The murder of George Floyd on 25th May 2020, sparked global demonstrations and had far reaching consequences, including a general review of UK education. The Prime Minister tasked Dr Tony Sewell CBE, with leading a government commission investigating race and ethnic disparities in the UK, a commission which also reflected upon the curriculum in UK schools. According to the forward by Sewell it was felt that ‘the UK needed to consider the important questions about the state of race relations today.’ George Floyd’s murder had placed a spotlight on race relations in the UK, but also on our education system as a whole. For me, the murder and resulting media attention given to the Black Lives Matter movement, made me reflect on the curriculum we were delivering in our secondary academies across the Trust.
Recognising the duty placed on us as educators to deliver a diverse curriculum, I challenged myself to consider the following:
- Did the curriculum we deliver prepare our students for living in the UK today?
- Did we effectively teach the story of our island nation?
- Do we give students the opportunity to learn and understand why the UK is racially and ethnically diverse?
Alongside these questions however, it also made me question whether our curriculum, as it was, allowed students to see themselves in history. David Olusoga’s introduction to Black and British really stuck in my mind: “When I was at school there was no Black history. Black people from the past…were never mentioned by my teachers, and my textbooks contained nothing about the role Black people played in the story of Britain. So what I presumed was that there must not have been any Black people in British history.”
This got me thinking about other minority groups that we teach in our academies. Would an LGBT+ student say something similar in twenty years time about their own history education? Or a student with a disability? Did we give these students any opportunities to learn about people that they might resonate with? Whilst we had already begun to address the issues surrounding Black history, (and I recognise here that we still have far to go in this area), I was very conscious that other marginalised groups were still not having the same spotlight shone on them in our existing history curriculum. I therefore made the decision to investigate how we could do more to incorporate a spectrum of stories into our planning, starting with the history of disability.
Having reached the conclusion that we had to review and change our curriculum offer, I started my reading by looking through past articles in Teaching History. I wanted to see whether any other teachers had already blazed a trail by which I could follow. Fortunately, the Teaching History 173 article, Hidden in Plain Sight by Helen Snelson and Ruth Lingard, allowed me to formulate a way forward. Their article had focused on a method of ‘slotting in, not bolting on’, as they felt that the way to approach less frequently taught topics was to not have specific lessons dedicated to them, but rather to ‘pepper our teaching of existing topics with more diverse examples of people and events.’
My approach was to be somewhat different to that of Snelson and Lingard. Whilst I fully supported and agreed with their argument to slot in individuals and events into existing schema, I also believed that there was a need for an entire Scheme of Learning dedicated to disability history as it could serve two purposes. One, it would allow us to examine and investigate the history of disability in the UK in depth, but it would also provide us with an opportunity to develop student understanding of historical discourse and current historical thinking in this field. At the time of our curriculum review, Ofsted had just released their History Review, and within it, they had made it clear that our teaching ‘must develop students’ historical knowledge and analytical skills as a historian simultaneously.’ My ambition was that this Scheme of Learning would allow us the opportunity to engage students with the work of recent historians, but to also show them how disability history in the UK has developed.
At this point it is worth pointing out that this is still a work in progress but the approach I have taken has three strands.
- A 15 lesson Scheme of Learning which examines the history of disability through time
- Slot in lessons for existing schemes which highlight individuals and events, a strategy wholly influenced by the Snelson and Lingard model
- ‘Did you know?’ slides which allow us to spotlight individuals, ideas and thinking associated with disability history
My continued research into disability history was helped by timing and Twitter! I had recently watched a BBC Documentary – Silenced: The Hidden Story of Disabled Britain1, a documentary which narrated the experience of the disabled in the UK from the 19th century to the present day. The documentary resulted in me contacting one of the historians that had worked on the programme via Twitter, Professor David Turner, a leading academic in the field based at the University of Swansea. To my delight, David responded and agreed to meet with me to discuss how I could best incorporate the history of disability into our curriculum. He discussed his own research areas and was able to summarise some of the key themes and ideas in this field. Alongside this, Professor Turner also provided me with a resource list which supported me in the development of my own knowledge in this field, to give me the understanding needed to create and develop a suitable schema for our students.2 One of the key learning points that I took away from working with Professor Turner was that those with disabilities need to have a voice in what is being taught.
