New Curriculum Part 1: planning for the new five-year history curriculum

A typo, surely? Everyone knows that a GCSE course is taught in a period ranging from one to three years, depending on how intensively you teach it, and Key Stage 3 is taught over two or three years. That’s how it’s been for years.


We are about to see the biggest shake up in the history curriculum in a generation. For years now history teachers, the media, the government and the inspectorate have all – in their different ways – complained about the structure of the history curriculum, and many of these issues come down to the fact that we’re trying to cram too much in to too little time. I humbly suggest that – with major reforms at every stage – now is the time to overcome this at the level of the school curriculum that we must all construct.

The answer, I think, is simple: we need to stop thinking of Key Stage 3 as being completely separate from the GCSE. We need, instead, to think of a coherent whole across five years of secondary school. Yes, history will be optional for two of those years, but I intend to show in a few blog posts how this needn’t stop you from making a five-year plan. It’s time to party like it’s 1928.

The framework which I suggest here is an outline, and I intend to fill in gaps over a few posts. What I want to demonstrate in these posts, however, is that if we think of provision across five years of school, then we can save ourselves a great deal of angst in thinking about curriculum planning, content repetition, pupil progression and – perhaps most importantly – how work done earlier in secondary school can directly benefit a subsequent GCSE course.


You can also download this curriculum as a PDF.

The periods I have chosen are in keeping with the requirements of the new National Curriculum and the new GCSE, but I have put quite a lot of thought into how what is studied links together. In particular, the following principles have guided my construction of the curriculum.

Key Principle 1: manage temporal and geographical overview and depth throughout the curriculum by ‘scale switching’

The reason I did not support the original February draft of the National Curriculum was that it treated history as a series of disjointed events, each to be studied in depth. At times we certainly do want to go into depth, but at others we want to zoom out and examine longer periods of time, creating stretching narratives in which particular events can be situated. In places you will see I have gone for temporal depth teaching, for example, the causes of the Civil War. Elsewhere I have taken the big picture, such as in asking how the world became more connected across the middle ages. The same is done with geography, with the scale varying between the local, regional, national and international. Crucially, there are numerous opportunities in this curriculum for explicit teaching of how these link together.

Key Principle 2: create opportunities for revisiting prior periods

It was put to me recently that history is unlike mathematics or science, and that you do not have to have studied earlier material to make sense of later material. This is perhaps true to an extent, but I think it is a view that needs to be resisted in its extreme form. Instead, we should ask how knowledge of prior periods enables and assists knowledge of later periods. For example, it becomes much easier to study ‘When did Parliament become supreme?’ if one has previously studied (and remembered) the stories of the struggles studied when answering the question ‘Why was the power of kings challenges in the middle ages?’

Key Principle 3: ensure that the GCSE course is a natural extension of KS3

GCSE has always been the weak link in history. I have had to make some guesses here about the kinds of options that exam boards might offer for the new GCSE, but I reckon something like the examples I give here would be good. Note that all four of the components of the course require prior knowledge of Key Stage 3 (a DfE requirement). The local study takes a particular place (many would be fit for purpose here) and then situates that place over the period of time previously studied. The story of the Tower of London is the story of British history from the Norman Conquest to the present. Students could not complete this course without calling upon their knowledge from KS3. The same is true of the thematic study. The problem with the old thematic studies (such as Medicine Through Time) was that they did not draw sufficiently explicitly on prior Key Stage 3 knowledge. A sensible school would not try and teach the thematic study in a term or two of GCSE: rather it would use Key Stage 3 as preparation for that study.

Key Principle 4: plan for progression in substantive concepts

The error of the old National Curriculum was, I think, to place second-order conceptual progression at its heart. I still think the second-order concepts of history matter enormously for framing good questions (you will see that all of mine have a conceptual focus – note the absence of explicit evidential enquiries). Instead of second-order concepts, this curriculum is based around substantive concepts. Words such as ‘power’, ‘religion’, ‘people’, ‘empire’, ‘revolution’ and ‘trade’ occur – and recur – throughout this curriculum. Such concepts are I think the ideal tool for both supporting and identifying pupil progression in the subject.

Key Principle 5: assess everything that went before

I have written multiple posts recently on assessment in history herehere, here, here and here. Those posts would give a sense of how I would approach assessment for this curriculum, particularly with a view to a ‘mixed constitution’. It should be noted, however, that I would expect to test children on what they learned in Year 7 throughout the rest of their schooling. I would not expect the same level of fine detail – I would, however, expect some residual knowledge, or some ‘content repertoire’, that can be explicitly called upon later in the curriculum.

Key Principle 6: don’t lose the babies 

The history education community has fathered and mothered some important ideas over the last ten years or so, and we should not lose these. You will notice, instantly, that I remain committed to ‘enquiry questions’ as tools for medium-term planning (nothing to do with independent enquiry, everything to do with structuring knowledge around a question – studying the problem not the period, as Acton put it in 1906). I have maintained a clear conceptual focus in each question, with the opportunity to revisit ‘question types’ – the idea is that children who get a ‘feel’ for a causal question in Year 7 can call upon that later in their study. Stories and narratives – at different scales – remain central to this curriculum, as does calling those narratives into question through addressing different interpretations. Perhaps my great heresy here is to ditch explicit evidential enquiries: I am open to challenge on this, but I think that history teachers would use sources in sophisticated ways in almost every lesson of this curriculum, without falling into the trap of treating the epistemology of the discipline as the pedagogy of the subject. 

