Global History for Schools

October is Black History Month, and following on from our Global History Symposium this summer, Prof. Miles Larmer introduces the Oxford History Faculty’s new range of resources for schools, designed to help them offer a more diverse curriculum.

How do we create a curriculum in schools and universities that best reflects the histories of our current students and future citizens? As Britain has become a more diverse society, and as a result become increasingly aware of its diverse past, the need to ensure that is reflected in what we teach and research is a question of growing importance, educationally and politically. At the University of Oxford, we have launched a new undergraduate curriculum better designed to ensure global history is more prominent in the experience of all our students, though delivering teaching that adequately reflects the history of all parts of the world remains a work in progress.

In schools, many complain that a curriculum that often focuses on key events such as the War of the Roses or the Second World War fails to reflect Britain’s deep history of migration and imperialism, in which what it meant to be ‘British’ changed radically over time. New undergraduates taking my African history courses at Oxford often arrive with little or no experience of studying the continent, either its great empires and kingdoms, or its distinct history of global connectedness.

In late 2016, having read yet another newspaper op-ed bemoaning the inadequacies of school teaching in addressing these areas, I chanced on a new GCSE course entitled ‘Migration, Empires and People’, a British history option that emphasised the long history (starting in 970 AD) of British inter-connectedness with the wider world: the textbook’s front cover shows Kwame Nkrumah, the first leader of independent Ghana, meeting the then decolonising British military leadership. This was, I thought, exactly the kind of history course I wanted my future students to be taking.

Enthused, I recommended the course to my partner, who is head of history in what is euphemistically described as a ‘challenging’ state school: more than half its students speak English as a second language and nearly half receive free school meals. Surely, I thought, this was an ideal course for such a school. She immediately punctured my naïve enthusiasm: the problem was that teachers delivering such a new and innovative course wouldn’t have access to appropriate resources. Such resources are the lifeblood of school history lessons: for existing courses, online banks of resources are available for teachers to deploy in classrooms – as one example, the Wellcome Trust provides fantastic materials supporting the teaching of the history of science and medicine.

If resources were going to be a fundamental problem, why not get Oxford historians to write those resources? Our research expertise could be put at the service of the new GCSE option and, indeed, other school history courses. I contacted the authors of the course textbook, Robin Whitburn and Abdul Mohamud of UCL Institute of Education, and we met up in January 2017. They were delighted at the suggestion and, having discussed the proposal internally, we got the go-ahead. The Faculty sees the project as an opportunity to share its research outside traditional academic circles, particularly in state schools that have historically sent very few or no students to Oxford: it also indicates Oxford’s own increasing engagement with non-western and global history, their centrality to British history and to the interests and experiences of our increasingly diverse undergraduate student intake.

IMG_4386.JPGIn May 2017 we organised a workshop that brought together interested Oxford researchers – professors, college tutors, post-doctoral and doctoral researchers – with Whitburn and Mohamud and a set of schoolteachers who were delivering the new option for the first time in the 2017/18 academic year. This was an inspiring event, in which teachers were able to explain to academics how they deliver complex historical concepts, methods and debates to 15 and 16 year olds, and together develop their shared understanding of how innovative resources could bring to life key questions of Britain’s changing global role and national identity and the role of migration and imperialism in shaping these histories.

Over summer 2017 a first set of resources was developed and uploaded to our ‘resources for schools’ webpage. Most of these focus on a key individual or event as a way of illustrating a much broader set of issues: they have been designed to be delivered in a classroom setting, so use visual imagery and clear language to communicate their arguments. Although the resources were designed with a specific option course in mind, they are publicly available to all teachers for any class they deem relevant and the project has the potential to be rolled out to other under-resourced option courses in the future.

A launch event for the project was held at one of the schools running the new course, St. Michael’s College, Bermondsey in south London in September 2017: I had the positive if slightly nerve-wracking experience of presenting some of the new resources to the teachers present. There was great appreciation of what we have achieved so far, and there is clearly demand for many more resources of this type.

The project is still very much a work in progress, but our efforts were rewarded this year by the university’s award for promoting equality and diversity in learning and teaching. We have secured university funding for the next phase of the project, which will run during the 2018–19 academic year, and there are plans to expand our schools outreach work in various ways. There is clearly much more to be done to develop resources of this type, and to provide school and university curricula that reflect the diverse experiences of Britain, its school students and Oxford’s present and future students. We hope this project provides a modest step in the right direction.


Dr Miles Larmer is Professor of African History at St Antony’s College, Oxford.


Top image: Detail from John Singleton Copley, ‘The Death of Major Peirson, 6 January 1781’, (1783), The Tate. Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND.