What does ‘secondary ready’ look like in history?

It is a good time to be thinking about transition. In a few weeks, a new cohort of pupils will arrive at secondary schools, ready to continue their history education. The word ‘continue’ is crucial here. In England, history is compulsory for only two or three years of secondary education (in contrast to nearly every other European country) and a significant component of what a pupil learns about history has to happen in primary school. Yet, as secondary school history teachers, I would wager that we rarely think much about what it is that they learned at Key Stages 1 and 2.

This matters because what we teach in secondary school needs to build on what has been learned in primary school. One cannot make sense of the Norman Conquest and its impact on England without understanding the nature of Anglo-Saxon society before it. We miss a trick if we begin teaching about the Angevin Empire and do not draw on what pupils have already learned in primary school about the different kinds of empires in the ancient world. I must admit that I would very rarely ask pupils in my history lessons to recall and draw upon knowledge they had gained from studying history in primary school, whether that was knowledge about particular periods, substantive concepts or the ways in which history works as a discipline.

In part, I think my failure to do this was because I did not have a model in my head about what ‘secondary ready’ looks like in history. What had pupils studied in primary school? What periods should they know about? What concepts had they learnt? What kinds of questions had they answered? If we want to ensure smooth progression from primary to secondary school, then these are the kinds of questions that need to be asked by secondary history teachers.

In Cambridge, a few of us have had a go at drafting a statement that sets out what we think ‘secondary ready’ looks like in history. This statement is based entirely on the 2014 National Curriculum. This means that, if a pupil has been taught the requirements of the National Curriculum well, then this is what we might expect a typical pupil to arrive with at the start of Year 7. Of course, not all primary schools follow the National Curriculum, though I do not think that any school would say what they offer is less good than the National Curriculum, and so even if your partner primaries do not follow it, I do not think you would need to make major modifications to this statement. Here it is.

‘Secondary ready’ in history

A student who is ‘secondary ready’ in history has a good knowledge of the periods of history set out in the Key Stage 2 National Curriculum and how these periods are related to one another, both chronologically and in relation to major political, social and cultural themes.

Students should be able to place the periods ‘stone age’, ‘bronze age’ and ‘iron age’ in the correct order, and describe some key features that distinguish these periods from one another. Student should be able to extend this timeline by accurately placing on it ‘Roman Britain’ and ‘Anglo-Saxon England’. They should be able to describe change that took place in Britain during the Roman period, including the military, social and cultural characteristics of Romano-British society. Students should be able to recall and narrate stories from the early religion and myths of the Anglo-Saxons and be able to describe the process by which the Anglo-Saxons became Christian. Students should also be able to describe the Viking influence on Britain in the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries, and how this changed the language, culture, society and polity of Britain.When reading or listening to accounts of these periods, pupils should be able to recognise major names of cultural figures and leaders from Roman, Anglo-Saxon and Viking Britain. They should be able to recall and use these names fluently and accurately when they construct their own descriptions, narratives or analyses. They should be able to describe, with reference to names, places, institutions and stories, the situation in England on the eve of 1066.

Students should be able to describe the contexts in which ancient civilisations arose and be able to relate these broader ideas to some of the key features of one ancient civilisation (Ancient Sumer, the Indus Valley, Ancient Egypt or the Shang Dynasty of Ancient China) They should be able to describe important features of this civilisation, including its chronological distance from the present. They should be able to describe some important developments that took place in ancient Greek society and how ideas that developed in this period went on to affect subsequent periods of history. They are can also compare ancient and early medieval British society with a non-European region taken from the National Curriculum.

Students must arrive in secondary school with fluent mastery over several substantive concepts. These substantive concepts include those which carry meaning across periods such as, ‘civilisation’, ‘king’, ‘queen’, ‘peasant’, ‘empire/emperor’, ‘invasion/invader’, ‘settlement/settler’, ‘council’, and those peculiar to or gaining origin in particular periods, such as ‘legion’ and ‘consul’.They need to be able to illustrate their understanding of these concepts by giving appropriate, historical examples of their usage in periods of history they have studied.

