Historical Association Written evidence (EDU0075)


The Historical Association is the subject association for history in schools. Incorporated by royal charter, we have represented the voice of history teachers since 1906. We currently reach over 55% of secondary schools through membership and engage with a further 42,000 individuals through our electronic communications. We submit evidence to this call on behalf of our secondary school members. 

Our submission will not cover all aspects of the call for evidence, but specific areas where we can provide insights and will, unsurprisingly given our status as a subject association, focus upon history.


Key Stage 3

The National Curriculum for history at Key Stage 3 provides a basic framework for history departments to follow. Data from our surveys of secondary schools in England shows that while academies and free schools do not have to follow the National Curriculum, many do, if not in whole, at least in part. The best versions of the National Curriculum over the years have been created via consultation with the subject community which helps to explain why many teachers follow it. While some updating is necessary, its basis and approach, as a broad, non-prescriptive framework is welcome. How well it is implemented depends on the quality of history teacher ITE and post qualification CPD, as well as colleagues working in schools where they have the culture and funded time to be able to engage in deep curriculum thinking.

While the framework as it stands is not unreasonable as a loose framework, there are many silences and issues concerning the way it functions that make it less effective than it might otherwise be. Issues such as the non- statutory nature of the National Curriculum, time for teacher planning, time for teaching,  lack of access to high quality resources and training, the demands of Ofsted and GCSE, lack of curriculum and assessment review and update to provide a curriculum fit for the modern age will all be considered in this submission and recommendations. 

While the National Curriculum makes it possible for schools to teach history that is much more representative of all those who have lived in Britain and also permits effective consideration of relations between Britain and the wider world, it does not explicitly encourage such emphases, and in the limited attention that it gives to other societies independently of their association with Britain, it tends to encourage a focus on certain parts of the world only as the subjects of colonial rule or as victims of enslavement.

There are interest groups relating to the many silences of the history National Curriculum who seek to remove those silences. The Historical Association’s 2021 survey into secondary history in English schools points to the fact that only 40% of respondents teach Black British history and only 25% feel that women’s history is fully embedded.[1] Of course, history is vast and to remove all silences from the National Curriculum is not a manageable prospect. The majority of the document is non- statutory and open to teachers creatively planning a coherent pathway of substantive and disciplinary knowledge which can help to address some of the many silences, play to local needs and provide a coherent history education for our young people. This is to be encouraged. However, the lack of emphases in the document places the onus upon teachers. Teachers must be treated with trust and respect and be well equipped with good quality, regular subject-specific professional development to give them confidence to hold such deep curricular conversations and be creative. At present, a so-called solution to the current teacher recruitment and retention crisis linked to workload, seems to be the employment of initiatives such as the model history curriculum and OAK Academy which seek to provide ready-made curricula and materials. This is in danger of eroding teacher professionalism and the capacity to respond to the needs of individual students. Without some investment in the processes of planning (identifying the learning objectives and selecting tasks by which they can be achieved) teachers become less able to identify and explain the key ideas that matter in securing future learning and less able to adapt in the moment when they encounter particular misconceptions. There is also a great deal of uncertainty and suspicion surrounding both the Model History Curriculum and Oak National Academy due to a lack of transparency surrounding each. While the Model History Curriculum may possibly provide a helpful exemplar as to how a school might approach the history curriculum, it is seen as a rather secretive process by the wider history community. There is also a level of uncertainty about whether the Model History Curriculum will indeed ever be published.

Oak National Academy might provide useful resources but its presence could undermine both teacher creativity and the wonderfully strong publishing tradition in this country. In history, a spread of resources is needed rather than domination by one body. With this in mind, it is also unclear how far either the Model History Curriculum or the Oak National Academy resources will be promoted for adoption and there is a danger that both might be perceived by schools as a de facto curriculum in the face of Ofsted scrutiny.

Teacher recruitment is in crisis. Both university and SCITT courses are struggling to recruit in most subjects. History has never been a shortage subject but if current NFER forecasts come to fruition, history is also heading towards under-recruitment in the future. Universities are telling us that recruitment has never been so bad. This is of little surprise when placed against the lack of a bursary to train to teach history, workload pressures and the uncertainty and suspicion surrounding the Model History Curriculum and Oak National Academy resources as outlined above. 

The National Curriculum requires that pupils cover a sweep of over 1000 years of British history on a local, national and international scale in addition to a wider world topic. This in itself is not an issue; however, problems arise in interpreting the demands of the breadth of content when schools fail to apply the principles of overview and depth and end up treating all of the content equally. This leads to distortions. The emphasis on knowledge in pedagogy is not necessarily a bad thing in itself, but how to achieve a  knowledge rich curriculum is not universally understood and has led in some cases to an emphasis on knowledge retention through a number of rote-learning initiatives and an undermining of the discipline of history, and of the debate and discussion that is crucial to a healthy democracy, as a result.

