More young people are studying GCSE history than ever before. As the guardians of our past, history teachers have a tremendous responsibility to ensure that these young people have access to a wide range of historical narratives. Women’s history, in particular, needs to be brought to the forefront. Recent statistics show that history is the most popular of all non-compulsory subjects at GCSE level and is the fifth most popular subject overall. Interestingly, it is girls who are driving this popularity, and a significant number of them will go on to study history at A-Level and beyond. For history teachers, this affirms the need to adapt teaching and learning so that it reflects the diversity in our classrooms. We have a responsibility to present to these young women (and men) the full range of historical narratives, including those which reflect the wide-ranging experiences of women. But what about the National Curriculum? How are teachers expected to reflect this diversity of experience and to incorporate women’s history into their teaching, if at all?
Women’s History in the National Curriculum
In the previous National Curriculum for History, which was introduced in 2007 and replaced in 2014, historical diversity was listed as one of six key concepts or skills that teachers should develop in all of their students. It was defined in the following manner:
Understanding the diverse experiences and ideas, beliefs and attitudes of men, women and children in past societies and how these have shaped the world.
However, in the document’s explanatory notes, diversity was further defined in terms of cultural, ethnic and religious diversity, with no mention of women’s history at all.
Fast forward to 2010 and there was some cause for optimism when the-then Education Secretary, Michael Gove, announced his overhaul of school history. In his announcement, he talked about giving all children the opportunity to learn about ‘the struggles of the past’ and to ‘hear our island story.’ What his comments turned out to mean, however, was the continuation of a single narrative of the past in which women’s history would play no significant role. This was made clear in the 2014 National Curriculum for Key Stage 3 History in which diversity was framed in terms of its citizenship value, with no emphasis whatsoever on the historical experiences of women:
History helps pupils to understand the complexity of people’s lives, the process of change, the diversity of societies and relationships between different groups, as well as their own identity and the challenges of their time.
Similarly, the National Curriculum for GCSE History (or Key Stage 4) is equally vague when it comes to diversity. It states that all students should develop their knowledge of the ‘wider diversity of the human experience,’ but offers no working definition of diversity for teachers nor does it advocate specifically for the diversity between male and female experiences of the past.
Changing the Worldview: Women’s History in Schools
While some teachers are right to be concerned about the lack of official provision for teaching women’s history in schools, the new curriculum does offer some advantages for those who are keen to create a more inclusive classroom by offering their students a wide range of historical perspectives. After all, Gove’s redesigning of the curriculum was actually intended to give teachers more freedom in the classroom by encouraging creativity.
So, what does this mean for women’s history in schools? Well, above all, it means no excuses. If there is no strict framework for teaching diversity, then it follows that there is an incredible amount of opportunity for women’s narratives from all backgrounds to be heard, whatever topic we are teaching.
As Carol Adam argued in 1983, if we only ever give students access to material that reflects one world-view, a view which is typically white and male, then no matter how well they engage, they will only ever have a conceptual awareness that relates to one-half of the population. In Adam’s words, they will be operating in a ‘restrictive, historical field.’ Given the current popularity of history with so many girls and young women, the need to escape this restrictive field has never been more pressing and it is teachers who need to lead the way by designing a curriculum which includes women’s experiences and narratives.
Kaye Jones is a former historian and newly-qualified teacher of history. Alongside a colleague, she set up the Invisible Histories project, which provides resources to support the creation of truly inclusive history teaching. She is keen to hear from any teachers who are passionate about women’s history and want to incorporate it into their classroom practice.