Monthly Archives: February 2013

The over-simplification of History teaching (& learning!)

In the last couple of weeks I have been emphatic about the need to respond to the National Curriculum consultation, in particular to make changes to the unwieldy and unhelpful History curriculum. My views are broadly in line with those of the Historical Association, The Royal Historical Society, the British Academy and History UK. But, of course, as with all such changes, there will be those whose views differ.

Yesterday, Tom Bennett (@tombennett71) posted a thought-out blog on the History proposals at . Now, I’ll confess to never having been a fan of the “behaviour guru” (a moniker which even he notes is over-the-top, so don’t hold that against him). But this blog struck me in a few ways.

Firstly, despite being a fan of integration of the humanities, I note that he is not a History teacher, but an RE/Philosophy teacher. Neither of these subjects are directly affected by the National Curriculum, and perhaps more significantly, most authorities’ Agreed Syllabuses for RE are substantially light on content than the proposed History draft. Mr Bennett proudly boasts that he can “follow a syllabus like Miles Davis follows scales” – a task Mr Davis might find harder if the score he was provided with was Beethoven’s fifth!

That all being said, it is quite possible that as a head of Humanities he is required to do some History teaching. Now, I am not a History specialist, so can claim no greater qualification to judge, but I am an experienced teacher in the primary curriculum. As such, it was comment’s about the primary curriculum that most riled me. I imagine there are swathes of secondary teachers who are not thrilled about the KS3 PoS, but I’ll stick to what I know.

Firstly, TB describes the KS1 curriculum as “brief and broad enough” and confidently advises us that “there are dozens of points where a globally minded teacher could freestyle off into the world at large”. Now, forgive me if I am wrong, but I haven’t noticed any KS1 teachers complaining that there isn’t scope to go off into other things. The matter is quite the reverse – that the expectations required of the new draft are simply inappropriate for five-year-old children.

Of course, we can over-simplify. The KS1 draft requires that by the age of seven children know and understand concepts such as civilisation, monarchy, parliament, democracy, and war and peace. Now, monarchy kids gets: Kings and Queens. Parliament and democracy we can talk about: we choose who’s in charge. War and Peace… easy. They’ve seen weapons. Of course, none of this is really teaching anything but a vague awareness of some complex vocabulary. How do you really teach a six-year-old – someone who has virtually no autonomy themselves – about the various options for governance of a nation. And civilisation!? What does that even mean? Is it just people living in a place? Are we comparing civilised communities to barbarians somewhere? The list is just a nonsense.

But my concerns about KS1 don’t come close to those of KS2. A race through more than 1700 years of history will do nothing to broaden children’s understanding of chronology or the world around them. One lesson on Clive of India – maybe two at a push – can do nothing to explain the ways in which Britain developed an empire through a combination of private enterprise. For all the superficial understanding children will gain from this type of march through history, we might as well just use clips like this:

It’s not quite historically accurate, but it covers the gist.

TB states himself that “The curriculum shouldn’t be a straitjacket”, but in the case of KS2/3 History that’s exactly what it is. He provides plenty of examples of how he sees history teachers can depart from the required curriculum, but shows no awareness at all of the time needed to cover what is already included.

Tim Taylor (@imagineinquiry) put together an excellent draft of what the curriculum might look like in KS2, which you can download from the bottom of his blogpost here: (The post itself is well worth a read too)

In his blog, TB suggests that “the Crusades (KS2) easily encompass the Middle East, the Muslim empires, the rise of Kevin Costner; the Norman Conquest (KS2) could […] touch on France, feudalism, and mainland Europe and its relationship to these islands”
Looking at Tim Taylor’s blog you can see that all this would need to be fitted into a single term – approximately 10 hours of history teaching.

Now, I currently teach in Y7, and we do cover the Norman conquest. It takes nearly 10 hours just to properly study the events of 1066, let alone to get on as far as the Crusades. The suggestion that we could cover the same in 10 hours in Year 4 with time to spare is nonsense. Remember that most of the children studying this will not be 11 or 12 as they are now, but barely 8!

Of course, again we can simplify: an hour on the death of Edward the Confessor and its implications, an hour on Stamford Bridge, an hour on the Battle of Hastings, an hour on the Bayeux Tapestry, an hour on feudalism… and children will miss out a swathe of historical skills and understanding.

At what I understand is TB’s own school, the Y7 History curriculum is devoted to medieval history with a start on the Tudor period. His suggestion is that this could all be covered in the half the time with children aged 3 or 4 years younger. It rather begs the question what his school is wasting its time on!

