Breaking down barriers – Steps to promoting greater diversity in your primary History teaching

Prior to the changes to the National Curriculum a great deal of work took place to ensure that the history taught in primary school reflected the diverse population of the UK. Strong arguments were put forward that this study would support children in rethinking their beliefs and attitudes towards various groups in society. It was also felt that these steps would impact positively on the self-esteem and aspirations of the groups themselves as represented in our classrooms. What do we mean when we talk about diversity within our history teaching? A recent primary survey asked teachers that question and the most popular choices related to focusing on culture and ethnicity. Much lower down the scale was disability. Is there a direct correlation between teachers’ beliefs and the way History is taught in schools? A recent audit of schemes of work for History would suggest this is the case, with a good coverage and celebration of black history, gender, and religion while others areas including disability, age and LGBT remain neglected. 
Black History Month first appeared on our calendars as far back as 1987 and since then has been a driving force in supporting teachers in delivering a more balanced History curriculum. There is no denying that there is still work to be done in this area, but the teaching of such significant figures as Mary Seacole and Walter Tull is now as commonplace as that of Florence Nightingale and Guy Fawkes. Is it possible for teachers to now replicate these successes when looking at members of society with learning needs and disabilities? Consider to what extent the history you teach reflects the story of those members of society with a disability. If they do appear at all in your curriculum are they portrayed negatively as victims in society, for example as the occupants of the workhouse? 
Now is the perfect time for you to undertake this review as UK Disability History Month takes place from 22nd November to 22nd December. Its aim is to raise awareness and to achieve greater equality for those with disabilities. You may be thinking this is a strange time to choose in the calendar for such an event, with schools more inclined to focus on the run up to Christmas. This date was selected to follow on from anti-bullying week and it also coincides with International Day of Persons with Disabilities which is held each year on 3rd December. This year’s theme for the month is disability and art. Themes include how disability has been and is currently portrayed in art and the media and also celebrates artists with a disability. The website includes some material suitable for the primary age phase including useful information on artists with a disability. 
The inclusion of the study of significant figures with a disability is an excellent starting point for making your curriculum more diverse. Audit the figures currently studied to see if any have a disability; if they do, is their disability portrayed positively as a strength and something which helped them to achieve their goals? To avoid a tokenistic approach when selecting your figures for inclusion, ask yourself: if you removed the disability would they still be regarded as a significant figure? Helen Keller already features on many primary school curriculums with her link to the topic of the senses. This makes her an excellent starting point for you as teaching her life is already richly resourced. Be imaginative in your choices and take figures from different historical periods and areas of achievement. Recent figures could include musicians like Stevie Wonder and Evelyn Glennie or sports people like the rower Sir Steve Redgrave, the swimmer Michael Phelps or the athlete Hannah Cockroft. Jamie Oliver the chef, campaigner and successful businessman would be another popular choice. In the more distant past it is not always as easy to identify those with specific areas of need as claims of disability are hard to substantiate. Socrates, Leonardo da Vinci, Christopher Columbus and Galileo are just some figures that may have had a disability. When looking at their lives ask the children to consider what they tell us about attitudes to disability at that time. Also keep in mind how representative their stories are of those with a disability living at that time. When teaching about the individual always start with the person’s strengths and accomplishments rather than their disability. The approaches you use should aim to support the pupils in reaching their own conclusions about the important contribution of these people in society rather than this being just an expectation. Rising Stars Voyagers KS1 Units 2 and 6 will provide you with useful frameworks on how to teach all significant people.
The study of significant events at Key Stage 1, although a less obvious way to develop diversity, could provide you with further opportunities - particularly with links to the Olympic Games. The role of people with disability in sport has a long history and made a leap forward with the introduction of the Paralympics in 1948. Links could also be made to the widely publicised introduction of the Invictus Games in 2014. At Key Stage 2 a study of childhood, education or medicine within the post 1066 study could all include coverage of the way in which society’s views on disability have changed over the years. Rising Stars Voyagers LKS2 Unit 6: Is it better to be a child now than in the past? would be a useful starting point for how to approach this work. It may be there are opportunities for a local dimension when studying institutions like the workhouse or even the site of the local asylum. Rising Stars Voyagers LKS2 Unit 5: What was important to our local Victorians? includes a study of the workhouse. Be creative and don’t let the confines of the National Curriculum for History prevent you from extending your coverage. Themed days or weeks and school assemblies all provide opportunities for positively highlighting disability. Research suggests that work with this primary age group is crucial as they are the most receptive group to embracing change and being willing to adopt a different viewpoint. Get started now and make those small changes to your teaching that could have a major impact in the way your pupils view the world. 
UK disability History Month website:

Bev Forrest is a primary teacher trainer, member of the Historical Association Primary Committee, a Primary History Quality Mark assessor and a member of the editorial board of Primary History.

Voyagers History and Geography provides everything you need to take children on a voyage of discovery with imaginative, hands-on history and geography lessons for the new curriculum.


history, History and Geography, ks1, ks2, voyagers

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