesson we are talking and saying what we think.          [Deborah]

Deborah has highlighted the vital significance of dialogue in their history learning in the classroom, and the opportunity for students to voice their own opinions in the process of learning. Harrell-Levy and Kerpelman (2010) comment on general issues of identity-formation and adolescents, and emphasise the vital contribution of pedagogy to the possibility of school classrooms playing a role in such development. They use the term transformative pedagogy for work that involves both teacher and students sharing in the dialogues and decision-making of the classroom; this was the approach in St.Mary’s  history department.  With transformative learning as the pedagogical principle, the process of learning the history of Multicultural Britain had a positive impact on students’ various identities:

It pushes me to think further than I would in other subjects; you have to really interpret what everything is saying. You have to dig deep, it’s not blatant, you can’t just look at something and say that’s what it is...you have to dig deep within yourself to find what something is saying.                                                                             [Jeron]

Jeron does not isolate his involvement with the history of ‘his people’ from the rigorous process of historical enquiry.

5.2. Britishness

Osler (2009) confirms that diversity doesn’t inevitably imply a lack of solidarity or a threat to national identity. Interestingly, for many students, an increased respect for ‘Britishness’ came from their critical engagement with the challenging themes and issues presented in the ‘Multicultural Britain’ course.  One of the group commented:

When you learn about the country that you are living in, you feel more assured that your country can move forward from problems.                                             [Ajit]

Rather than being divisive, engaging with the murky and controversial past, working through tough questions, gave these students an appreciation of the complexity of the past.  As history teachers committed to upholding the intellectual core of our subject, presenting students with such contradictions and complexities is important.  They were able to use their growing analytical understanding of the complexities to make greater sense of the concept of change across time:

The whole of London [now] is full of different cultures. The past wasn’t like that. It shows how much the world is changing and it’s positive so you can feel good and kind of privileged to live in a society where you don’t have [such racism].            [Deborah]

Having explored the contradictions and injustices in Britain’s history, the students gained more of a respect for the values of ‘tolerance, freedom and fairness”, which Britishness promotes. Put succinctly by Carl, there was an appreciation of “how far we have come as a nation”; he said:

We learnt about the Notting Hill riots, and how it was basically police against black citizens, and how crazy it was before; the only way to be heard was by rioting. Whereas you see today at the carnival it’s integrated. There are black and white police, and people of difference races enjoying it. You can see how far we have come as a nation.                                                                       [Carl] (our emphasis added)

Despite the fact that this was a GCSE course, and therefore inevitably part of a high stakes assessment and the drive to raise examination standards of achievement for students, the young people appear to have come away from this work with so much more than a measurable level of attainment.  Something approaching the idea of  ‘education for life’ appears to have been effected by their studying of this history. Students also felt that their need to connect to histories which they could personally identify with was met by this course. For one student in particular it was important that he learnt about how he became “himself”:

It makes you a better person as a whole, to reflect on others and how history is a part of you. You learn how you became yourself. That makes you a better person. It’s a confidence builder.                                                                   [Ajit]  

Not only was there a personal motivating factor in studying this unit, but Ajit also saw it as a critical part of his own personal development and described the impact as a “confidence builder.”         

          Studying the struggles of Black and Asian peoples in the decades of post-Imperial Britain is not antithetical to building a confident sense of Britishness among our young people.  Moreover, this would be the case in any school, regardless of whether it has a multicultural school population.  Ellen, the white female, of New Zealand heritage, thought this, as did the other students in the research group: 

I think it's good to learn the trials that people go through to get where we are today. It’s good to learn and respect that…  I think it would still matter in an all-white school.  People need to know and respect the history that is still there.                 Ellen

Furthermore, the experience of teaching and learning this innovative course have confirmed what James Banks (2006b) pointed out about Black history over forty years ago: the pedagogy in the classroom is at least as important as the choice of curriculum in determining the positive impact of history education.  That pedagogy needs to be transformative, rather than didactic and transmissive, such that students are trusted to be involved in decision-making and jointly steer the direction of the learning.  Teachers should be shunning the idea of inculcating our young people with a particular ‘body of knowledge’ about the past, whether that be of a triumphant British ‘Island Story’ or of the struggles of Black people against racist imperialists. 

          An approach to the learning and teaching of history that focuses on the disciplinary nature of the subject is at the heart of empowering students in our diverse post-Imperial Britain.  The connection that our students saw between the past, present and future, and the intellectual importance of their work was summed up by David:

Knowing your history could separate you from being an intellectual and a common person.  If you have the depth to know your history, and the present, that will help you improve the future. You are more of an intellectual if you know history, especially in this class.  Everyone in the class is linked together somehow.  People you thought you would never be friends with.  It's just professional; you share your opinions.                David

David’s initial comment might seem divisive within his mixed ability class of students achieving grades from A* to G, but his separation is not with respect to any of his fellow students who might be at a lower level of attainment, but rather from people who choose to remain ignorant of history, whom he terms ‘common’.  David’s intellectual identity had not become a selfish elitist attribute, but appears to affirm a sense of community within his diverse group, offering this intellectual opportunity to everyone.


          Since our goal as educators in a multiracial society and globalised world is to nurture young people with an unshakeable confidence in themselves, then we must do more than occasionally offer positive role models; we must embed diverse histories into our curricula and teaching, giving our students constant opportunity to discuss and explore race in all its complexity (Mohamud and Whitburn, forthcoming 2015).  This work must employ all the rigour and persistence usually reserved for the study of traditional history. The case for this becomes all the more compelling when we consider its potential impact on white students in multiracial, or mono-racial schools in the United Kingdom. In a discussion we had with some white working class boys after teaching a lesson on British Somali History one of them remarked how much he enjoyed the lessons and how he felt it had helped him to understand and value his fellow classmates. From our experience, far from rejecting this type of history, the white students can be amongst the most interested and engaged, which leads us to believe it may also have the potential to develop new identities. Schools can therefore be places where plural notions of Britishness can be developed through students’ experiences of history education, and by ‘doing justice to history’ the possibilities of multifaceted identity-formation could take shape.



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