Via Twitter this morning I engaged with TB about his views, and his responses only further entrenched my view that he has a wild misunderstanding about the nature of the teaching of history. His views seem largely predicated on the premise that if content is taught in an interesting way then it will also be learned. That once it is taught, it is also learned:

No, while I’m sure JK Rowling would be flattered to have the intricacies of her plots be compared to something so extraordinarily complex as our nation’s history, I suspect that even she might raise an eyebrow. And of course, there are very few 9-year-olds who can give but the most fleeting recollection of key points in the story. Those who really know the “entire Harry Potter plot cycle” are those who have re-read and re-visited the text in different forms at different times – a process that simply isn’t allowed in the new draft curriculum.

To suggest that simply by imparting knowledge in chronological order that students will suddenly have an understanding of the full sweep of British history suggests a complete underestimation of the role and worth of teachers. If it were true that simply by exposure children could be made to know, retain and understand facts then we would have no need for education beyond the age of 8. We could simply teach children to read, and then provide them with textbooks.

I have no doubts that Mr Bennett prides himself on being an engaging teacher who selects the best approaches to bring a curriculum to life for his students in his RS and psychology lessons, building on an initial framework to draw on his own expertise and wonder to provide exciting learning opportunities. In supporting such a content-heavy curriculum for KS2 and KS3 History, he is denying his history-teaching colleagues the opportunity to do likewise.


The DfE vs the Experts

Sometimes I get annoyed by the dismissive attitude of the DfE towards the experts in its field – the teachers and school leaders up and down the country. But I suppose that’s politics. What has really surprised me though is their clear disregard for the experts they appointed themselves!

In 2010, shortly after coming to power, Nick Gibb met with selected individuals to make arrangements to set up an “Expert Panel” to advise on changes to the National Curriculum. In December 2011 they published their final report – and soon after each of them made clear that they were unimpressed with the direction later taken by the DfE. But quite how far the department has departed from the expert advice that it sought is remarkable.

In their final report¹, the four experts – Tim Oates, Andrew Pollard, Mary James and Dylan Wiliam – did not over-simplify their recommendations, but did nonetheless collate a broad overview of them. Here I have attempted to compare their recommendations to the final outcomes of the National Curriculum draft Programmes of Study².

1. On Aims and Purposes of the Curriculum, the Expert Panel said:

We recommend that aims should be expressed at the following levels:
Level 1: Affirming system-wide educational aspirations for school curricula 
Level 2: Specifying more particular purposes for schools and for their curricula; and
Level 3: Introducing the goals for the Programmes of Study of particular subjects.

The consultation document from the DfE on the new Programmes of Study says:

it is arguable that the detailed subject-level aims set out in each programme of study are unnecessary, and that the purpose of study for each subject and the content should be sufficient to guide teachers in designing their curricula.

Expert Panel Advice Disregarded

2. On the structure of the school curriculum, the Expert Panel said:

The Basic Curriculum should however be expanded to include some subjects that we recommend should be removed from the National Curriculum, in order to slim it down.

The consultation document from the DfE on the new Programmes of study says:

We will therefore retain the current subject composition of the National Curriculum, with the addition of foreign languages at Key Stage 2

Expert Panel Advice Disregarded

3. On Subjects in the Curriculum, the Expert Panel said:

we recommend that some subjects and areas of learning should be reclassified so that there is still a duty on schools to teach them, but it would be up to schools to determine appropriate specific content.

We believe that at Key Stage 4 there should be greater breadth than there is in the current system.

The consultation document from the DfE on the new Programmes of study says:

We will therefore retain the current subject composition of the National Curriculum, with the addition of foreign languages at Key Stage 2

We do not believe that further compulsion at Key Stage 4 is necessary or appropriate

Expert Panel Advice Disregarded

4. On the structures of Key Stages, the Expert Panel said:

We recommend that the present Key Stage 2 be split in two to form two new key stages, each of two years’ duration.

We have therefore been considering the benefits of reducing Key Stage 3 to just two years to enable Key Stage 4, and GCSE preparation, to expand to three years […] Consultation with others is necessary before a decision on this can be made.

We do not support use of the established key stage structure, without modification, to present new Programmes of Study

The consultation document from the DfE on the new Programmes of study says:

We do not plan to make any changes to the key stage structure.

Expert Panel Advice Disregarded

5. On the presentation of Programmes of Study, the Expert Panel said:

We have agreed that we will not recommend year-on-year specification (with the possible exception of mathematics in primary education).

