Ofsted and the history curriculum


On what issues should Ofsted be judging your school?

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.

6 Comments on Ofsted and the history curriculum

  1. I think your final paragraph is key here Michael: the gain will come from the sea-change in the nature and substance of the professional transaction that takes place between a senior leader and a middle manager – in this case, the Head of History.

    And, if this comes to pass, my in-box will stop being so clogged up with endless messages from desperate Heads of History, frustrated that SLT’s demand for yet more spurious data or for yet more distorting homage to Blooms Taxonomy is, at best, a terrible waste of professional time, and, at worst, actually lowering standards in history teaching and history learning, and doing nothing to build historical knowledge, disciplinary thinking and concomitant vocabulary recognition in pupils (honourable exceptions in that small but growing group of admirable SLTs with deep curriculum knowledge and curiosity, graciously acknowledged).

    Anyone interested in this kind of shift should look out for a forthcoming book by Michael Young and David Lambert, Knowledge and the Future School. I’ve just written an endorsement for it. This is what I wrote:

    “This is the book that many secondary school heads of department, frustrated by a focus on the pedagogic ‘how?’ at the expense of the disciplinary ‘what?’, have long been wanting their senior leaders to read. The authors’ message is bold and its implication clear: disciplinary knowledge and curriculum thinking must become nothing less than the central concern of leadership, the essence of staff development and the driver of whole-school debate.”

  2. And now for some more questions for our new breed of history inspector:

    What is your department’s definition of historically secure, ‘historically grounded’ (NC term) Year 9 use of the terms ‘federal’, ‘feudal’, ‘state’, ‘parliament’, ‘government’, ‘imperialism’, ‘peasantry’ and ‘capitalism’, and how did you arrive at that definition? How do you assess progress towards historically-grounded fluency in such terms, across years Years 7 to 9? How have you revised and improved your history curriculum to remediate specific deficits you have noted in pupils’ use of these terms?

    What comparisons are your pupils able to make between civilisation x and civilisation y? How does your history curriculum seek to ensure that pupils can compare society/polity x and society/polity y?

    What historical scholarship informs your schemes of work on the origins and consequences of the first and second world wars? What is the scholarly and curricular rationale behind the balances of political, military, cultural and social emphases in your schemes of work on these topics?

    How are the causation questions your students answer in Year 9 more challenging (or how are year students’ causation essays more sophisticated/better informed/critically agile/chronologically confident) than they were in Year 8? What recent, published history education scholarship/debate by other history teachers has shaped your structuring of progression in this area?

    How does your department judge when it has spent long enough on the medieval Church / medieval Islam? What role does your pupils’ secure knowledge of narratives relating to the medieval Church /medieval Islam play in their LATER historical study? (i.e. in Year 9, in GCSE, at A Level)?

    How does your students’ Year 8 or Year 9 work on changing interpretations of medieval kingship strengthen (a) their knowledge of medieval kingship; (b) their knowledge of subsequent chronology – e.g. when studying Shakespeare’s or 19th century historians’ or modern scholarship’s interpretations? (b) their ability to ask better and better questions about what various kinds of subsequent interpretations are trying to do?

    I see you are making use of the art department’s Year 8 work on the Renaissance. Tell me about it. Which aspects of your students’ historical knowledge and historical thinking do you want this interdisciplinary connection to strengthen? How will you know when it has strengthened it?

  3. A timely article, Michael, especially given that many of us are now freed up with exams drawing to a close.

    One of the consequences of the marginalisation of history at KS3 is that some schools, particularly in smaller communities, lack subject specialists. As a result HoDs end up writing SoWs that are either very narrow or lack depth. The curriculum becomes necessarily based on pedagogy.

    Last year I had three non-specialists who, despite being brilliant and enthusiastic, were very open that they just didn’t know their history well enough. Alongside that there was also a lack of pedagogical subject knowledge which, given that they were spread out across three or so departments, we just did not have time to address.

    Now that I have lost three classes, and with a department review coming up, I can spend my time really revisiting what I want from a history curriculum. The questions that you and Christine ask are essential for great history. But without subject specialism within a team I have felt quite alone (thank goodness for twitter and the blogosphere!) and this the job is made that much harder.

    I wonder if you or Christine have seen this?

  4. I completely agree with this. The most frustrating thing about my most recent ofsted was not being asked even once about our curriculum, or indeed how we were planning to meet the 2014 changes. There needs to be coherence for a good curriculum to work, as well as an ongoing process of monitoring and response.

    I agree with Toby that it is very difficult without subject specialists – but then a focus on curriculum might encourage schools to invest more time and money in appointing well qualified historians and funding their development in areas of subject knowledge.

    Christine – some fairly challenging, but of course hugely important questions. The notion of how we ensure causation questions (for example) do get more complex over time is quite crucial, and is something which again relies on really good quality teachers with excellent knowledge. Then again – I can see a good number of departments crumbling under pressure like this to justify their decisions… But then that is the process of refining good practice. I will certainly keep an eye out for the book.

    It is probably worth noting, whilst discussing this however, that there are huge differences in the ways departments and indeed individual teachers are operating. My most recent find of a Holocaust word search sat on a photocopier in a school I was in suggests that not everyone is giving such careful thought to their curriculum design I think!!

  5. A fascinating blog followed by equally interesting and valuable comment. Just one hesitation – isn’t this a pretty tough question for most hard-pressed heads of department: “What recent, published history education scholarship/debate by other history teachers has shaped your structuring of progression in this area?” In cricketing terms I believe that would be what’s called a doosra!
    I will pass on all the ideas – doosra and all – to the school with which I work and also bear them in mind as I write its core material. Thank you.

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