The Scheme of Learning3 that was developed was centred around the Topic Question: How did modern attitudes towards disability develop? I wanted students to look at attitudes to disability across time and decide whether historical thinking influenced modern attitudes. Following the structure of Snelson and Lingard, I thought it sensible to mirror their model and do a thematic introduction, doing a two lesson overview of disability throughout time. This would allow us to develop within our students a broad overview of disability in various time periods and how this changed and developed. The chosen starter was a newspaper article which focused on parental complaints that had been submitted to the BBC regarding the CBBC presenter Cerrie Burnell4. We asked students to read the article and note down what they could infer from the article about modern attitudes towards disability in the UK. We felt that this would engage students with the topic and highlight some of the negative attitudes towards disability which are still prevalent in the UK. It also gave us the opportunity to unpick the term disability, looking at the origins of the term, but to also discuss words that the students themselves associated with it. What we found was that most words that students attached to the term disability had negative connotations, and this in itself highlighted to us the importance of examining this topic in depth.
Once we had covered a broad overview of attitudes across time, we then looked at attitudes in greater depth from the 19th century onwards. Having worked with Professor Turner, we decided to incorporate some of his arguments into the scheme of learning and get students to actively engage with some of the historical arguments about disability and how the industrial revolution influenced the lives of those considered disabled. Students were introduced to conflicting arguments about the impact of the industrial revolution on those with disabilities, and then conducted an investigation into coal mining during this period to test both arguments5. Not only did these lessons allow students to examine a topic which they had previously covered in Year 8, they were now seeing this topic and the coal mining industry in particular through a different lens. It gave students the opportunity to challenge and question historians' views, but also allowed them to reflect on the inadequacies of their own investigations, with students recognising that they would need to do a wider study of further industries in the same period to reach any conclusions about the impact of the industrial revolution on those with a disability.
Prior to the delivery of the Scheme of Learning, I wanted to ensure that staff were fully prepared to deliver the unit effectively. Given my own ignorance in this field, I felt that it was important to provide staff with some CPD that focused on this field of history, so that staff subject knowledge was strong enough to deliver to students confidently. Professor David Turner once again offered support, and agreed to lead a CPD session for staff across the Trust on disability history. During the event, Professor Turner outlined to staff what disability history is, who were the disabled and who decided this in society. What was extremely useful was the focus on how we could bring the disabled perspective into history teaching, by focusing on some of our existing units. We examined for example how we might include the disability perspective when teaching about poverty and vagrancy in Early Modern England, or when we look at the histories of race and empire. Following on from Professor Turner’s session, I then led a follow up session where we looked at the Scheme of Learning specifically and discussed the series of lessons within.
Having taught the Scheme of Learning to Year 9 students, I was keen to gain some feedback from them about the unit, whether it had achieved the intended aims, but to also find out how we could improve it further. A panel of students were selected, from a range of classes and ability levels. We also asked several students to join the panel who themselves either had a physical disability, or hidden disability, as we really want to hear from students about how they felt when learning about this topic. Overall, the feedback from them was positive. They all agreed that the Scheme of Learning was needed to broaden awareness of disability, and one student reflected on their own personal circumstances and how the Scheme of Learning made them reflect on their relationship with a sibling that has autism.
What really struck me in their feedback was that the lessons they engaged with the most, were those lessons which focused on specific individuals rather than looking at events through the lens of disability. They were all able to discuss key individuals we had studied in the units such as Mary Dendy, John Evans and Paul Hunt. When I asked about historical thinking, the students were able to verbalise to me how thinking about disability had altered. Students were able to confidently discuss the medical and social models of disability, what these meant and why thinking had changed. All students stated that the lessons which engaged them the most were those that looked at Victorian attitudes towards disability, with a focus being placed on the Victorian ‘freak’ show as a form of entertainment for all social classes. Students did point out that in these lessons, they would have liked to have learned a lot more about the background of the individuals in these shows. They were really interested in the personal stories, and this is something that we will definitely look to change when we deliver this unit again.
One of the final questions I asked the students was whether they felt it was appropriate to dedicate a Scheme of Learning to this topic, or whether we should incorporate these individuals and events into existing schemes. The response from one of the students with a hidden disability told me everything I needed to know: “The risk with it being woven into the tapestry is that you won’t see the specific thread. It needs to be separate, or it would be lost.”
Whilst we have a long way to go to do this topic the justice that it deserves, I think our initial work in this area has led to a positive outcome. I certainly believe that there is a place for an entire unit dedicated to this topic, but I also see the need to incorporate the narratives of those with disabilities into our wider schemes of learning.