The consultation document from the DfE on the new Programmes of study says:

The programmes of study for English are set out year-by-year for Key Stage 1

The programmes of study for science are set out year-by-year for Key Stages 1 and 2

Expert Panel Advice Disregarded

6. On the use of Attainment Targets, the Expert Panel said:

We suggest a new approach. Programmes of Study should be stated as discursive statements of purposes, anticipated progression and interconnections within the knowledge to be acquired, with Attainment Targets being stated as statements of specific learning outcomes related to essential knowledge.Programmes of Study could then be presented in two parallel columns. A narrative, developmental description of the key concept to be learned (the Programme of Study) could be represented on the left hand side. The essential learning outcomes to be assessed at the end of the key stage (the Attainment Targets) could be represented on the right hand side. This would better support curriculum-focused assessment

The consultation document from the DfE on the new Programmes of study says:

The new National Curriculum has detailed programmes of study for primary English, mathematics and science. These programmes of study specify the core knowledge.

In other subjects and key stages we are […] focusing only on the essential knowledge to be taught in each subject.

A single statement of attainment that sets out that pupils are expected to know, apply and understand the matters, skills and processes specified in the relevant programme of study will encourage all pupils to aspire to reach demanding standards.

Expert Panel Advice Disregarded

7. On methods for assessment & reporting, the Expert Panel said:

high-performing jurisdictions focus on fewer things in greater depth in primary education. We believe that the focus should be on ensuring that all pupils have an appropriate understanding of key elements prior to moving to the next body of content

The consultation document from the DfE on the new Programmes of study says:

Approaches to the assessment of pupils’ progress and recognising the achievements of all pupils at primary school will be explored more fully within the primary assessment and accountability consultation which will be issued shortly

Jury Out

8. On the importance of Oracy in the National Curriculum, the Expert Panel said:

We are strongly of the view that the development of oral language should be a particular feature of the new National Curriculum.
 This should include using overarching National Curriculum statements, retaining discrete and focused elements within the Programme of Study for English, and introducing statements about oral language and its development into each Programme of Study for all core and foundation subjects.

The consultation document from the DfE on the new Programmes of study says:

Nothing. There is no mention at all in the consultation document.#

*It is fair to note that Spoken Language does get mentioned in the overview of the core subjects, although it is not mentioned at all in the foundation subjects. There is no discrete or focused element within the Programmes of Study for English at Key Stages 1 and 2.

Expert Panel Advice Disregarded

There were two additional chapters in the report, from which no specific recommendations were given. Thus it appears that the DfE has chosen to ignore almost all of the advice given by its own Expert Panel.

It makes for an interesting approach to evidence-based governance, certainly!

ADDENDUM – 22nd April 2013

Following a FOI request to the DFE it emerged that £287,619 was spent on the expert panel report. A quarter of a million pounds essentially discarded.

¹ The Expert Panel report can be downloaded from
² The consultation documentation can be downloaded from

Horrible Histories: the Gradgrind Govians

Before I begin, take a look at this video of an eight-year-old’s birthday party.

Eight-year-old children playing at egg-and-spoon races, and enjoying a child-like life is always a pleasure to watch, I think. And across England, teachers of Year 3 children, who are turning eight, are very experienced at drawing on this love of adventure and excitement to engage them in a History curriculum that meets their needs. Even the most dreary of curriculum-writers at QCA managed to make accessible units of work suitable for the age of the children.

Yet somehow, in their wisdom at the DfE (and we don’t yet know exactly whose wisdom, since we haven’t been told who actually wrote the new draft Programmes of Study), it has been decided that age-appropriate curricula are for the lily-livered. Now we must return to straightforward facts. And in a move presumably based on the wisdom of Maria von Trapp, Year 3 students must start at the very beginning.

So, out go engaging themes like Victorians – with all its accessible artefacts and resources, its meaningful inventions, and its comprehensible elements of continuity and change – and in comes the Heptarchy. (here’s the Wikipedia link, for those of you disgracefully unfamiliar with this administrative structure)

Of course, those behind the draft will presumably say that our standards are sloppy. We have fallen behind. The rest of the world is leading the way. High Performing Jurisdictions teach the Heptarchy to three-year-olds.

Except they don’t.

Gove et al seem ever in awe of the ‘High Performing Jurisdictions’ of Singapore, Massachusetts, Alberta and the like. So what say they on History for 7-8 year olds?


