by Farah Elahi Follow @farahelahi
In recent years, there have been numerous campaigns for the inclusion of marginalised histories in the national curriculum. These campaigns have been successful in retaining key black British figures such as Mary Seacole and Olaudah Equiano in history lessons. However, inclusion is not enough. We must go further, ensuring that these stories are not just tokens, but that they are taught in ways that promote engagement with the wider context in which they took place. Curricula that decentre the global north and include marginalised narratives can serve to shed light on contemporary realities, map potential futures, and stimulate reflection on conventional wisdom.
Research by the Runnymede Trust has found that one of the challenges faced by many teachers is that they often feel uncomfortable, and ill-equipped teaching lessons on these topics. We found that it’s not only the content of what children are taught that is important, but also the support teachers receive to teach diverse curricula effectively and confidently which is important. Our latest report Nations Divided: How to teach the history of partition, presents a case study for schools and educators on how to introduce diverse histories into the curriculum.
We looked at the Partition History Project, which uses drama and a series of lesson plans to engage Key Stage 2 & 3 students with the events that unfolded during the partition of British India. The project was delivered in four schools across Hitchin and Luton. It aimed to introduce this significant historical event to students, but furthermore to enable them to respond empathetically to the impact on individuals and to reflect on religious pluralism.
One of the challenges to teaching Partition is that it remains a contested history, teachers have at times faced resistance from parents over divergent narratives. The project addressed this by focusing on the impact of conflict on children through the play ‘Child of the Divide’, by Sudha Bhuchar. The play allowed students to journey into history and empathise with the fears and emotions felt by those on all sides of the conflict, avoiding the need to define more politically contested aspects of what happened.
Delving into the issues of Partition, teachers had the opportunity to engage students in the innate complexity of history. Where it is not simply a matter of learning rote facts and defining who was right or wrong, but developing the skills to understand different perspectives.
We found that it was valuable to include Partition within a wider curriculum framework that covers empire to contextualise the events being discussed. Students, those with a personal connection and those without, enjoyed covering a topic that fell outside of what they normally studied. Those that had already studied aspects of empire recognised that they had been taught a Eurocentric perspective and valued gaining a fuller understanding. Additionally, they were able to make connections to contemporary events such as the refugee crisis, community cohesion and the integration of diverse communities, with a degree of distance that the past affords us.
Schools are facing ongoing pressure to imbue students with ‘British values’ and ‘resilience’. Often this takes the form of a shallow engagement with superficial definitions that are thought up by disconnected consultants, squeezed into spare minutes between taking the register and herding students to their next class. Instead, schools should be encouraged to make sure of the significant opportunities within the curriculum to facilitate the kind of learning that will allow students to gain perspective and insight into many of the modern challenges we face as a society. The Partition History Project demonstrates one such example.
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Farah Elahi is Research and Policy Analyst at the Runnymede Trust. She tweets at @farahelahi