Time to get planning people: we have a great deal of work to do. The current changes are, however, our great opportunity to show that history is a subject that deserves to be compulsory to the age of 16, as it is elsewhere in Europe. We have lost that argument this time round: we are more likely to win it in future if we can demonstrate that there are tangible benefits from approaching the subject as a five-year coherent whole.


9 Comments on New Curriculum Part 1: planning for the new five-year history curriculum

  1. Thanks Michael. My favourite thing about this is that it begins to tackle what I see as *the* problem – the pull towards teaching to the test (and, worse, the pressure to ‘game’ that test by predicting questions and rehearsing formulae) as opposed to teaching to “the domain” (Koretz). Oh to turn that on its head.

    In other words, with this structure – and with these disciplinary and professional values to underpin it – only a fool would try to teach Years 10 and 11 early. Why on earth would you want to? How absurd it would be to do that! Saturation in the 7-9 material gives indirect and hidden, but intense and powerful effect that will be cumulative. It is that layered knowledge, working deeply to familiarise and fascinate pupils with structures and institutions, with their substantive conceptual manifestations (I can’t learn the word ‘appeasement’ or ‘government’ other than through stories that give it life), with temporal patterns and markers that make things fit in. Here, Key Stage 3 profoundly affects one’s ability to access Years 10 and 11 at all.

    In such a schema, what happens in Years 7, 8 and 9 is functional in so many ways in ensuring that Years 10 and 11 doesn’t collapse into a weird proxy of itself – a narrow band of content and a set of false genres (exam-derived notions of ‘describe’, ‘explain’, ‘evaluate’…) to be practised until one is not doing history at all, just some strange shadow of it – one that has lost all its intrinsic magic and – the ultimate irony – lost its ability to build capacity for yet more historical learning.

    We know anecdotally, from experience and from numerous smaller studies of history teachers, that this probably works, but what we need is a bigger research project, one that is longitudinal over three to five years (preferably five) to show *how* this works, to show how layers of knowledge become functional in subsequent learning (not to mention subsequent curiosity, subsequent passion). Above all, we need a shift in senior managerial culture – one that moves right away from measuring efficiency of classroom time by its direct relationship with the proxy, surface features of the imminent test (whether that be GCSE markscheme or chasing some bizarre manifestation of Level 6b in the next 15 minutes), and instead acknowledges and theorises the deeper story of how deep knowledge structures and the modes of thinking disciplines generate builds over time to give students power.

    I also like the second-order progression. Instead of reducing this to increments in conceptual domains, it is achieved through the clever wording of the ‘enquiry questions’. We already know from numerous history teachers’ practice that pupils can start to spot how causation questions or change questions produce different kinds of structure, different kinds of account, different kinds of argumentation. Oh for GCSE examiners to study the instances we have of that already happening at KS3 (very big research project needed – teacher led and teacher driven) and we could use so many brilliant history teachers’ practice to take this interplay of historical knowledge and historical thinking forward. That would blow out of the water the quest for isolated increments of progression, characterised in second-order terms only. Second-order thinking is vital, but it doesn’t inhere in some isolated zone away from knowledge and reflection on the structure of that knowledge. Acton was right. He was right in 1906.

    But oh the challenge for senior managers. Forget your tidy single calibration model that inevitably pulls to the second-order (because it cannot capture knowledge) and then always destroys even that. In history you have to move on two axes, not one – substantive and conceptual, first and second-order. To factor the substantive back in would finally help us think more clearly about progression in the conceptual. This won’t make those tiny black dots climb on the screen in the way senior managers want. It forces a fresh way of conceptualising ‘progress’, one that must be subject-led. It challenges the deceit of the obvious.

    Will the exam boards step up to the plate and produce something which rewards strong, thorough, inspired, patient, scholarly KS3 history teaching in these vital indirect ways?

    • Further thought on European/world elements:
      For those not familiar with England’s 2014 NC, it might be worth stressing that you actually have far more European and world history in there (relative to British) than the 2014 NC would suggest. Ideally more still is needed, but this much, and well-woven with the British, would be a massive hike above the baseline of most pupils’ knowledge now. Also, it’s worth reflecting on the new word “interconnections” in England’s 2014 NC new KS3 “world history” section. Some of your enquiry questions bring this out well (more than previous NCs and more than baseline in majority of history departments).
      Of course, ideally one would want to go further, and draw on insights in various kinds of scholarship by world history, global history and big history scholars (and this needs linking with the new requirement for an “overview” of ancient civilisations at KS2 [primary] as well). But just to get what you have here – or equivalent – accepted as the kind of knowledge base which makes progress at Years 10&11 possible, would be a transformation.

      Now we just need to analyse (a) how knowledge accelerates knowledge; (b) how the subtle, hidden workings of prior knowledge on later pupil performance can be nurtured, discerned and assessed in a way that continues to secure domain-pull rather than test-pull in the teaching.

