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Response to the consultation on the Draft National Curriculum for History

As one of the principal organisations for school history in England, the Schools History Project welcomes the opportunity to comment on the Draft Programme of Study for History in the National Curriculum.

The Schools History Project is well aware of the challenges facing school history. In some schools, the reduction in curriculum time for history or the move to a school-wide thematic curriculum has had a catastrophic impact on the subject. We therefore welcome the support for traditional academic subjects provided by the Draft National Curriculum. We also share the Government’s view that there should be a strong emphasis on historical knowledge in the school history curriculum and that pupils should develop a secure chronological framework as they study periods and events in the past.  The Schools History Project recognises the need to develop a more coherent approach to the study of British history and to strengthen the teaching of local history. Above all, we acknowledge the need to make learning history challenging, meaningful and enjoyable for all pupils. In our view, the Draft National Curriculum does not provide a sufficiently robust framework to help teachers meet these challenges. If implemented in its present form, it will lower standards in school history.

Purpose of Study and Aims

The introduction to the National Curriculum for History (defined as ‘Purpose of Study’ and ‘Aims’ in the draft document) is of crucial importance in raising standards. It must explain why the study of history is vital for pupils’ future lives and must capture the disciplinary rigour that underpins effective learning in history. The Purpose of Study statement and list of aims in the Draft Programme of Study go some way to achieving these goals, but they should be strengthened in order to provide a more robust curriculum framework.

The two sentences in the draft purpose of study statement are an inadequate expression of why children and young people should study history. The purpose statement must connect pupils’ lives in the twenty-first century with the study of people in the past. It should address the ways in which the study of history can shape pupils’ lives at a deep level.  The promotion of enduring interest, fascination, curiosity, inspiration, and an understanding of different perspectives should underpin the purpose statement. It should emphasise the importance of understanding history at personal, local, national and international levels. The purpose statement should seek to inspire teachers and should give meaning to history as a school subject. Compared to the importance statement in the 2007 National Curriculum, the 2013 draft is inadequate. It is also much weaker than the geography statement in the 2013 draft. As it stands, the draft purpose statement fails to do justice to the dedicated teachers of history who seek to make history a meaningful and fascinating subject for their pupils. It must be strengthened.

The Schools History Project broadly supports the bullet point list of aims in the Draft National Curriculum. The last four bullet points capture the discipline-specific elements of history and provide a framework that will ensure rigorous learning.  SHP passionately supports the development of knowledge, but the power of knowledge is derived from being able to deploy it, which is why second order concepts – such as continuity and change, cause and consequence, similarity and difference, and significance – play such a vital role in history education.  The draft aims rightly emphasise the role of these second-order concepts. The Schools History Project particularly welcomes the emphasis on ‘discerning how and why contrasting arguments and interpretations of the past have been constructed’. An understanding that history is created and contested was enshrined in first National Curriculum and must underpin the history curriculum in any democratic country. The draft aims place appropriate emphasis on understanding how evidence is used. However, in order to promote best practice, we recommend that the wording is amended in order to link the use of evidence to the process of historical enquiry: ‘Understanding the process of historical enquiry, including, how evidence is used…’.  In contrast to the clarity of the last four bullet points in the list of aims, the first three bullet points, which focus on knowledge acquisition, are confusing and badly written. We recommend that they are replaced with the following bullet point: ‘acquire secure knowledge and become increasingly confident with the key events, people and developments that shaped the history of Britain, the wider world and the pupils’ own locality’.     

Subject Content – the problem of overload

The most fundamental weakness in the Draft National Curriculum for History is the contradiction between the aims of the history curriculum and the ludicrously long list of subject content that dominates the document. The list, which focuses almost entirely on the history of Britain, cannot be taught in any meaningful way. The Schools History Project believes that all pupils should develop secure framework knowledge of Britain’s history as they progress through Key Stages 1, 2 and 3. In addition, pupils should be able to make more complex links and connections between British, local, European and wider world history. The detailed content specified in the Draft National Curriculum makes it highly unlikely that pupils will develop any meaningful understanding of national, local and international history.  It may be possible to ‘cover’ the content specified in the draft curriculum but only at a pace that would leave children and young people bewildered and bored.  The superficial scamper through the past that would be the inevitable consequence of trying to teach all the bullet points of content, would limit pupils’ understanding and would allow no time for high level thinking, extended writing, deeper understanding and enjoyment.