Students at Key Stage 3, often limited to one or two one-hour periods of history per week, do not have the time to truly get to grips with the substantive content or thinking of the discipline. To be a well-educated young person by the age of 16 requires the opportunity to engage with both the breadth and depth of history. History is an intellectual pursuit. It is a construct that must be analysed, weighed, challenged and debated. This is simply not possible in the statutory period in which all must study history. While not yet published, recent Historical Association research with students also provided insights into what students feel they are lacking in terms of the content of their school history, such as wanting to know more about changes over time, ancient history, greater understanding of world history and why the world is as it is, and the similarities and differences of experiences of people. The findings from the Historical Association Young Voices project will be published on our website later this year.   In his speech at the 2022 Historical Association Medlicott Awards, Professor David Olusoga gave a powerful message which outlined the dangers and repercussions leading to ignorance and historical amnesia of children being allowed to give up learning history at 13 or 14.[2] It is our view that children cannot fully get to grips with history by age 13 or 14 and it is essential that history should be studied by all pupils up to the age of 16. This comes into sharp focus when one considers the subject requirements of the current Ofsted framework for non specialist primary teachers when many of them will not have even studied history since the age of 13 or 14. The ability to give up studying history at 13 or 14 in this country is most unusual when considered in an international context where most equivalent jurisdictions allow for some study of history to the age of 16 or 18. The 2019 Historical Association survey into history in English secondary schools indicated that 30% of state funded non-selective secondary schools were allowing pupils to give up history in Year 8 at age 13.[3]

The importance of a full and high-quality history education cannot be under-estimated. History and the constancy and diversity of human experience permeates every corner of life and every curriculum subject. There is history in everything. A full understanding of the world in which we live as well as causation and change over time and the way that the past has been represented in different ways is essential – arguably more so given current world events.  As the National Curriculum itself points out history should:

inspire pupils’ curiosity to know more about the past. Teaching should equip pupils to ask perceptive questions, think critically, weigh evidence, sift arguments, and develop perspective and judgement. History helps pupils to understand the complexity of people’s lives, the process of change, the diversity of societies and relationships between different groups, as well as their own identity and the challenges of their time.[4]

This is a tall order in the time provided for history education for those who do not continue to study the subject beyond the age of 13 or 14. The majority of non-specialist teaching also occurs at Key Stage 3, so for some pupils, continued study beyond Key Stage 3 may be the only opportunity they get for specialist history teaching.

Another limiting factor upon the Key Stage 3 history diet that pupils receive is GCSE. We will return to the history GCSE examination later in this submission but here we will focus on the effect of the GCSE upon the Key Stage 3 curriculum. Given the content overload and less accessible assessment of the current GCSE coupled with the accountability pressures it brings, many schools have resorted to utilising GCSE style questions and grading at Key Stage 3, which makes a nonsense of any kind of meaningful assessment of progress at this stage. It appears that what happens at GCSE and the weight of accountability placed upon school performance at this level seems to drive thinking about how the curriculum is structured and assessed at Key Stage 3. The effect of using GCSE style assessment at Key Stage 3 can make history seem un-achievable for some students.  GCSE questions are a tool to assess student understanding at a moment in time in the unique circumstances of an examination. They are not designed to assess the breadth and quality of student understanding in general. Using them in this way has a narrowing effect and reduces history to a set of exam techniques. This is not the fault of teachers,  but the fault of such high-stakes accountability placed around GCSE. In a Historical Association survey into history in English secondary schools in 2019, nearly half of those state schools who responded indicated that they were using GCSE style assessment models at Key Stage 3.[5]

Ofsted research reviews into history[6] have since created a useful discourse about curriculum content. Both the new Ofsted inspection framework and the research review by Ofsted have helped in sending a very clear message about the need to consider the Key Stage 3 curriculum in its own right.  Historical Association surveys certainly do show some evidence of a positive impact of the 2019 Ofsted framework upon curriculum, most notably in terms of diminishing a structure adopted by many schools which saw years 7-11 as something of a 5-year GCSE programme that allowed content to be revisited. However, it should be noted that the later Ofsted history research review was flawed and did not contain evidence of any international comparison or research as a basis. There is also a need to remember that the Ofsted view is not infallible. We operate in a school culture where the word of the inspectorate is the rule of thumb and much teacher time is drawn away from the kind of developmental curricular conversations that drive reflection and planning in favour of planning for inspection. Such is the weight of the accountability system for schools. Statistics produced in 2020 also show that history is more likely to be chosen for a deep dive,[7] placing additional pressure on history departments, all of which takes focus away from pupils.,


The first obvious point to make about the Key Stage 4 curriculum is that now that students cannot leave education or training until the age of 18, this brings into question the validity of even having a GCSE examination in the first place. The original O-level/CSE and later GCSE examination was a school leaving qualification. That is now no longer the case. With all young people having to stay in education or training until the age of 18, we should consider revising public assessment at 16 to allow more time for in-depth study between the ages of 11 and 16. The GCSE examination simply doesn’t warrant the emphasis placed upon it, nor is it as useful as it once was.

