I think that all children should be taught a broad history curriculum. I am happy to negotiate what this means, but I think the new National Curriculum gets the balance about right, with an emphasis on learning an overview of British political, social, economic and cultural history, with significant components of European and wider world history. This is very achievable in the space of a three-year Key Stage 3, as I have written about before.
In reality, however, this is not what children have received in recent years. As the HA’s annual survey shows, time for history is being squeezed more and more, and the narrower specification of the GCSE is being started earlier and earlier. Ofsted’s own ‘state of the subject’ report shows that, at least in a significant minority of schools, children are receiving piecemeal, disconnected chunks of history that are not integrated into a coherent course.
How do we go about resolving this? I think Ofsted should be part of the solution.
As I understand it, in the olden days Ofsted used to look carefully at the curriculum being taught by schools, perusing through schemes of work and cabinets of resources. This changed, however, as the emphasis shifted towards shorter and more generic (i.e. non-subject specialist) inspections, and Ofsted stopped looking closely at the curriculum. With no scrutiny of what was being taught, it became very easy for schools to begin quietly reducing the amount of time spent on history, and to focus instead on preparing pupils for the (necessarily) narrower requirements of the GCSE course. This is what paved the way for schools to begin teaching GCSE History in Year 9, with the implication that those pupils who continued to study the subject (typically around 30% to 40%) spent three years looking at a handful of (primarily modern) topics.
I would scrap lesson observations completely from Ofsted inspections – they are unreliable and encourage teachers to put together one-off ‘outstanding’ lessons for the benefit of inspectors. I would replace this with a renewed emphasis on curriculum. Even the 2008 National Curriculum – which was the least prescriptive – stated clearly that all pupils should be taught a broad political overview of British history from the middle ages to the present, as well as the major social, economic and cultural developments across the last thousand years. The new 2014 National Curriculum fleshes this out in more detail, rather as the 1995 curriculum had previously done. Ofsted should be the body making sure it is taught. With this in mind, I would like to see the following questions being asked of all Heads of Department.
- Are you teaching the National Curriculum?
- Can you show how you are meeting its requirements?
- What evidence do you have that the curriculum has been taught?
- If you are not teaching the National Curriculum, then how is your curriculum better than it?
- How do you create coherence across your course?
- What opportunities do you create for pupils to recall, revisit and reconsider previous periods of history they have studied?
- What model of pupil progression in history underpins your curriculum design?
- In your school curriculum, what do you expect pupils to know and be able to do at the end of Year 9 that they could not do at the end of Year 7?
- How do you ensure that what is learned in Year 7 is not forgotten by the end of Year 9?
These are tough questions, but they are answerable and indeed any with-it head of department should be able to respond to these questions in some detail. No additional evidence is needed beyond what already exists in schools: schemes of work, resources and – perhaps above all – pupil exercise books are all that is needed to show that an appropriate curriculum is being taught.
It should be noted that this approach to inspection would require that the inspectors actually know something about the subject they are inspecting and what the curriculum requirements are: I think inspectors should be interested in the fine detail. So you are spending only two lessons on the Wars of the Roses? Is that really enough time to teach that period well? The question which is guiding your scheme of work on the First World War – is it really a good historical question? I note that you’ve decided not to teach the Crusades – what’s your justification for this? Such an inspection would provide a history department with enough to discuss in department meetings and would be a genuinely useful tool for improving the department.
There has, generally, been far too much emphasis on pedagogy and not enough on curriculum in our education system in recent years, to the point where I have heard people say that these are the same thing. They are not. A curriculum is what children ought to be learning, and pedagogy is how you go about achieving that. Children go to school to learn, and an inspectorate that focuses too much on the how and not on the what is overlooking the central purpose of schooling.
I think that if Ofsted were to say tomorrow that they were going to be checking to make sure that all children were being taught a history curriculum that met the requirements of the National Curriculum or exceeded it, then in a matter of months we would see senior managers falling over themselves to ensure that children were being taught a broad curriculum. Ofsted could very quickly become part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.