A secondary-ready student will know that historians use sources as evidence to find out about the past. They will use the terms ‘source’ and ‘evidence’ in ways which show that they know the difference between those two terms in the context of historical study. They will also know that the past can be interpreted, subsequently, in different ways. They will be able to give examples of the ongoing process of interpretation of the periods that they have studied, such as the fact that historians and archaeologists have established new interpretations of Viking settlements from examining new types of sources. Students should know that historians ask particular types of questions about causes, consequences, change, continuity, similarity, difference and significance and they should have some knowledge of how they might approach answering these kinds of historical question. They will demonstrate that knowledge by being able to structure their own writing in a way that is appropriate to different kinds of historical questions, such as questions about cause, consequence, change and continuity.


5 Comments on What does ‘secondary ready’ look like in history?

  1. Interesting post and set of criteria.

    I’m certainly guilty of not thinking much about what history students learn in primary school. In part that is because, for most, it seems the answer is not very much. A significant minority of Year 7s, 20-30%, claim never to have studied history at primary school. Whether this is true, their perception speaks volumes. Of those who have, I’m not sure I’ve ever met one who has retained the depth of understanding you have described here. Those who have learned history have wildly unbalanced knowledge: massive enthusiasm (and far more knowledge than I have) for Egyptian myths, for example, and little else.

    I think secondary school teachers have much to learn about primary school teaching: there is much that the schools I’ve visited get right that secondaries seem to overlook. But I wonder if there’s more of a job of injecting subject-specialism and an awareness of the curriculum in feeder primaries for history teachers.

    I hope this will prove useful to primary school colleagues as a vision of what they’re aiming towards. For the time being though, I shall probably aim to start from scratch, with a survey course of the whole of world history, with new students, building on existing knowledge where I find it, rather than assuming it exists.

  2. Adam Watson // 3 November 2014 at 20:47 // Reply

    I completely agree that we shouldn’t assume that our new intake need to start from scratch. There is a need for a really good baseline assessment to find out where the gaps are and fill them.

    Our staff are currently working to define what a ‘secondary ready’ student looks like in each subject and developing non-threatening baseline assessments to judge the extent to which they have met the requirements of the curriculum. I reinforce the need for non-threatening baseline assessment as the last thing we want is to turn the students off our subjects.

    Would you suggest that if a student is secondary ready in history (as per the description above) they would be of an equivalent standard as a secondary ready mathematician? For example the secondary ready standard for maths seems to be the score of a 100 which some are relating to a 4b in nasty old levels. If a student knew, understood and could do everything above would they be at an old 4b standard. I think in most schools if students can do what is listed above in tear 7 they would be regarded as a talented historian. Have schools be too soft with their assessments?

  3. I fear that this post suffers from one of the classic misunderstandings about primary education that secondary teachers hold: we don’t teach the KS2 curriculum to eleven-year-olds.
    While what you suggest as outcomes would indeed be achievable if we did, the reality is that some of that content will have been taught to 7-year-olds. In a hugely restricted timetable. So while an admirable goal, I can think of relatively few primary schools who could accomplish such a breadth and depth. Even in Cambridge, I daresay.
    I realise that stating as much opens me up to criticism of low expectations etc., which is why many primary colleagues would be unlikely to point it out, but the reality is that an aspirational list is only useful if there’s any hope of its being realised.
    Were any primary teachers involved in the writing of this outline?

    • Michael Fordham // 28 June 2015 at 09:04 // Reply

      This is based purely on the National Curriculum. Of course, the National Curriculum might be wrong in what it says is possible and I am no expert on what a 8 or 10 year old is capable of learning. What would be nice would be a statement drafted by primary teachers that takes the form “This is what we can be fairly confident pupils will know when they come to you in Year 7”. Perhaps you could get a few people to write it?

      • I appreciate the difficulty – particularly given the fact that the NC says very little of what must be covered, and so certainty is hard to come by.
        While I could probably give a sound list of what my school’s children would be broadly secure in, it would be very different from that of another school. As you might imagine, if a school chooses to teach about Ancient Greece in Year 3, it’s likely to take a very different form to my school’s offer in Year 6. That said, I do think there would be a huge benefit in working on such summaries with your local networks of schools (see Tom Sherrington’s recent posts http://headguruteacher.com/2015/06/27/our-primary-transition-forum-bridging-the-ks2-ks3-divide/ )

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