Teaching History – When Do I Start?

When teaching history, it can sometimes be difficult to decide on when the best time to start is – what periods are best to focus on, and how far back do you go in terms of British and world history? At present, the UK curriculum focuses on combining a broad overview of key periods from primary level onwards, as well as specific modules at GCSE and A Level. However, pressure from Education Secretary Michael Gove, and critics of UK history teaching, are trying to push through a more comprehensive British history syllabus? What, then, does this mean in terms of how we choose to teach history?

Most British schoolchildren have a history education that looks at subjects through a blend of approaches – primary schoolchildren typically learn about the Egyptians, the Romans, the Victorians and the Tudors, as well as their local history; at secondary level, students can expect to cover the history of medicine, before studying the French Revolution, the Weimar Republic, the history of the vote, and post-World War Two history. Most GCSE modules are optional, depending on the exam board.

Rob Sieborger has argued that the current framework for teaching history in the UK is dependent on policies brought through by the Thatcher Government of the 1980s; policies focused on emphasising a sound knowledge of British history, as well as learning outcomes that focus on recognising contexts, understanding different points of view, and evaluating primary and secondary sources. This framework has remained relatively stable since this period, and is one that allows for broad overviews of periods, leading through to specific analysis of the contexts behind events like the French Revolution.

However, Ofsted have criticised the history curriculum as it currently stands for spoon feeding students history, and not providing enough of a clear narrative in terms of cause and effect over time. Michael Gove has also voiced his criticism of how the history curriculum doesn’t provide continuity, and contributes to the ‘trashing’ of British history as too disconnected. In this context, students do get a sense of ancient history and key periods, but don’t go back far enough to understand how Britain, in particular, has developed.

The new English Baccalaureate will likely address these problems in UK schools, and will set clear guidelines over when you should start your teaching. British politicians and historians are also making a case that History lessons should be comprehensive to aged 16, and that a much more detailed curriculum should be used that grounds students in British chronology, and uses facts and different perspectives on history to encourage stronger British citizenship.

On the one hand, having a new History Curriculum that sets a clear narrative in terms of British history could help to add continuity to current modules. However, a more regimented approach to British history, with optional modules on world history, could lead to difficult questions over interpretation? Would a British focused history curriculum be focused around great achievements and figures, or would it incorporate more critical questions over imperialism. Moreover, would a more comprehensive study of Britain’s origins as a country address the crucial role played by immigration and multi-culturalism? The danger becomes, then that students will get more British history lessons, but may end up an ideologically skewed version of that history.

About Author

Olivia  is a philosopher and educational assistant at Lansdowne College, London. She is researching a book on the effects of  GCSE and A Level on the economy.