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Why all pupils should learn migration history

Learning about themselves and their community can reignite pupils' slowing take-up of history, argues one former teacher

Migration_editorial

Learning about themselves and their community can reignite pupils' slowing take-up of history, argues one former teacher

"How is it possible we don’t have our own migration museum in the UK?" I asked, as I descended the steps of France’s immigration museum in Paris in 2012. "When we do, I want to run its education programme…"

Never before had I sent such a frank statement into the universe (or been listened to).

As a former citizenship teacher, I was struck by how relevant the exhibition's themes of migration and identity were to so many of the young people I was teaching, yet how few cultural spaces we had in the UK to explore themes at the heart of who we are – as individuals, as communities and as a nation.

Six years on and still sporting my citizenship-teacher’s hat – for when does a teacher ever really lose that hat? – I am part of a team establishing a national migration museum for Britain, with an active education programme at its core. We are also helping to shape the revised national curriculum, which, for all its challenges, is providing exciting opportunities for pupils to learn about how immigration and emigration have shaped the UK over time.

Embedding themes of migration within the new curriculum enables pupils in our increasingly ethnically diverse schools to see themselves represented in what they are learning about – and as part of a more shared and inclusive national history and identity.

'Relevant and engaging'

As a student from Aylesbury High School – who is studying the new migration modules in history – said: “This unit was great because I learned a lot about my own family. I had no idea about my grandfather’s moving story before this.”

The student was part of a team that won a joint competition with exam board OCR and a Migration Museum project called Moving StoriesThe competition invited teams of pupils to design an exhibit for our museum, with the winners jetting off with me to New York City in July to learn from our friends at Ellis Island and the Tenement Museum.

A competition runner-up from Tiffin Girls' School said: “Our own parents are migrants who settled in England so a lot of what we study focuses on things they have experienced themselves, which is really surprising.”

This level of relevance and interest has contributed to many schools opting for the new migration modules. Michael Riley, director of the Schools History Project, said that the organisation is really pleased with the uptake of the migration units and has heard lots from schools about how much the students are enjoying them. 

Amid heated debate about what form and substance history teaching in schools should take ­– and amid concern at the large number of pupils choosing not to take history at GCSE – this long-overdue focus on such a relevant and engaging topic could not be more important, particularly against the backdrop of Brexit.

This is a point underlined by Michael Maddison, former national lead for history at Ofsted. “Sixty per cent of pupils give up history at the age of 13. What must they have studied before this point? This is a key question teachers must ask,” he said during a recent meeting. “I’m increasingly convinced that one thing they must have covered in school is an understanding of migration history – the long story, the impact of migration over time. Too many do not yet have this opportunity.”

As Maddison suggests, there is great potential for pupils to learn about these themes at key stage 3 and many are on this journey already. 

'It resonates with their lives'

Sally McCartney, history adviser for United Learning, says that “our KS3 students enjoy learning about our country’s migration story". She adds: "It intrigues them to find out about the variety of reasons why people moved around, from the Vikings to the Windrush generation.

“Some of our pupils have benefited from workshops at the Migration Museum, which resonates with the society they live in and their lives.”

At the museum, we are deepening our engagements and partnerships with schools, multi-academy trusts, exam boards, subject associations and other bodies, and engaging directly with more students through our workshops and teaching resources. We are also doing a second run of our Moving Stories competition with OCR. Over time, I want to ensure all UK pupils learn about our migration history – all our stories. Let’s hope the universe is still listening to this former citizenship teacher’s pleas.

Emily Miller is head of learning and partnerships at the Migration Museum Project. For more information, please click here

To get in touch with her, email: Emily@migrationmuseum.org

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