Activate award winner Michael Davies: teaching controversial histories in schools

"WCMT has been supportive in a number of ways since my Fellowship in 2015 and this Activate grant is very helpful indeed. Most of our work to date has been in the North of England and this grant will enable us to extend our provision to London." - Michael Davies, Fellow 

The problem

Over the past two decades, schools have stopped teaching controversial historical topics. For example, by 2016 only 2,000 GCSE students - out of 250,000 - had studied the history of the Middle East. Government research has shown that this is caused by teachers being either worried or unequipped to address the topic. And it’s a situation that continues to get worse – at the end of 2019, two educational publishers, Hodder and Pearson, both withdrew textbooks about Israel and Palestine and 9/11 after accusation of bias. This has made it even harder for teachers to tackle these emotive subjects in the classroom and it means students lose the opportunity to learn how to analyse evidence, come to their own judgement and debate robustly but respectfully.

The Activate award

History teacher Michael Davies (CF 2015) has been given a grant from the Activate Fund to expand his Parallel Histories debating programme across nine London schools. The programme brings together students from different religious and social backgrounds and will conclude in the summer of 2021 with a conference to showcase the students’ skills in front of politicians, educators and policymakers. The programme has been successfully adapted to Covid 19 and three inter-school debates have already been run online.

From this, Michael aims to introduce a Parallel Histories module into teacher training to help equip them, whilst expanding other histories to be debated as part of the curriculum (such as the contested history of the Union between England and Scotland, and the contested history of The Troubles in Northern Ireland). Ultimately Michael intends this work to encourage a change in national education policy, so that controversial history - and especially the history of current conflicts - will be taught in schools. He would like to see accredited exam bodies such as AQA and OCR offering a Middle East option at GCSE, and an expansion to at least 10% of students taking a Middle East module at GCSE level.

The award recipient

Michael was awarded a Churchill Fellowship in 2015 to visit schools in Israel, Jordan and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, to find a better way of teaching the contentious history of Israel and Palestine. With the encouragement of Prof Eyal Naveh, the editor of a book telling Israeli and Palestinian history as two separate narratives, he returned to the UK and created Parallel Histories, a new type of history resource that tells competing narratives using film clips, photos, maps and documents and challenges students to make up their own minds. In 2017 Parallel Histories became a UK charity and in 2018 Michael stopped teaching to work on this full time.

The Activate Fund

Michael’s award is a grant from the Activate Fund. This is a new programme from WCMT which supports the activation or acceleration of Churchill Fellows’ projects. It provides dedicated funds, advice and support during the key period when Fellows first return from their research overseas, and start to make change happen in the UK.

The Activate Fund is a three-year pilot project, making its first grants in 2020. The Activate grants total £101,000, making an average grant of £14,400. The scheme has been developed in consultation with Fellows, to respond to their practical needs.

View Michael Davies' profile 

Fellows wishing to apply can find out more in the Fellows’ area of our website.

Find out more about the Activate Fund