A response to the proposals for the new history curriculum

Here is a copy of the email I sent to the Department for Education today…

I am a KS2 teacher, with experience also in KS1. I am subject leader for my school in history and it is specifically about the proposals for the new history curriculum that I am responding to here. There are a few issues that I would like to highlight.

The chronological approach

 I think it is a nice idea in principle to teach history chronologically, as some children do struggle with jumping from topic to topic and then placing the various topics on a timeline. However, a chronological approach poses more problems than it solves.

Firstly, it allows uninspiring topics to creep back into the curriculum just to keep the ‘story’ running smoothly. At parents’ evenings, teachers are delighted to hear parents comment on how school is more exciting than in their day ‘when we just learnt dates and facts’. In my experience, both parents and children like the fact that pupils study the well known, ‘exciting’ periods of history.

Even within each topic, boredom and predictably is currently avoided by not religiously working through that topic chronologically but by picking out different types of history, one at a time (political history for a couple of weeks, social history the next week) or by looking at the skills of historians (researching in one lesson, presenting findings/viewpoints in another). If the different types of history and the skills and processes of history are important to the current Department for Education, as suggested in the opening paragraph of the history document, then I don’t believe a strictly chronological approach will provide the best starting place for teachers planning schemes of work. Maintaining a topic-based curriculum would be much more appropriate. 

Furthermore, children like studying different topics as they get bored with one long continuous programme of study. The change in topics allows for a fresh start and a chance to engage any children who got disillusioned with the last topic. This helps when the new topic is completely different from the previous one. I fear that a continuous programme of study that lasts more than ten years will cause children to drift away from their love of our diverse history because the programme of study will become so long and predictable.

The most important point against the chronological curriculum requires considering how children learn. If you give children a dictionary, a thesaurus or an encyclopaedia, they don’t start at the beginning and work their way through to the end. In the encyclopaedia, they dive in for the best bits, the ‘juicy’ bits, the parts that are relevant to them. In a dictionary, they learn how to spell the easier words first. Then, as they grow up and their understanding develops, they go back and fill in some of the gaps; they learn the meanings and spellings of some of the more complicated words. The teaching of history should be the same: KS2 should be about some of the main periods of history and KS3 and KS4 should be about plugging the gaps and grappling with the more complicated periods in history. I don’t understand how you plan to teach Year 3 about the Bronze and Iron age, when some of the children still only talk in terms of ‘bendy, not bendy, shiny and dull’, when they are looking at materials in Science. Teach them what is relevant to their age and understanding. Furthermore, with a chronological approach, important moments in history will have to be dumbed down to accommodate the children’s age and stage of learning.

Linked to this is the issue of progression. The new curriculum shows a clear progression along a timeline but I do not believe it shows a progression (or a means to achieve higher standards) in the skills and concepts related to history.

The solution in my view is a topic-based approach that runs chronologically in each Key Stage. For example, KS2 should maintain its current topics but teach them chronologically, for example Egyptians, Romans, Tudors and Stuarts, Victorians, World War II. Then KS3 could go back to the start and fill in some of the gaps working again in a chronological way, and developing the skills and processes needed to understand the trickier parts of history.

The problem with the content

As mentioned in the previous section, the chronological approach forces some of the less interesting areas of history to be slotted back into the syllabus. Ask the 60 school children from a suburb in Birmingham if they would prefer their evacuation experience (complete with teddy-filled pillow cases, name tags, gas masks and a trip on the train to the countryside) to be replaced with a lesson on King Cnut.

Then it would be worth asking the children if they feel they have a good grasp of understanding about King Cnut. Consider, with such a heavy, content-driven curriculum, children will only get approximately two hours teaching on each of the bullet points in the proposed history curriculum. That is not long to consider the ‘key developments in the reigns of Alfred, Athelstan, Cnut and Edward the Confessor’, which all come together in one bullet point in the document. Such heavy content will mean a lack of depth in these subjects and a superficial understanding for the children (not to mention a lack of time to teach the skills of historical enquiry, which the history curriculum states is the whole ‘purpose of study’. In my eyes, the proposed content does not reflect the purpose of study). The new proposals will not inspire the children to really get ‘stuck in’ to one good topic. Six weeks into a topic such as World War II and the children are making links between their learning and teachers are seeing the benefits of a more detailed and rounded education on that period of history.

More importantly, the writers of the new curriculum should ask the KS2 teachers and subject leaders if they are happy to bin the majority of their teaching resources, which have been built up over many years. Where are the new resources to come from? Are there primary textbooks available on the Crusades, the Plantagenet rule or Llywelyn and Dafydd ap Gruffydd and how quickly can new ones be produced? Can we find artefacts, school trips and resources related to these topics with which to inspire the children?

As mentioned above, many areas of the proposed KS2 history curriculum are the trickier, more specialised areas of history. It is a lot to ask your average primary school teacher to ‘swat up’ on all of these areas of history. KS3/KS4 teachers are the ones with the subject knowledge and the skills to research new topics for teaching. KS2 teachers should be given the topics that are easier to research and understand so that they are confident to teach them, otherwise there will be huge CPD implications.

I am utterly disgusted at the thought that 11 year olds will enter secondary school with barely any knowledge of the last 300 years of the world’s history. What an insult to the memories of their grandparents and great-grandparents, who more directly shaped our world today by fighting in two World Wars. Plus children will have little idea of where current-day industry, commerce and tourism originated.

Finally in this section, I am rather concerned about the emphasis on British history in the proposed curriculum. It looks to me like a 10-year curriculum that wants to revel in a country’s past glories, with little more than a nod in the direction of other nations, unless they are overtly connected to ‘our island story’. At KS2 in particular, where will children develop an understanding of the world around them that is relevant today? Will they know why America is such a strong world power? Will they appreciate the position of powers such as China and India in the world today? Will they have any understanding of why they constantly see adverts on the television about poverty in Africa? Surely it would be better to add more topics relating to current world issues than reduce history to simply ‘Britain’s past’.

A note from someone who previously taught KS1

A quick aside on the KS1 history curriculum. When children are still trying to understand the difference between truth and lies, when they are learning about ‘how to make someone feel better when they are sad’ in PSHE lessons, how do you expect teachers to grapple with such serious moral issues as Wilberforce and the slave trade, or Elizabeth Fry and prison reform? And I know the Year 1 children I have taught would never properly understand the terms ‘civilisation, monarchy and democracy’. As for the concept of a ‘nation’, I learnt in my history degree at the University of Warwick that very few historians can confidently and accurately define that term, but apparently 7 year olds and their teachers can! Instead of teaching such concepts and jumping straight back into history, I strongly believe that KS1 and even Year 3 history should start from the present and work backwards through ‘history in living memory’ (parents/grandparents) and local history.

The response and consultation process

I am pleased that teachers, parents and those with an interest in education in our country have been given an opportunity to respond to the proposals set out in the new curriculum. The time span given is fair and the methods of communication are easy to find and easy to follow. I am particularly looking forward to attending a conference at the University of Birmingham about the History curriculum in March. I sincerely hope that the consultation process is not merely a gesture but that the comments from groups and individuals will be taken seriously by all those people who have an influence on the final curriculum.

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One comment on “A response to the proposals for the new history curriculum

  1. Michael Tidd says:

    A well-argued piece. There are so many issues with this curriculum draft that it needs lengthy responses to cover them all. I only hope that the DfE reacts to them!

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