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.
STOP RIGHT THERE!
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.
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 here, here, 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.