THE HEALTH OF HISTORY
Rich encounters with the past: Ofsted history subject report July 2023
History is, perhaps, our most contentious and politically sensitive curriculum subject. When Hilary Mantel said, “the past changes a little every time we retell it”, she captured well a subject whose content is unstable, continuously changing its form when viewed through differing perspectives and interpretations. It is also an inherently political subject whose subject matter can be a battleground for differing political values and world views and whose teaching methodology in UK schools has been a centre of controversy for over a century. We have few sources of information as to what goes on in history lessons in our schools, so when one of Ofsted’s infrequently produced subject reports on history appears it is worth our attention, especially as this is the first report since Ofsted’s ‘curriculum turn’ and the inauguration of subject ‘deep dives’.
‘Rich encounters with the past: history subject report’ (Ofsted July 2023) differs in tone from the apocalyptic ’History in the balance‘ 2007 report, with its picture of a struggling subject with a limited place in the curriculum, and the ‘History for all’ 2011 report, whose tenuous optimism was tinged with a view of a subject in danger of marginalisation and a loss of identity. History is no longer following in the footsteps of the African forest elephant or the Yangtze finless porpoise in the path towards extinction. On the contrary, History is recovering, highly valued and receiving sufficient curriculum time. Most schools now have a broad and ambitious history curriculum, primary school teachers’ subject knowledge now impresses, pupils are developing a secure knowledge of the past and the gap in the quality of history teaching between primary and secondary schools has closed.
There remain, according to the report, significant areas for further development. There are variations in the quality of history across schools, planning for disciplinary knowledge is not always ambitious, knowledge is sources of evidence are often used by pupils who do not have secure knowledge of the historical context, some schools still focus on superficial aspects of the past, and, as usual, assessment in history remains underdeveloped. Central to developing further the teaching of history is the need to see pupils’ experience of the subject across the whole history curriculum across all years. Layers of historical knowledge interact so that pupils should develop their understanding of historical periods and of recurring terms and concepts and of broader chronological frameworks. This involves, both in curriculum planning and in classroom pedagogical decision-making, the identification of key concepts and content which will support future learning and progress in the subject.
An Ofsted subject report reflects not only the state of the subject but also the context within which evidence is gathered. Changes in the Ofsted framework and methodology mean, for example, that the report is no longer organised around categories such as achievement and teaching. The report also reflects the political context within which the curriculum is viewed. It is hard to see, for example, the warning to avoid emphasising the negative experiences of a group and ‘creating narratives of victimhood’ as not being motivated by the current government’s ‘anti-woke’ culture wars.
The dominant view that the curriculum, promoted by government and Ofsted, should reflect the ‘powerful knowledge’ of subjects has led to the reaffirmation of the importance of the traditional subject-centred curriculum. In this view the demise of history as a component of school topic teaching is seen as a significant step forward. The report has nothing to say about the relationship and contribution of history to the rest of the curriculum or about the relevance of history to the developing child. The 2007 History in the Balance report argued that history needed to focus, through the Every Child Matters agenda, on what young people needed to become successful and well equipped adults. The 2011 History For All report identified as a key issue for history teaching how it might contribute to pupils’ sense of social responsibility and recommended that the history curriculum should include opportunities to study the cultures of different communities and the roots of contemporary issues, for example, those presented by Black History Month. For the current report, planning in history is about identifying what is important in supporting future learning in the subject. We teach what we teach in history to develop the subject. Why we teach history, how it develops future adults and citizens and how it connects with the rest of the curriculum are both unanswered and seen as unimportant questions. Many teachers of history would applaud the report’s focus on the subject, its integrity and how it should be developed. Others may regret the disappearance of relevance as a criteria for planning and developing history teaching, an outwardly looking curriculum and the return to a more traditional and narrower curriculum mind.