Curriculum and the Primary Humanities (beyond Ofsted)

Summary – It is a good thing that we are talking more about curriculum. This renewed focus is an opportunity for schools to build a curriculum that is challenging, coherent, rich, representative and relevant. One way of doing this is to ensure that, where possible and where it is sensible to do so, links are made to the local context of the school community. In the primary humanities, this may mean undertaking good research into local history and into the migration histories of different pupil groups in the school, in order that curriculum coverage addresses ‘our stories’ in an inclusive sense. It may mean that geographical work builds a thorough contextualised understanding of the local community as a base from which to begin learning about and understanding the wider world. 

Primary schools have some real freedom when it comes to the teaching of history and geography. Whilst there is still a National Curriculum for those of us who didn’t academise, there is a lot of flexibility within that. For schools who don’t need to follow the National Curriculum, there are even more options available. Ofsted have put out a clarion call about the central importance of curriculum when judging the quality of a school. Although it is fair to say there are still ‘leanings’ towards the primacy of knowledge – Knowledge and skill are intrinsically linked: skill is a performance built on what a person knows – Ofsted do recognise the effectiveness within approaches that are not ‘knowledge-led’ by their definition, and visited a genuine range of schools to see a variety of approaches.

Let’s be clear. The curriculum has always been important, and the reason we are all talking about it now, collectively, is because Ofsted’s proclivities must become our own within schools, for as long as Ofsted is the vehicle of schools’ accountability. I’ve marched against the DfE in the past, and I’ve bemoaned Ofsted despite (wait for it) having never experienced an inspection, but I have to be up  front and say that I like some of what I am seeing.

We all know schools whose reliably solid exam data can shield patchy, narrow or moribund day-to-day practice. This might mean a slimmed-down curriculum, an unjust imbalance of time given for different subjects, or an excessive strategic focus on that which is formally assessed to the detriment of other subjects. If Ofsted casting their beady eye on the breadth and vibrancy of the curriculum means that schools focus more on the quality of what is being taught and what is being learnt, then I can see its benefit.

The question now is perhaps … how? Given that retention rates are so abject, many schools have a teaching staff, and often a leadership team, who might not ever necessarily have engaged in curriculum design. The creative freedom that is pined for so spiritedly under excessively controlling regimes is actually quite confounding and nebulous when it is there, warming up in your hands like a clod of clay, waiting for you to mould it. It can be scary.

Good curriculum design will take heed of what is going on in other schools, will engage with what we know about sequencing learning from cognitive science as well as from curriculum theory, and it will also reflect the local context of its school. It is through this interplay that the curriculum not only looks good, feels coherent and is well-crafted, but that it is specifically tailored to the community the school serves.

In the HMCI commentary, where reference is made to the relationship between the curriculum and the local context, it is often is ‘compensatory’ terms. It suggests, and I paraphrase this, that the curriculum of a school with a high proportion of migrant families might, for example, compensate for what is missing at home through its curriculum. And as the commentary states, ‘many of the leaders in these schools saw a knowledge-led approach as the vehicle to address social disadvantage’.

This is either a wilful abnegation of the virtues and opportunities a school’s local community can afford it, or it is a conscious decision to ignore the wider community to focus elsewhere, or it is an oversight. The local context is far more than something to be remedied. A good curriculum can draw its lifeblood from the local context of the school.

The renewed attention on the curriculum gives schools an opportunity to ensure that their curriculum is sufficiently challenging, coherent, rich, representative and ‘relevant’.

‘Relevant’ may well have triggered some readers’ BS-klaxon, but hold your judgement til I explain. By a relevant curriculum, I don’t mean necessarily that what is taught should mirror the fads and whimsies of its pupils or of popular culture. I don’t mean we should be expressing our learning about the Second World War through Fortnite dances, or OS Maps out of Slime.

What I mean by ‘relevant’ is best explained with the example of the local contexts of the schools I’m working in this year, where the majority of pupils trace their family origins back to South Asia. What adds to the relevance of our curriculum is that when we have been learning about the Second World War, we discussed with pupils how the events of the war relate to India regaining its independence from the British. We learn about the Partition, and the subsequent formation of West and East Pakistan. And we learn about the ‘language martyrs’ and the Bangladesh Liberation War, and the 1971 Declaration of Independence. This involved mapping, chronology and developing an understanding of cause/effect and causation/correlation, in a historical sense.

Is this irrelevant? Certainly not.

For one thing, these events are part of British history, and are not taught enough in schools. Black history is British history. But for pupils growing up in mixed communities, the inclusion of this content into the curriculum is more than just that: it is a demonstration of respect for the stories that are a part of the pupils’ own heritage and identity. The sad state of affairs is that a school can absolve itself of being representative in this way, and can remain – officially – a good school, with a good curriculum and a good set of data, even if its curriculum remains parochially white.

In our school, we have certainly not found the answer, but like many schools, we are dedicating more of our energies to the kind of critical conversations about pedagogy, curriculum and values that we should have been having more frequently. We are learning more about the heritage of our school and of Newham, and we are using this to contextualise the learning that goes into our curriculum, where appropriate. There will be no shoehorning.

Through engaging more in this process, the additional benefits of the local come to the fore. Before Jeremy Corbyn had singled out the campaigner Paul Stephenson as somebody whose life-story should be shared in schools, we had built his biography into our work in English. The teachers had been researching black British civil rights leaders as part of our work for Black History Month, and noted that Paul Stephenson was educated around the corner from us at Forest Gate Community School.

The local matters. It amplifies significance. When the children hear remarkable stories of candour, dignity and resolve, there may be that creeping sense of ‘distance’ – “I wouldn’t have been able to do this, this person is different from me”. When the children hear remarkable stories about people who have walked the same streets as them, or have spoken the same languages, or whose lives share parallels with their own, then the curriculum is not so distant. It tells of the global through the lens of the local – introduces the unknown from the realm of the known.

In the primary humanities, we have enormous potential to build on the deep, informed critical practice that is dotted around, but isn’t used because it isn’t on Twinkl, or isn’t part of the scheme that your school has bought into. ‘Off the shelf’ should stay on the shelf. We have the opportunity to innovate and the time is right to go our own way.

Let’s consider in more depth and detail what we want children to know about by the end of Year 6, in History and Geography. What do we want them to be able to do, and what kinds of conversations do we want them to be able to engage in?

The unambitious thing to do here is to just print out the National Curriculum and list the bullet points from the suggested and statutory content, and say ‘this’. The joy of the curriculum is in taking the time to think it through, to discuss it with colleagues, with children and with their families – what do we want the children to know about the world and their place within it before they are 11?

And, as you do this, think about how much you know about your local area, and about the migration stories of those who live there. How much of their history and geography is part of your curriculum? How much could it be? How much should it be? How much will it be?

I would genuinely love to hear from anyone who is interested in this, especially if you are getting stuck into the history and geography of your school’s local area, and the life stories of those who make up the community. I know lots of stunning work goes on and would love to learn more from you.

My own thinking about the curriculum has been developed through lots of geeky chat with colleagues, as well as the following books, people and sites.




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