The problem of content overload is compounded by the construction of the Programme of Study in a strictly chronological sequence from the beginning of Key Stage 2 to the end of Key Stage 3.  At the beginning of the review process, Simon Schama wrote “It can’t be a good idea to treat school age as if it ran on parallel tracks to chronology” (The Guardian, 9 November 2011). All the research evidence supports his view. The Schools History Project believes that pupils should develop more secure chronological understanding as they progress through Key Stage 1, 2 and 3, but starting with Stone Age in Year 3 and ending with the Fall of the Berlin Wall in Year 9 is an ineffective and intellectually impoverishing way to build chronological awareness.  It means that younger children never have the opportunity to study later periods of history and does not allow older pupils to engage with the intellectual demands of studying ancient, medieval and early-modern history. The Schools History Project believes that pupils should be entitled to study a wide range of periods in each phase of their history education, and that the National Curriculum should require teachers to build chronological understanding through coherent planning and the use of development studies at each Key Stage.

At a practical level, one of the potentially most damaging aspect of the 2013 Draft Curriculum is the decision to end key Stage 2 with the ‘Union of Parliaments’ and  to begin Key Stage 3 with ‘Wolfe and the conquest of Canada’. This would result in hundreds of secondary history departments abandoning their well-crafted and carefully-resourced schemes of work on medieval and early modern history, and writing new schemes of work focused only on modern history. All this would have to be achieved at the same time as preparing for new A levels and GCSE specifications. The suggested Key Stage 2/3 divide would also have considerable professional development implications for primary teachers who would be required to teach many aspects of medieval and early modern history for the first time. The massive disruption, amount of work and expense required to implement this change could only be justified if it resulted in higher levels of pupil achievement. There is no evidence that this would be the case. The 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.

Subject Content – the problems of narrowness and lack of rigour

The list of specified content in the Draft National Curriculum is also deeply problematic because of its narrow focus and its failure to represent up-to-date scholarship. The list is dominated by British history, but fails to provide a coherent framework to support pupils’ learning about the changing nature of political power in Britain, and about the economic, social and cultural changes that have shaped our country. The document makes no attempt to discern trends and themes across time that would provide a helpful framework for building enduring knowledge of British history. Many of the issues that have informed historical scholarship in recent years are ignored and many of the terms used to describe historical events are out-dated. The result is a draft National Curriculum for History that reads like badly-updated contents pages from Ladybird Books on British history.

The Schools History Project welcomes the retention of local history in the Draft National Curriculum. This is an under-developed dimension of school history. The most recent Ofsted Subject Report (History for All, 2011 p. 49)) found that local history was ignored in many schools and that opportunities to build pupils’ understanding of the local community were missed. Despite this, some teachers have undertaken outstanding work on local history, and the Schools History Project, the Historical Association, English Heritage and other organisations have supported and promoted their work. The study of local history, and learning in the local historic environment, are powerful vehicles for building historical knowledge, social cohesion and an appreciation of heritage. We believe that that the requirement to study local history should be strengthened in the revised National Curriculum by making the requirement more explicit and by making a visit to an historic site, museum or archive an entitlement for all pupils at each Key Stage.

A further damaging aspect of the Draft National Curriculum is its overemphasis on a narrowly-defined, and highly-prescriptive, British history. 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. It should recognise that cultural diversity has been an enduring feature of Britain’s history for the last 2000 years and should enable children and young people from all ethnic and cultural backgrounds to connect with Britain’s rich and complex history. In addition, there should be a place for the study of other world cultures and civilisations in England’s National Curriculum for History.  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. A more inclusive history curriculum must be reinstated by redefining the subject content for British history and by requiring the study of wider-world civilisations and cultures at each Key Stage.

The Review Process

When the first National Curriculum was written in 1991, and at each of the revisions in 1995, 2000 and 2007, the process of consultation was clear. The Secretary of State for Education established an expert group made up from history teachers who had driven practice forward, leading professional historians who had a good understanding of school history and educators from national museums and heritage organisations. The expert groups produced interim reports which formed the basis for wider consultation. In each case, these groups were able to achieve a remarkable degree of consensus.  In contrast, the review process leading to the 2013 Draft National Curriculum has failed to draw upon expert advice from those best-placed to improve the teaching of history in schools. At various points in the review process advice from individual historians and teachers has been sought, but there has been no attempt to achieve the consensus that was a hallmark of previous reviews. The Schools History Project therefore recommends that a properly-constituted history review group is established as a matter of urgency. The Schools History Project would be pleased and proud to play a part in helping to construct a  National Curriculum for History that is worthy of our children and young people.

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