‘History can help migrant children find their identity’

4th December 2015 at 00:00
TV historian Dan Snow says teachers should be free to choose areas of world history relevant to their pupils

Dan Snow, the television historian, is frustrated by the image of his subject as something that appeals only to white, middle-class viewers.

It is perhaps not the argument you would expect from an Oxford-educated former public school boy who is the great-great grandson of prime minister David Lloyd George.

But for the BBC presenter, history is about what is happening now. And that should be fascinating for all school pupils, he says.

“If you are a Somalian living in East London, history has done something pretty insane to your family,” the historian explains. “It has uprooted you from the east of Africa and transported you thousands of miles to an entirely alien culture.”

For a school pupil with such a background, “just by being that person in that classroom, history has done something remarkable [to you]. Something extraordinary has gone on,” Snow says.

“Children who have been brought to Britain as a result of tumultuous recent history need to study that history to make any sense of their own lives. The schools which I’ve visited which have high numbers of recently arrived immigrants are doing a valiant job.”

History ‘is everything’

Critics of the latest version of the history national curriculum are concerned that it has moved in the opposite direction, with ministers insisting that it gives a “stronger grasp of the chronology of British history”.

While Snow agrees with the move to give children a greater sense of the linear progression of history, he also thinks that teachers should have the freedom to teach about history from all periods. “People think history is castles and kings and queens but that is simply not true,” he says. “In fact, it is the most annoying thing on earth when people say that to me. History is everything.

“If the kids are from a community where lots of people are from India or Pakistan, they should learn about the partition of India.

“If they are from Stoke-on-Trent, they should learn about the extraordinary contribution that Stoke-on-Trent made to the industrial revolution and the world.

“So I don’t know the answer. It is a really tricky problem and I have a great sympathy for teachers and policymakers who try to get this right because if I had my way kids would do twice as much history and they would be able to fit it all in.”

However, he does believe that some pupils benefit more from out-of-school support than others.

“I find when I go and speak to these schools [with immigrant pupils] the engagement of those communities in history should be even greater,” he says. “You might be the only kid in the class with certain religious practices or family structures.

“Whereas if you’re in a class of white children in rural Dorset the chances are your history won’t be unique or differentiating. But ironically those are the communities where, as a hobby, people like history.”

Benefits of technology

Snow believes technology could play a crucial role in getting more pupils involved and interested in the subject. “Let’s get people totally engaged in their own stories and their family history – there have never been more resources to do that,” says the 37-year-old, who has put his money where his mouth is by co-founding a company producing education apps for tablets and phones.

“It’s an amazing time to be alive if you’re into history – you can find out where every bomb in the Second World War was dropped and why you live in a modern apartment block surrounded by Georgian buildings.

“Very soon you are going to be able to make a 3D tour around the British Museum from anywhere in the world, looking at the objects and accessing vast amounts of information about them. It’s a gift.”

Snow admits that he is not an educationalist and he does not envy those who have to decide what should be left out of the history national curriculum. “I am so glad I am not setting the curriculum,” he says. “Your readers are educators, they have got a narrow timetable. It makes me queasy thinking about the curriculum. How on earth do you choose between the Second World War and the Industrial Revolution? I couldn’t make that decision.”

However, he is quite clear on another point about history in schools – that the subject should not become optional after the age of 14. “Britain is the only Western European country which does not do history until 16,” Snow says. “That is deranged.”

• Dan Snow has been supporting the Huge History Lesson, a joint project between TES and the British Museum which challenges students to choose an object from the museum, investigate its history and upload a presentation of their findings to the TES website at tes.com/hugehistory/


Dan Snow: CV

Born: 3 December 1978; son of British journalist Peter Snow and Canadian journalist Ann MacMillan

Educated: St Paul’s School, London; later achieved a first-class degree in history at Balliol College, University of Oxford

Career: Presented his first television history programme jointly with his father. Made a reputation as a broadcaster in his own right with series on the history of railways, and the history of the Royal Navy, as well as reporting on history for The One Show. More recently he has become interested in technology and co-founded app company Ballista and recorded a series of history podcasts

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