Saturday, March 31, 2007

The End of Primary History?

There’s an interesting post in the TES Community Staffroom (just about the only place teachers can write and share views – every other channel has been closed down) questioning the health of history teaching in primary schools. Some replies have focused on their own schools, ‘we do it well’, but there is always a danger of extrapolating an isolated example of good practise and generalising, this seems to be the case with ICT as well.

I’ve always loved doing local history projects, because the children relate to them so well and you can involve the community. Some schools are beginning to use topic work again so that isolated units of history, art and music aren’t being taught.

One thing should be absolutely clear though and that is the absolute desert that is Year 6, why the hell do we inflict it on our children? Year 6 has become a virtual year of testing, with foundation subjects almost completely sidelined and ignored. Before secondary teachers begin to get all self-righteous there was a report in the TES last year which examined data from 88 of the 104 most improved secondary schools 2001-4. Through judicious use of GNVQs they had climbed the league tables, but only 15% of pupils achieved a C or better in a GCSE language, seven schools had not a single pupil taking history.

I’m quite pessimistic about primary history, here’s why-

1) The narrowing of the primary curriculum

Research last year from Manchester University showed that eleven year olds spent more than half of their time in school learning maths and English. At key stage 2 pupils spent 26.7% on English and 21.9% on maths. Subjects like history and geography accounted for only 5% of teaching time.

Doctor Bill Boyle said, “If you can’t test it, teachers have practically been told ‘What’s the point?’ They are made to believe that it is the first week in May that is the most important.”

2) Teacher Training Institutions

My evidence here is mainly anecdotal but every student teacher I speak to complains about the lack of breadth, foundation subjects are left out of their training along with education theory and child development. One three-year BEd student had only six weeks of history lectures during her training, that isn’t unusual. I always look out for adverts for history lecturer posts in primary, they must be as rare as an apology from Sir Alex Ferguson.

3) The decline and fall of the LEA

In the recent past even small LEAs would have advisers for primary history. In our LEA they were all sacked and replaced by School Improvement Officers who prowled round the schools ‘boosting’ SATs results. There are always posts advertised for Literacy and Numeracy “Consultants” but primary history jobs have become extinct.

There used to be training and regular meetings held for history co-ordinators. The only training now is the dull boring DfES-inspired sessions on maths and English (if you want a laugh just watch the ‘teaching’ videos– where do they get those classes from?).

There’s the stereotype that history is dusty, greying professors in corduroy jackets with elbow patches arguing over obscure points. Against that TV programmes like Time Team, Restoration and documentaries by Simon Schama are incredibly popular.

How do we restore primary history to its rightful place? Free up the curriculum allow teachers to innovate and above all scrap the tests and league tables, they really are the cancer that is destroying education.


Your point about ITT is particularly poignant. Teachers training for KS1/2 only have to demonstrate that "They have sufficient understanding of a range of work across [...] history or geography...

So, if an ITT provider has a geography specialist handy, they may not cover any history at all!
Well said Mr Read. I hadn’t thought about how popular history based programmes have become, but you are right. Lots of people do enjoy history but children aren’t given the opportunity to ‘taste’ the subject unless it is as part of an art lesson or as a reading exercise in literacy.

I decided to post on TES because after being in three primary schools this year and seeing ‘the absolute desert’ as you say, I had a casual chat with an ex history professor of mine. She couldn’t believe what I was telling her. I worked in primaries around 12-15 years ago and it was much better than it is now. SATs had only just started and weren’t taken anywhere near as seriously as they are now and the curriculum was richer. One of the schools I went to has spent 4 whole weeks since Christmas doing nothing but SATS tests (and that doesn’t include time spent between the actual tests preparing and revising for the tests). History isn’t the only casualty in year 6 because geography, music and IT have fallen by the wayside in these schools. In one school they have only had one PE lesson since Christmas too! I find it all very depressing.
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