Who would have believed the new primary history curriculum would have turned out so well?

13th July 2013

On Monday the DfE published the latest draft of the new National Curriculum and many working in the primary sector greeted it with a massive sigh of relief. Most of the grand excesses of the February draft had either been softened or gone altogether and nowhere were these revisions more welcome than in the History curriculum.

The wave of consternation and criticism that crashed into Michael Gove following the February draft threatened to sweep away the whole new curriculum project and it seems he listened or was forced to concede, depending on your point of view.

So, where are we now, now the dust has settled? Certainly, as far as Key Stage 1 is concerned, not very far from where we started. With a few minor changes teachers in year 1 and 2 can carry on after September 2104 as if nothing much has happened. There are some small alterations, some new names on the lists of suggested famous people, perhaps a tiny amount more emphasis on vocabulary, but essentially the aims and content of the new KS1 curriculum are very much like the old.

The more noticeable changes are in Key Stage 2.

One clear result of the review has been the return of historical enquiry skills. The new programmes of study require schools to, “ensure all pupils understand the methods of historical enquiry, including how evidence is used rigorously to make historical claims, and discern how and why contrasting arguments and interpretations of the past have been constructed.” This is very welcome and ends the idea that the study of history in primary schools should constitute nothing more than the rote learning of people, dates and events. In fact, the requirements of the new curriculum go further than the old, proposing that history should be both interesting and open to critical interpretation, “A high-quality history education… should inspire pupils’ curiosity to know more about the past. Teaching should equip pupils to ask perceptive questions, think critically, weigh evidence, sift arguments, and develop perspective and judgement.” This is no curriculum for Gradgrind education, but a challenge to make the study of history stimulating, exciting and intellectually demanding.

Another aim of the new curriculum is to ensure students develop an historical perspective, placing their growing knowledge into different contexts and understanding connections. Stories play an important role and there is an emphasis on teaching skills and knowledge within coherent and meaningful narratives. The new curriculum is not organised as a chronological route march through two thousand years of English history, but as a range of units (many of which will look familiar) incorporating six British history studies, one early civilization study, one study of ancient Greece and one non-European study.

This might seem to mean an increase from six to nine units; however, when considering the extra workload there are two things to bear in mind. The first is that while this change clearly represents extra content, the new curriculum now allows schools to make a distinction between what it calls ‘overview’ studies and ‘depth’ studies, implying that some units can be taught quickly, perhaps in a few lessons, while other units need to be taught in much greater detail. This distinction was not made in the old curriculum and it is likely schools will want some clarification over the next year on what these changes represent. The second thing to bear in mind is that the local history study in the new curriculum can be taught either as a separate unit (allowing schools to teach a second British history study beyond 1066) or as combined unit with one of the other areas, for example, “The Roman Empire and its impact on Britain”. This means that schools can reduce the total number of units from nine to eight by combining two units together.

This increased flexibility is a feature of the new curriculum and is further illustrated by the unit, “A study of an aspect or theme in British history that extends pupil’s chronological knowledge beyond 1066.” One of the major complaints from primary schools about the February draft was that it denied them the chance to teach some of the more popular units from Curriculum 2000, in particular the Victorians and World War 2. These complaints have been heard and it is now possible for schools to continue teaching these topics through the ‘Local history study’ and the ‘Beyond 1066 study’.

Many primary school teachers will also welcome the resurrection (sorry) of the Ancient Egypt unit of study, which was squeezed out of the February draft. Although, it is important to note, Ancient Egypt is only one of list including, Ancient Sumer; The Indus Valley; and The Shang Dynasty of Ancient China.

Another change is the division of the ‘Invaders and Settlers unit’ from one study to three. In Curriculum 2000 it was only compulsory for schools to teach one of the Romans, Anglo-Saxons or Vikings at Key Stage 2 (although many primary schools chose to teach all three). In the new curriculum it is now compulsory for students to study all three. This is going to represent a significant shift in the teaching of Anglo-Saxons, where the emphasis in the new curriculum is on a much more detailed teaching than was required in Curriculum 2000.

Overall, it seems likely most primary schools will welcome the new programmes of study for History. It has a balance between developing enquiry skills and acquiring important historical knowledge, and an emphasis on understanding and developing critical analysis. It also corrects the mistake of the old curriculum by making it now compulsory for children to study the entire history of pre-1066 Britain.

While the new curriculum makes new demands on key stage 2 teachers, in particular the non-European society unit and the extra work on the Anglo-Saxons, it also offers new opportunities and challenges. There is a clear emphasis on the importance of narrative to the study of history, “know and understand the history of these islands as a coherent, chronological narrative” and to making links and developing historical study skills in context. It is admirable that the new framework pulls of the trick of being both flexible and clear in its aims and constructive and coherent in its frame of reference.

Who would have believed that possible after the February draft?

A full analysis of the new Primary History curriculum compared to the old is available here and a suggested curriculum map for key stage 2: http://www.imaginative-inquiry.co.uk/2013/07/the-new-primary-history-curriculum-whisper-it-is-really-good/


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