Embedding diversity and inclusion in the history curriculum: listening to student and teacher voice

By Corina Balaban
Published 22 Nov 2021

AQA Researcher Corina Balaban* and AQA’s Head of History Eoin MacGabhann explore student and teacher views on equality, diversity and inclusion (ED&I) in the history curriculum

Listening to student and teacher voices is key as we set out to shape the future of our assessments. This is especially true when it comes to ensuring that our qualifications and AQA-approved resources meet our commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion.

Since 2019, our history curriculum team along with senior AQA associates have been looking at ways to embed greater diversity within the curriculum. The focus has been on revising existing topics as well as looking at generating new topics. It’s important that we adopt a holistic approach because ED&I needs to be incorporated into the curriculum systematically and not as a tokenistic bolt-on. Such meaningful changes are only possible during curricular reform.

While there has been much media discussion around ED&I in education, there has been little research on student and teacher views specifically related to the history curriculum. We hope that the research outlined here will add value to the broader debate and stimulate discussion within the subject community.

What did our research involve?

During January to March 2021, we conducted 16 virtual focus groups with students and teachers to explore their perspectives on diversity and inclusion in history and to seek their views on the current curricula. Participants included 24 GCSE students, 23 A-level students and 24 teachers, who were recruited from six diverse schools across England. All interviews were professionally transcribed and thematically analysed using specialist software.

What did students say?

Students had wide-ranging conceptualisations of diversity, spanning race, ethnicity, social class, religion, sexuality and gender identity.

When asked what they'd like to see in their history curriculum, students identified the following:

  • The inclusion of different perspectives, moving beyond British, Western, Eurocentric viewpoints:

"I think history especially has a lot of representation issues, like even if we do learn about minority history, it’s not from that minority’s perspective." (GCSE student)

  • A deeper discussion of world religions:

"I personally feel like I don’t actually know all that much about certain religions, … and because we don’t have people from other faiths brought into the mix, it does mean that suddenly it feels like, oh, these people weren’t part of our history." (A-level student)

  • A more balanced portrayal of ‘heroes’, including a more honest account of complex characters:

"If we learn something about some person, we need to know that they were also like a raging racist or a raging homophobic. Edward Colston is the perfect example. He was a philanthropist who set up a school, but he was also a slaver … it has to be known that he was not a good guy." (A-level student)

  • A more holistic account of Black history, going beyond an account of ‘struggles’ or limited portrayals of trade in enslaved people:

"We shouldn’t have to learn about Black history in colonisation or just the civil rights movement or just slavery. There’s a lot, lot more to Black history than just the racism.’"(A-level-student)

  • A curriculum that goes ‘beyond kings and queens’ and acknowledges the role of the working classes:

"I feel like sometimes the suffering that the working classes went through is downplayed." (A-level-student)

  • A better acknowledgement of women and LGBTQ+ figures in history:

"As a queer person myself, I think it’s quite difficult not having people in history that I can look at and say, oh, look, they were people who I can relate to." (A-level student)

What did teachers say?

Teachers reported that it can be challenging to talk about ED&I issues in the classroom, as ‘students can be really judgemental’. Also, there are sensitive topics that have to be handled against the backdrop of ‘cancel culture’ and political wars. Teachers therefore need support, both in the form of age-appropriate resources and guidance on how to tackle controversial topics.

In terms of effectively implementing change, teachers suggested that ED&I needs to be better embedded in the curriculum if it is not to be seen as tokenistic. They also stressed that in order to give weight and legitimacy to ED&I issues, these would need to feature more strongly in national examinations.

How does this research help shape AQA’s approach to ED&I?

These insights will help AQA to expand its understanding of what improving ED&I means in the context of history. Until now, much of our thinking has been focused on how to make the curriculum more representative in terms of race and ethnicity – this research highlights that we need to broaden our focus. The findings will also inform our next steps, which include drafting and revising potential future specification content, gathering teacher insight about particular topics, and developing teacher support for classroom discussions around controversial histories.

Find out more about related work on equality, diversity and inclusion in our qualifications via our News and Insight section.

*Please note this research project was conducted in collaboration with Victoria Armstrong (Research Manager) and Jeanne Marie Ryan (Researcher).

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Dr Corina Balaban

Dr Corina Balaban

Researcher

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