History teaching in schools has long been seen as central to creating a sense of national identity, and in defining the scope of citizenship.
Who and what gets included in the vision of ‘British history’ has been hotly contested, particularly by black and minority ethnic communities, who have campaigned for over five decades for the inclusion of black histories on the curriculum. The establishment of supplementary schools and of Black History Month – which celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2017 – have shown both the significance of a more inclusive version of British history in our increasingly ethnically, racially and religiously diverse society, and the tenacity of BME activists in seeking alternative ways of telling these (hi)stories.
Some voices are not heard
It remains true, however, that more inclusive histories remain relatively marginalised in the formal education system, with the most recent revisions to the National Curriculum in History, launched in 2014, focused on a narrow, celebratory version of ‘Our Island Story’. Such a vision seems archaic given our increasingly globalised world and the growing diversity of Britain’s classrooms, where BME young people make up around 27% of state funded primary and secondary school pupils in England.
A recent Royal Historical Society report on race, ethnicity and equality noted that university History departments remained ‘overwhelmingly White’ and identified ‘the limited intellectual and substantive diversity of UK History curriculums… as an impediment to racial and ethnic diversity and inclusion’ in History as a discipline. This reinforces the lack of diversity among history educators, who remain unfamiliar with ‘other’ histories and uncomfortable with teaching subjects perceived as ‘difficult’ in increasingly racially and ethnically diverse classrooms. At the same time, recent years have seen increasingly vocal campaigns by BME young people in universities and schools to ‘decolonise the curriculum.’
The migration story
For the past decade, academics at the University of Manchester and University of Cambridge have been working with The Runnymede Trust on a series of Arts and Humanities Research Council funded projects exploring how a more inclusive British history can be taught in schools.
Working in 8 schools across England and Wales, and with over 400 young people, and their teachers, we have used family and community history methods, local archives, filmmaking, animation and photography to bring Britain’s history of migration to life, to inspire a new generation of young historians from all ethnic backgrounds, and to support teachers in delivering this work in the classroom.
Since 2016, we have collaborated with over 80 academic and local historians, local and national museums and archives (including the Imperial War Museum, National Archives, Black Cultural Archives, V&A, the Migration Museum), exam boards, teachers and professional history associations to create a ‘one-stop shop’ for young people, teachers and the general public to tell a different British history. One which sees Britain as a nation shaped through migration and migrants for the past 2000 years.
The Our Migration Story website and teaching resource was developed with two key aims: firstly, to bring together primary resources which explore Britain’s history of migration in one, freely accessible, place, to contest dominant narratives of what British identity is, and who is included within this; second, and in response to the requests of teachers we have worked with, to provide supporting materials – including lesson plans – to make these resources easy to use in classrooms.
The website acts as an online resource ‘hub’ or textbook, which brings together primary historical resources from the Anglo-Saxons onwards to showcase different migrant histories. The resources are placed in context by academic experts, to show how these stories ‘fit’ within the broader historical events of the time, and to explain their significance. These are linked to further resources that can be easily downloaded for use in classrooms. Visitors to the site can explore particular historical periods, or trace movements across time (e.g. Jewish migration) or from particular regions.
Since its launch in October 2016, the website has had over 142,000 hits, from across the world, including the US, India, Australia, Canada, Germany, France, Italy, the Philippines and Ireland – clearly showing the global reach of, and fascination for, an inclusive British history.
There is so much more to do
Nevertheless, the challenge remains in getting BME, and other inclusive histories (of women, sexual and religious minorities, working class and social histories) mainstreamed in schools and universities, onto our TV screens and into the public imagination. Right now with Brexit, the rise of increasingly exclusionary discourses is being played out in and across in many aspects of our society, and the voices of our young people are demanding a change from this rhetoric. Our Migration Story is part of a larger conversation around national identity and citizenship which has never been more urgent.
We are hoping to pursue further discussions with policymakers and those working in education to find ways to mainstream migration as a topic across curricula and throughout the education system, from primary schools to universities. For universities, this work can also lead to generating a pathway for more diverse groups of students to study subjects such as history, where BME students and staff are underrepresented.
What we have learned from this work, and what we hope others will take away from it, are two key messages: that migration has been and is an ordinary part of what it means to be British for over 2000 years, and that modern Britain, its towns and cities, its great houses and its ordinary streets, its food and language, its literature, culture and history are unimaginable without this migrant past.