Using the History Curriculum to Close the Gap

“Closing the gap”.

A phrase that all of us in education are familiar with and truthfully get fed up of hearing- after all aren’t we all teachers because we want to help everybody achieve their absolute best? More and more though over the last few years I’ve come to a very nasty conclusion; I’m failing my pupils before I even start to teach them because of the curriculum I offer them in my classroom. As a result of the events of the last month or so (murder of George Floyd, BLM protests, statue toppling) I’ve realised that now is the time. I have to be the change that I want to see happen.

This article will be the start of a series (hopefully) in which I document the process I’m going to undertake in order to help “close the gap” via the creation of a modern, inclusive curriculum appropriate for the world we live in and not the one that we used to live in. There will be ideas for content to cover, possible books to read, activities that can be completed in the classroom and, well, whatever else comes to mind as I’m working on this.

So; where should I begin? I suppose the beginning (educationally anyway!)- I qualified as a teacher in June 2001. Since then I have experienced several versions of the National Curriculum for History and they have all been the same - Anglo-centric and male dominated. The world we live in is not the one that I grew up in, and the ‘typical’ KS3 curriculum we teach is no longer really fit for purpose (IMHO).

Does the table below look familiar?

I bet that if I talked to 100 different history teachers that there would be very little difference in the topics they cover under those headings; 1066, Thomas Becket, Magna Carta, Black Death, Peasants Revolt, Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, English Civil War, Middle Passage, abolition of slavery, Industrial Revolution, the Western Front, Hitler, Dunkirk, D-Day….the list could go on. In 99% of cases I reckon that these topics would be focused around white men and their accomplishments.

Over the last five or so years in particular as I have worked in schools with significant numbers of BAME pupils, with pupils who identify as LGBQT+, with pupils who are the children of economic migrants from Eastern Europe, and with staff who are ever more diverse I have become more and more dissatisfied with the curricula that I, and most schools offer. Enough is enough- it’s time for a change, it’s time to make my KS3 curriculum more diverse, more “modern” (which does sound faintly absurd for a History curriculum tbf!) and more suited to the pupils I teach and the world they live in. By doing this I hope to help “close the gap” for my pupils.

In my time I have been a subject co-ordinator, a Head of Department, a PGCE subject mentor, a PGCE Link Tutor, I have guest lectured on PGCE History courses, I have presented sessions to local and national CPD conferences, and I have provided materials for student revision conferences. In short I have a wealth of experience to call on as I work on creating a KS3 curriculum which is suitable for preparing pupils for further study at GCSE but more importantly which will engage, enthuse, and which will allow today’s pupils to understand the complexity of the world they are growing up in. If this is done properly then I feel that it will have a massive impact in helping to “close the gap” with my pupils.

As I write these words I am a supply teacher; this may change if the right position, in the right school, with the right colleagues, comes up. For now though it means that I have the chance to be unconstrained in my thinking and that I have the time to not just outline plan but to create lessons, resources and assessments.

Like many teachers I use Twitter as a CPD tool. A lot of my thinking is influenced by what I see and read there. I’ll try to credit ideas but occasionally I may not remember where things came from- I’m sure that anybody who reads this will recognise the originator of a particular idea though and say so.

Finally- I’m not going to pretend that I have all the answers. There is NO single ‘magic bullet’ and what I think will work for me in the context of the area I live and work in may not be appropriate for others in very different settings. If the process I’m going to follow helps you to re-examine your own curriculum and figure out how to improve it then great! I’m happy and it means that this is useful…

The contextual constraint

Michael Gove’s National Curriculum for History (2014) sets out the following six areas of study:

· The development of Church, state and society in Medieval Britain 1066-1509

· The development of Church, state and society in Britain 1509-1745

· Ideas, political power, industry and empire: Britain 1745-1901

· Challenges for Britain, Europe and the wider world 1901 to the present day

· A local history study

· An aspect or theme in British history that consolidates and extends pupils’ chronological knowledge from before 1066

Quite broad ranging huh? A hell of a lot to cover in that little lot isn’t there? Well actually no! Not as much as you think. Why? Well it’s all because of two little words; ‘non-statutory’. The only compulsory topic in the whole of the KS3 NC for History is the Holocaust- after that its completely up to us as professionals to come up with a model which works for us and the pupils we teach. Now don’t get me wrong I’m not saying that we don’t need to teach about 1066 and the Norman conquest, or about the rise of Hitler in the 1920s and 1930s. What I’m saying is that we can be as innovative as we want to be providing what we do is covered by the bullet points above.

Let’s make use of this freedom to create a modern curriculum which will help us to close the gap by coming up with something that pupils actually can have an interest in and want to learn about! As one HoD has said to me during lockdown “For example who gives a shit about which ‘bird’ Henry VIII should marry etc!”

Underlying principles

Having figured out that we have pretty much carte blanche to create our “new” KS3 we now need to figure out the key principles to help guide us in our choice of subject content. For me this is a fairly simple process as the Schools History Project sums them up well. In fact- it’s fair to say that they underpin a big chunk of the current GCSE History courses so using these should help us to prepare our pupils for those too.

· School history should be relevant and meaningful to young people

· School history should involve enquiry

· School history should build knowledge

· School history should be broad and diverse

· School history should include ‘history around us’

· School history should be fun

If we keep these ideas in our head then we shouldn’t go too far wrong when planning our new curricula…

TL; DR Help close the gap by making History in schools more diverse, more interesting and more relevant to the world we live in thereby improving engagement amongst the pupils who can perform but who choose

Paul H


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All views expressed are those of the individual contributors and do not claim to reflect the wider views of EdGE Thinking. 

© 2020 R.W.AITKEN