I interviewed a history teacher at my school to find out how she felt about how History is taught and examined in secondary schools. 

What do you think of the history curriculum? Do you think it is too focused on Britain / too much from a British perspective?

What struck me about the national curriculum for history in the UK is that there are very few restrictions on what schools have to teach and how schools have to teach. Policy documents do give some indication of what might be in a ‘standard’ curriculum, but they are non-statutory, meaning schools do not have a legal obligation to teach all of them. In fact, the only thing that is statutory to teach is the Holocaust, for good reasons. 

In terms of curriculum content, it really depends on the school. A lot of schools do a really good job or are working very hard to move away from a ‘pale, male and stale’ narrative, either by including more world topics, or by making sure that there is a wide range of representation in their units, especially the closer we get to the ‘modern’ age. Even when looking at very traditional topics like the Norman Conquest, for example, schools are working to incorporate other views as well, such as the role and influence of Emma of Normandy. But not all schools are so quick to change, and even for schools where there is a drive to make those changes there is still a lot of work to do and it will take a while for all areas of the curriculum to become more well-rounded.

What I’m actually more concerned about is how a school tries to ‘decolonise’ or ‘diversify’ their curriculum, because what we don’t want is tokenism. We don’t want surface-level, optic change, so throwing in a unit on the Mughal Empire into KS3, for example, is not ‘decolonising the curriculum’. If you’re doing a unit on a non-British area of history, are you still telling it from a British perspective? Or are you letting that piece of history take centre stage on its own? Another thing that I’m worried about is the teaching of sensitive topics like the transatlantic slave trade. Yes it’s important and yes you have to emphasise to students that it was a massive tragedy that still has an impact today, but how do you deliver that in a way that’s respectful to the history (i.e. not sanitising it to make it easier to digest) but also respectful to the students in your room? One thing that I’m very firm on is that learning about the slave trade should not be the first time Black students see themselves in the curriculum; you have to first teach African history and society. 

Then there’s the exam years. At KS3, in some ways we are much freer to do what we like, teach what we like, how we like. In GCSE and A Level, we don’t have that same freedom because ultimately you have to sit an exam and the specification is given to us. This is what you’re going to be examined on and this is how you’re going to be examined. In that case it’s down to which board or which units you choose, because there are some that are really quite global or have a lot of scope to be and some that, well, aren’t.

What negative impacts do you think a curriculum that doesn’t represent its students could have? (For example, students becoming demotivated as they feel they have to study things that aren’t relevant to them)

Definitely, I see that difference in engagement all the time. I remember last term when we had a student survey, there was one question about what you’ve enjoyed studying so far, and for Year 9 almost all of them said studying the growth of the British Empire and the role of the transatlantic slave trade was the most interesting. There was a follow up question as well on why they picked whichever unit they picked, and 90% of the responses were something along the lines of “It explains a lot about why our world is the way it is now”. But that’s not to say that British topics don’t garner the same type of interest, because it’s kind of down to how you frame it? Like, I could tell the story of king after king after king, or I could frame it in a way that’s about why the monarchy no longer has that kind of absolute power now, and link it into the growth of democracy and representation; it’s a story, in a way, of empowerment. And that’s something a lot of students can relate to, especially in a world where so many of them are aware of global issues that concern them.

Are there any changes you would make to it and what would they be? Do you think students should have a say in what they learn about?

​​Honestly? I don’t feel like I know enough to say that I can make that choice. That’s the amazing thing about history, it only ever grows. Which then makes the task of choosing what’s important enough, because that is essentially what all curriculum decisions are, what’s important enough to teach. In an ideal history curriculum, to me, there should be a good balance of a national story that helps to foster a greater understanding of where this country came from and how it got to where it is today, as well as an international story of what has happened in the world and how it has gotten to where it is today. But when I say that there’s a national story, I don’t mean it in terms of just the political developments, the ‘great men’, the Prime Ministers, the Kings etc. I mean it in terms of the people as well, how did we all get here and what’s our role in the story? So, no I don’t have a concrete list of topics that would make up the ‘perfect’ curriculum, but I do know what I think a perfect curriculum’s content should feel like, generally. Should students have a say in what topics they study? Yes to KS4 and definitely in KS5, especially with the coursework element.

Would you change anything about the way it is examined?

With the impact of Covid, what I have heard quite a bit is that if we still had modules for A Level, it would have made grades a lot easier. But in general, I don’t think going back to modules would be a good idea, learning-wise, because there would be a very strong temptation to just teach to the test, which isn’t great for quality teaching and learning. Once upon a time, we also had GCSE coursework for History, I can’t remember why that was scrapped, but I do think that some practice with extended writing and research would do students good because the transition from GCSE to A Level is, quite frankly, a canyon more than a gap. 

Do you have any other thoughts about how History is taught and examined?

One thing that came to my mind is that teaching is still very white-dominated. London is a completely different story, but England as a whole has a very low % of teachers that are BAME. History is especially bad for this, no guesses why. I also remember that when I first expressed an interest at being a teacher, my careers adviser at university gave me a very funny look that basically translated to “You? History? English history?” and there were a lot of voices that expressed those same doubts. But nobody knows British history from the moment they’re born, it’s all learned. If I could, why can’t you? The fact that I’m in the classroom at all is...not to praise myself, but I think it’s important for students to see themselves reflected in the staff body as well, and that’s not something that can be changed overnight. Students have to grow up seeing themselves in the curriculum, and therefore feel like they can be part of delivering that curriculum. That’s how I feel anyway.