We can do more

To teach black history is to teach better history, says Jake Unwin, Head of History at Sutton High School, GDST

Every history teacher will at some point have taught their pupils about moments when the past has been distorted, doctored or denied. It may have been Joseph Stalin’s infamous retouching of photographs to airbrush out his political rivals. It may well have been something more light-hearted such as Disney’s humorous portrayal of King John as a thumb-sucking, weedy lion.

”We must lift our gaze”

This deep awareness amongst history teachers of how easily the past can be distorted means that –despite on-going efforts in recent decades – we have been rightly shocked into action as light is shone on the continued absence of black history in our schools. Look, for instance, into the statistics of the number of A-Level or GCSE history modules currently being sat by British school pupils which involve black British history. It is a sad truth that despite spending so much time studying historic distortions of the past, we can still struggle to carve out the necessary time to reflect on our own contemporary practice.

It takes little to see the consequences of this on our students. Just this week as I spoke to students about their experience of studying history, one black student respectfully observed that it was not until recently that she had known black people even had a history other than slavery prior to the 1950s. It is a troubling question to ask what our students – or even ourselves – really know in depth more than that. Crucially, though, reflecting on this absence reveals something deeper than just a missing piece of the puzzle that can just be tacked on. Britain’s connections with Africa, black people in British history and the history of the empire are not just this student’s history; they are our history. The challenge to improve teaching of black history is a call not just to teach black history better, it is challenge to teach all history better.

My purpose for writing this piece is two-fold. First, it is to seek to inform students, parents and all those invested in the GDST about the kinds of steps that History departments are taking within GDST schools. But, second, it is to inspire and encourage the discussions History teachers are having. As a department we feel the weighty responsibility to do this well. Moreover, to do it well alongside balancing all the usual – and unusual! – demands of teaching during the Covid era. Yet, I know it is a challenge that History departments across the GDST are embracing. Two weeks ago History societies from across the GDST joined Sutton High History Society online to meet with Dr Gus Casely-Hayford, an expert on African history and the new director of the V&A East; one school even took their year 11s and 13s off timetable to attend. Last week teachers from across the GDST met for an ‘Undivided Webinar’ on reviewing the History curriculum on the issues of diversity and black history. These were promising starting points for what is ahead this year.

So, what is to be done? What change can we viably look for in our schools’ provision? What can we do meaningfully and well in the academic year ahead of us to teach history better? For us at Sutton, there are three fields of vision where we are seeking to take effective steps forwards and I hope this may help shape others’ discussions, too.

The first suggestion would be to focus on our individual, local settings. This will mean taking the time to talk to our students and to understand how they currently perceive history teaching in our schools. It will also mean drawing on the support and dynamism of the wider school community. When our department discussed changes we wanted to make to our curriculum, we quickly realised that it was a project that went far beyond just the history curriculum. It can feel overwhelming to address this issue alone. Speak to other disciplines across your school – whether it is the economists, the geographers, the philosophers, the physicists, the art and design teachers… Finally, in this local regard, many of our schools may well be fortunate to have an archive. What better place to start in shining light on this issue than by studying the histories of our schools’ own pupils.

Second, lift your gaze to what black history means in a national context. Most of you will probably already have read David Olusoga’s Black and British, but as History teachers we need to take the time to think how we integrate the richness and complexities of black history into a discipline whose modern origins stretch back into the nation-state history writing narratives of Ranke. Taking a moment to reflect on the narrative arc of our ‘island’s story’ that our curriculum presents and asking if all our students fit meaningfully into it is a vital step. My one recommendation here would be Abdul Mohamud and Robin Whitburn’s Doing Justice to History: Transforming Black history in secondary schools. Do we teach the history of Britain in a way that is exclusive or inclusive of every student?

Third and finally, we should step outside of our own national perspective. Surely one of the great strengths of history is its emphasis on considering other perspectives and interpretations. We must therefore tackle meaningfully what it means to teach the history of Africa to our students. This is perhaps the most daunting of all the steps, not least because it calls for history teachers to embrace different methodologies and to use much than just written sources. Currently there is just one A-Level course on pre-colonial African history available to students; ‘African Kingdoms’. A course like this will provide starting points of how to translate fantastic books on pre-colonial Africa like François-Xavier Favuelle’s The Golden Rhinoceros and Toby Green’s A Fistful of Shells into effective classroom provision whether at KS3 or KS5.

These are substantial changes that are necessary to undertake in our schools. I am conscious that for many we will be taking the first faltering steps, but there are many great resources readily available to help direct our ways in an endeavour that will play its part in transforming how our country sees and understands its past for the better.