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!

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3 thoughts on “Horrible Histories: the Gradgrind Govians

  1. Charles Cornelius 10 February 2013 at 7:03 pm Reply

    Excellent research. Gove loves dropping the names of successful people and successful countries to justify his views (or, rather, the views of ED Hirsch), yet when you scratch the surface of what he says, you realize he’s simply making it all up.

    Finland is another ‘high performing country’ For grades 5 and 6, the curriculum covers things like ‘the history of one’s family and home region’, the ‘living conditions of stone age people’, the impact on life of the commencement of farming, states and writing, Ancient Athens and Rome and, for the Middle Ages, ‘impact of religion on human life, the unequal social status of people and Sweden’s annexation of Finland.’ Then there are bits covering the modern era up until the French revolution. They can also choose from a theme to study, like the evolution of trade. The point is that this curriculum is predominantly thematic, with a few absolutely key events thrown in, but all of it seems to be there to explain why Finland is like it is today.

    The Gove curriculum just throws everything but the kitchen sink into the curriculum. There are no themes, just a long narrative with too many people, too many events and too many places, most of which has little bearing on Britain today. I’ll let him have Magna Carta, the Norman Conquest and the Glorious Revolution, but most of the rest is just filler for a pub quiz. I actually think that Gove’s messy list of stuff will eventually be synthesized into themes like the conflict between the king and the people, the emergence of nation states and the development of the empire, probably by educational publishers who must already by drooling at the prospect of selling millions of new textbooks. I wonder whether Gove has shares in Pearson?

  2. Chris Culpin (@CCulpin) 11 February 2013 at 10:12 am Reply

    Thank you for doing this research. In many ways this NC is irrelevant – Academies, Free & independent schools don’t have to do it, Ofsted don’t inspect its content etc. But it doesn’t look good for the revision of GCSE later this year.

  3. Cyncally yours... 12 February 2013 at 10:46 pm Reply

    Sad to say, I think the whole point is for this curriculum to be bad, to be the opposite of what teachers want and children need. It’s carrot and stick: offer money to convert, and threaten those who don’t with a substandard curriculum.

    They want to get schools into the hands of private sponsors as fast as possible before anyone can stop them. Children who end up being taught this curriculum are just collateral damage to them, I think.

    The real fight should be either to find a way to stop the academies programme or to make academies properly accountable, because that’s what’s really being lost when schools leave local authorities in such numbers.

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