This little post is a brief summary of my experiences as part of the panel that was consulted on the new History Curriculum. I know this seems like an odd way to start a post, but I want to make it clear that this was a fair while ago. If I asked you to tell me what you did on a given day in March 2013, you would appreciate the difficulty of recalling it. As such, I don’t want to go into much detail, partly because I can’t remember the details, and partly because I don’t want to attribute standpoints or statements to people erroneously.
I hope anyone remotely interested in this can still salvage some interest from my hazy recollections.
Last year, I attended both sessions and I found them to be interesting discussions, positive in their mood and very much what you would want from a roundtable – they involved us moving through an agenda and having opportunities to comment upon, analyse and pick apart the first draft of the curriculum for history. Having not attended anything like this before, I had expected it to be much more one sided – like the one-person focus group in The Thick Of IT – with the Ministerial team wanting simply to validate their curriculum with the endorsement of others.
Actually, it was a very critical and reflective meeting, during which the Minister and his team did seem (to me at least) to be listening, whilst having their first draft constructively dismantled from many different standpoints.
In the first session, much of the discussion was prompted by academic historians and it focused on the suitability of different cut-off dates between primary and secondary curricula. It was broadly agreed that the initial curriculum was too vast to be covered, and the logistics of school timetabling was discussed. The notion that the new curriculum was meant to be less prescriptive was considered alongside the many topics that we expected to be covered, and there was a commitment to slim down the next draft.
I felt that teachers were under-represented and that, if I were to give formative feedback, I would suggest a teachers consultation would have been beneficial after the academic consultation, which would have been better able to focus on issues of pedagogy, coverage, resourcing, rigour and progression within the new curriculum. This would allow even more fine-tuning. I feel that the consultation was helped by having teachers there, to talk about the constraints of implementation,.
I felt as though the second meeting was experienced very positively, as it was clear that many of the recommendations, suggestions and criticisms raised in the first meeting had clearly been considered in the second draft. Despite the wide range of perspectives in attendance – historical and also professional – there was a general consensus (not that I am ‘consensus-radar’) that this second draft was a great improvement.
Little episodes that stuck with me were the Minister referring to himself coyly as a Hegelian, in the face of all of the antithesis facing his initial thesis. This reflected the pretty good-humoured tone of the meetings.
An excellent contribution was made by somebody representing Ofsted, who clarified Ofsted’s position: it is a good thing for schools to interact with a National Curriculum rather than be a slave to it, and that they actively endorse innovation. The new curriculum outlined certain expectations of which periods of history should be taught, but individual schools would be able to devise their own challenging and rigorous units, and should not simply build a curriculum out of the Suggested topics mentioned in the curriculum.
From my perspective, as a primary school class teacher who was working throughout 2013-14 with a colleague to construct a new school curriculum for History and Geography, I was approaching the meetings quite pragmatically, thinking what I would want from a curriculum, thinking about what some of the strengths and weaknesses are in our own existing school curriculum and trying to think through difficulties of implementation from a primary school perspective.
My own thoughts, for the record, were that children should develop a more coherent sense of chronology, as this is a core element of historical understanding that our children do lack – I was not convinced that this necessarily meant that the entire history curriculum needed to be taught in linear chronological order though, which was implied in the early stages of the draft and in its media coverage.
Thinking about my school’s own history curriculum, before the new curriculum, we had numerous areas which were being covered very successfully that did not fit easily with the new curriculum. Our school is in the East End of London, and over the years, our History Coordinator had developed a vivid, challenging and emotive topic on Wartime London, where the children were able to access first hand sources and to visit areas around our school that had been affected by the blitz. Similarly, we had contextualised our work on the Victorians within our local area, building links with ragged schools and poor houses, and developed strong units which tracked family histories, explored wealth-disparities, looked at the local area and its architecture, and so on.
Without wishing to conflate my school’s curriculum with those of other schools, I was of the opinion that there could be difficulties when it came to implementing the new curriculum – many of the topics which had become ‘staple topics’ of Primary HIstory teaching, such as the Tudors, Victorian Britain and the First and Second World Wars, did not find a home in the new curriculum (although some clever engineering and tinkering could allow the best bits to be covered, through the a study of an aspect or theme in British history that extends pupils’ chronological knowledge beyond 1066 bit and the local history study. This is not an example of primary schools’ reluctance to change, but is a common-sense way to ensure that thousands of pounds worth of resources did not become redundant, and to make sure that the effective elements of the existing curriculum could continue to be effective.
I have rambled off course.
To summarise my experience at the History Consultation, I will say that I felt the meetings were very constructive and that the minister not only seemed genuinely interested in the range of opinions offered, but he and his team did appear to act upon recommendations shared from across the table.
Other members of the panel might have thought differently, as perhaps I approached the meetings with less of an ‘interest’ to promote (aside from being one of two primary teachers representing the whole workforce, of course…) – my chief concerns going into the meetings were that the coverage was too wide, certain expectations were unrealistic in terms of how much would be taught and of the topics themselves (Heptarchy for 6 year olds…) and that the curriculum was too white British (a particular bugbear was Clive of India’s inclusion, without any curricular suggestion that children might learn the perils of empire, as well as the bounties).
Coming out of the second meeting, and having subsequently worked to put together a new school curriculum using the National Curriculum as our framework, I am pretty satisfied. As a school, we have retained the best parts of our existing curriculum, with our extensive local links to our recent past, and have managed to inject a lot of energy and vitality into our new units. Our Stone Age work in Year 3 is becoming a strong unit and I must share our Year 6 unit of Colonialism and the Tea Trade, which is a great new addition to the curriculum.
Any questions, tweet away and I’ll do my best to answer but as I say, it was a fair while ago now so it’s all gone a bit cloudy.