      Just a small job then. But my money’s on Kate Hammond’s recent work in giving us the most important starting points.

    • I am seriously concerned that this is very poorly understood. The idea that we need to help students make progress on two axes as you say creates and enormous problem of a system set up around progression ladders and incremental target setting. The big work needs to be done in showing why this system is not only a fallacy, but also damages students’ experiences of subjects as they are robbed of the specific and forced to demonstrate the generic. I would love to remove the progression ladders from history, but I fear at a school level, I will be asked to recreate them.

      I am speaking to head teachers in Leeds in a few weeks, hoping to give an illustration of how life might work after levels. The trouble is I think we have reached a point where levels have become so ingrained that many cannot see beyond them. We have even reached the point where schools have created linear progression ladders out of GCSE criteria, divorced from the content! The work and discussion here has been fantastically useful in crystallising my thinking – I now just need to find a convincing way to put this across. I thought Liz Truss’ speech yesterday gave a good illustration of why levels cannot return under the current government though.

  2. Sean Lang // 11 April 2014 at 12:57 // Reply

    Some very good thinking here (dare I mention that this is exactly what the Better History Forum has been arguing for for the past five year? Yes, why not?). There’s a lot of scope for discussion (as a historian of British India, I’m not entirely won over by your suggestin for such a long swathe of Mughal history – it’s a lot harder than I think you envisage and I’m not convincved the dating makes sense. However, that’s a detail for discussion. The idea of a five-year course makes perfect sense. The current system discounts all the knowledge gained in years 7-9 and sees continuity and progression entirely in termsw of skills. Now, some would challenge the skills, but leaving that debate to one side, it doesn’t get away from the point that historical knowledge is cumulative, it does build on connections, and it seems to me to make as little sense to exclude history studied below year 10 from GCSE as it would do to exclude the present tense from French GCSE or simple equations from maths. I’d be happy to take this idea further with you, Michael, and even to join forces to help develop it – just be aware that the exam boards will take a lot of convincing.

  3. Dan Smith // 11 April 2014 at 16:01 // Reply

    A really interesting curriculum plan, Michael. Working in a school where KS3 is two-years, 1 hour a week really has it’s deficits when it gets to GCSE- the pupils have no chance to make the connections and see the ‘bigger picture’ that your curriculum advocates. They, therefore, approach GCSE with limited substantive knowledge and it really shows in their GCSE work.

    The problem inherently lies with GCSE mark schemes which target the same ‘skills’ and modes of writing – source inference/ source ‘reliability’/ source cross-reference/ discursive evaluative essay etc. etc. This has meant that many schools target their assessment schemes from KS3 towards these skills. Seemingly sensible- it’s preparing them for what they will be facing in Y11. However, ultimately flawed in that it secures no progression in substantive knowledge or in the ability to work with second order concepts. What, really, is the point of their KS3 lessons other than ‘getting better’ at source evaluation responses in isolation? History classrooms need more of the urika- ‘Ah! Sir! That’s like when we did that thing about x when we were in Year z.’

    As always, it appears that the beauty of this curriculum is the balance between overview and depth and also the fact it makes transnational connections, as well as chronological ones. I believe that by making such connections, the past does begin to make more sense. I like the way that your curriculum does feed through some of the big themes encouraged by some teachers and educators- religion, society, warfare etc. But I perhaps like more that it does it in a quite understated way, which might discourage pupils from seeing some kind of pre-determined march towards the present, which could be encouraged by broadly chronological curricula.

    It will be interesting to see more responses to this stimulating post!

  4. This looks very interesting indeed. I think planning for 5 years, or indeed 7 years of history is very important. It would certainly stop the Hitler and Cowboys mentality that Gove criticised so much. I think basing all of this around the key substantive concepts and questions looks like a very sensible way to progress as well. Hopefully we can unearth a little more love of the subject by approaching in this way as well. As ever this has been very useful in thinking through our next steps, although I am not sure what the Education Secretary would think of so much time being given to the non British narrative!!

    Out of interest, what bare your thoughts on the Big Picture Frameworks as a means of planning a 5 year curriculum, as suggested by Denis Shemilt and others?

    • Open-minded but erring on scepticism about frameworks – the principle is absolutely sound, in the sense that we definitely want children making and breaking increasingly complex frameworks with which they make sense of the past. My concern is about the associated pedagogy. I’m not sure any of this goes any further than what teacher have already been doing over the last twenty years – e.g. Banham’s work on letting overview emerge from depth. Personally I nearly always go for the small, personal stories first, and then move out in scale.

      • I tend to agree. I wonder if we have become a bit obsessed with kids having an overview of history when most adults, hell most history teachers, couldn’t manage such a feat as giving an accurate outline of British history. I also worry that it becomes too general. As much as I admire Braudel, there is a reason the third generation of Annales historians largely left Braudel’s tripartite theory of time in the background. Plus I think we ignore the whole aspect of mentalities which is so crucial for understanding people in the past. I think the breadth through depth approach is very powerful. Am always interested to sound the range of opinions on this though.

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