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The unthinking history curriculum

Shock, dismay, sadness, anger… these have been the reactions of many history teachers to the long-awaited review of National Curriculum for History.  This is the weakest and potentially the most damaging iteration of the National Curriculum since it began in 1991. It is hard to believe that over two years of thought, discussion and ‘consultation’ could have resulted in a document that reads like a badly updated list of Ladybird books on British history.  Yet it could be worse. If we are looking for any glimmers of sense, rigour and hope in the draft they surely lie in the final four bullet points under ‘Aims’. These ensure that the disciplinary framework of school history will be maintained. The second-order concepts of change/continuity, cause/consequence, similarity/difference and significance are still there. So too is an understanding of how evidence is used, and of how and why different interpretations of history are constructed. In our rush to criticise the proposed curriculum we should be aware of its strengths.

It is not difficult to see how such a poorly-constructed document has transpired.  The first National Curriculum and the reviews of 1995, 2000 and 2007 were conducted within a clear and open framework. In each case, the process brought together history teachers who had taken practice forward, professional historians with knowledge of school history and leading educators from our national museums and heritage organisations. These ‘expert groups’ were known, accountable and worked to a clear timetable. In contrast, the current review has been murky and shambolic. In 2011 we were told that Simon Schama (then Niall Ferguson) would tell us what history we should teach and how we should teach it. Since the early departure of the Titans, the process of review has remained largely hidden. Whatever has been happening in the depths of the DfE, it has clearly not worked. In the view of the Schools History Project the proposed curriculum provides an inadequate foundation for children’s learning in history and will result in lower educational standards. It has five major weaknesses:

  1. The purpose of study statement is pathetic. It is an insult to teachers of history in England’s primary and secondary schools.  Have officials at the DfE looked at the purpose statement in the 2008 National Curriculum? If so, can they not see that this is a statement with passion and depth that can inspire teachers to plan meaningful and fascinating history courses for their pupils? The geography purpose statement in the consultation document is so much better than the one for history. Surely, a 2013 statement on the purpose of history should be an improvement on earlier attempts and parity should be achieved between subjects.
  2. The long list of bullet points relating to British history will do little to foster a shared understanding of our past. The Schools History Project believes that, by the age of 14, all pupils should have a secure knowledge the people, events and changes that have shaped Britain’s history. However, the inclusion of so many bullet points in the proposed curriculum, each apparently accorded the same status, will result in a superficial scamper through Britain’s history. The document makes no attempt to discern trends and themes across time that would provide a helpful framework for building enduring knowledge. The list of content is quite arbitrary and, in some cases, bizarre.
  3. It is ludicrous to think that starting with the Stone Age at the beginning of Key Stage 2 and finishing with the election of Margaret Thatcher will do anything to develop chronological understanding. As Simon Schama wrote in his Guardian article of 9 November 2011, “It can’t be a good idea to treat school age as if it ran on parallel tracks to chronology”. All the research evidence supports his view. In each Key Stage pupils should be entitled to study the long arc of British history. Surely, the National Curriculum for History should encourage eight-year-olds to talk to their grannies and grandpas about life in Britain since the war, and should develop a passion for archaeology in 13-year-olds.
  4. Pulling back so much content from the current Key Stage 3 into Key Stage 2 will cause huge amounts of work and massive disruption for no gain whatsoever. It’s hard to know who to pity more: the secondary history teachers who would have to ditch their carefully-crafted and well-resourced schemes of work on Medieval and Early Modern Britain or the non-specialist primary teachers trying, for the first time,  to make the Glorious Revolution meaningful to ten year olds. The 1700 divide between Key Stage 2 and 3 must be reconsidered. Instead, a coherent structure should be provided that will enable Key Stage 3 teachers to build on the knowledge and understanding established at Key Stage 2.
  5. The content is far too narrow. The revised curriculum represents a reversal of all the progress that has been made over recent years in ensuring that Britain’s diverse history is recognised and taught in schools. The proposed National Curriculum rightly places British history at its core, but this should be more inclusive and there should certainly be a place for the study of other cultures and civilisations.  Knowledge and understanding of the past achievements of other people should surely be part of a civilising education for all children growing up in twenty-first century Britain. A more inclusive history curriculum must be reinstated.

I shall be submitting SHP’s formal response to the National Curriculum Consultation Document before the end of March, so please respond to this blog and let me have your views.

Dr Michael Riley

Director, Schools History Project 


Michael has been SHP Director since 2008. He is responsible for the strategic direction of SHP, ensuring that the project provides an independent source of ideas and experience for the teaching of history in schools