History isn’t a separate subject in Singapore Primary schools. It forms part of an integrated Social Studies curriculum. Even when you look at the syllabus (the equivalent of  a Programme of Study), the historical chronology doesn’t stand out. In fact, the 50-page document which covers the whole of the primary phase seems to contain far less “content” than the new draft curriculum for KS2. The remainder of the document focuses on the rationale, understanding and purpose of the curriculum. It emphasises the importance of an inquiry focus, of skills and values, and of critical thinking.

And what does it say of content for 8-year-olds?

Pupils will be able to:
• identify the people living in Singapore; and
• recognise that a common identity as well as shared experiences and values unite the people of Singapore

It draws upon examples such as national holidays and symbols, traditional costumes and games, and developing “an appreciation for the diverse communities in Singapore”. Exactly the sort of thing you might expect an eight-year-old to understand and relate to.

But perhaps Singapore is the exception to the rule on this occasion? What of the other HPJs?


At his recent speech at the SMF, Mr Gove praised the brilliance of the Massachusetts curriculum in which their “history curriculum requires students to be taught in rich factual detail about their heritage”. He goes on to say how well they do in assessments, so perhaps here is his source?

Well, before we look at that in any detail, I think it’s worth reading the opening page to the MA Curriculum Frameworks website. It contains the following statement:

Since the enactment of the Education Reform Act of 1993, a great deal of work has gone into developing the Curriculum Frameworks.

What has made the process so effective is the grassroots involvement of thousands of people statewide. The task could not have been accomplished without the commitment, energy, and dedication of teachers, administrators, associations, parents, business, students, higher education faculty, Department of Elementary and Secondary Education staff, the Board of Education, and the public.

I make no further comment on that, for none is needed. So, what of its curriculum for eight-year-olds? It is perhaps worthy of note that again this HPJ does not separate History from its broader “History and Social Science” curriculum. It too explores at length the rationale behind the curriculum itself.

Handily, the curriculum contains a pre-amble which explores the main focus of each year’s curriculum. It says the following about Grade 2:

Second graders learn world and United States history, geography, economics, and government by
studying more about who Americans are and where they came from. They explore their own family’s
history and learn about distinctive achievements, customs, events, places, or landmarks from long
ago and from around the world. The chief purpose of the grade 2 curriculum is to help students
understand that American citizenship embraces all kinds of people, regardless of race, ethnicity,
gender, religion, and national origin. American students come from all countries and continents in
the world. A history and social science curriculum should help students acquire a common under­
standing of American history, its political principles, and its system of government in order to
prepare them for responsible participation in our schools and civic life.

That all seems pretty reasonable for a eight-year-old, and far more meaningful than a study of thousand-year-old Kings! But let’s look at the detail. What specific knowledge does it require of its eight-year-olds in terms of history? Well, there are five key history objectives for Grade 2. These link to:

  1. the use of a calendar to identify days, months, seasons, etc.
  2. the use of time language (before, in the past, because, etc.)
  3. chronology… of the student’s own lifetime!
  4. Linking maps to historical stories
  5. discussing people’s achievements, based on stories they’ve heard.

And that’s the common core so loved by Mr Gove. Doesn’t seem to bear much resemblance to the new draft NC to me!

So what of other High Performing Jurisidictions? Is the new draft list of “must-knows” based on one of these:

Victoria, Australia: 

The Level 3 curriculum provides a study of identity and diversity in both a local and broader context. Moving from the heritage of their local area, students explore the historical features and diversity of their community as represented in symbols and emblems of significance, and celebrations and commemorations, both locally and in other places around the world.

New Zealand:

Students will gain knowledge, skills, and experience to understand how time and change affect people’s lives

Alberta, Canada:

Students will demonstrate an understanding and appreciation of how a community emerged.

Ottawa, Canada:

By the end of Grade 3, students will:
• describe the communities of early settlers and First Nation peoples in Upper Canada
around 1800;
• use a variety of resources and tools to gather, process, and communicate information about
interactions between new settlers and existing communities, including First Nation peoples,
and the impact of factors such as heritage, natural resources, and climate on the development
of early settler communities;
• compare aspects of life in early settler communities and present-day communities.

In fact, it seems that none of Mr Gove’s much-loved High Performing Jurisdictions offer anything like the narrow, prescriptive and fact-centred curriculum being proposed. They all recognise the abilities of eight-year-old children, and the limitations of their awareness of matters outside their own experience. They recognise the importance of  beginning with the child, and widening his experience through breadth, rather than charging through a ticklist of historical dates and events.

And so must we. Primary school teachers up and down the country need to draw on their own knowledge, experience and expertise and must respond to the government’s consultation on the new draft Programmes of Study. It’s the only way we can save primary History for primary children!