When the last criteria and specification review of history GCSE was carried out, specifications were produced at speed. There was also little subject expertise available at Ofqual to ensure equivalence and coherence. As a result, the specifications offered for history from the different examination boards are very different interpretations of the criteria. While some difference between examination boards is to be expected, there should not be difference of interpretation in what core units of the examination, for example the historic environment, mean. Nor should there be such a difference in interpretation of assessment objectives. Examination boards define historical interpretations in different ways and have devised mark schemes that fail to reward valid pupil responses. There has of course not been the opportunity for a review of the GCSE criteria on which specifications are based since 2014. This is overdue.

As outlined at Key Stage 3, the same issues relating to the content of the curriculum persist at GCSE. While examination boards and publishers are carrying out research to see what can be done to provide greater diversity, geographical scope and representation within current specifications, they continue to have to work within the current criteria that make this more difficult and without any sign of a government review. The Historical Association secondary survey of 2021 shows that teachers are concerned about the lack of representation particularly of Black and Asian British people, people with disabilities and LGBTQ+ people. However, for a variety of reasons (lack of knowledge, confidence, training, resources, budget, pressure of accountability measures and time for planning among others), their concern did not translate into their unit choices at GCSE with many opting for “safer” choices with little geographical extension beyond Europe. Close to one third of respondents did indicate that they were looking for ways to improve the diversity and representation of their Key Stage 4 curriculum and the most commonly cited method of doing this was through the adoption of a thematic study of migration.[8]

The Royal Historical Society’s  2018 Race Ethnicity and Equality report showed  that only 11% of history undergraduates came from BAME backgrounds and less than 1% of history academics were from Black backgrounds.[9] Our research shows that the drop off in uptake of history for non-white students happens at GCSE. It is for this reason that we convened a Diversity Steering Group along with other key stakeholder organisations in history education with a focus upon GCSE specifications. A first meeting was held on 29 June 2022 with the results published on our website.[10] One of the key agreements from this meeting was that only so much can be done to encourage greater diversity and representation within the current specifications and that in order for more lasting change to be built into teaching at Key Stage 4, a full review either of the examination process at this Key Stage or at least of the subject level examination criteria is needed.

The current history GCSE qualification is overloaded with content, with little allowance for students to go beyond a content gallop of each unit. Historical Association surveys since the reformed GCSE have pointed to high levels of teacher concern about the amount of content, with only 20% agreeing that the level of content in the current history GCSE is manageable.[11] Our recent pupil voice work echoes the same concerns among pupils who point to there being much more to learn for history than in other subjects. There are also concerns about the suitability of the qualification for lower attaining students with 90% of teachers disagreeing with the claim that the current specifications are appropriate for those with low levels of literacy and 70% disagreeing with the suggestion that they are appropriate for those with low prior attainment.

The above of course applies to students who have already chosen to study history at GCSE.  History is a demanding intellectual subject. Pupils need time to really grapple with its concepts and content - such is the fractured nature of the Key Stage 3 and 4 curriculum that students can become demotivated and reluctant to study the subject beyond Key Stage 3 because the awarding bodies have packed so much into each GCSE course. The introduction of the EBacc as an accountability measure has improved numbers opting to take history at GCSE by an average of 14.2% change compared to a change of +4.9% in all GCSE entries over the last six years.[12] However, well over half of students still end their history education at the age of 13 or 14. It has also led to some students being actively barred from choosing history at GCSE either due to the inaccessibility of the qualification or in order not to adversely affect school performance table data. In the 2021 Historical Association survey into history in English secondary schools, this was reported by 20% of respondents.[13]

  The weight and accountability placed on the GCSE qualification takes its toll on the mental health of both students and teachers alike. The emphasis solely upon a terminal examination means that history becomes more a test of how much the student can remember and does not allow them the room to show what they know, understand and can do. The lack of an entry level qualification or many low tariff questions within the GCSE examination itself means that history GCSE becomes inaccessible to lower attaining students. It also means that in addition to being a test of memory, the examination also becomes a test of how fast a student can write. In no other circumstances in the working world would someone be expected to produce a coherent, detailed and analytical extended response or report in 20-25 minutes of writing time. The emphasis on extended written responses in a controlled environment does not prepare students for working life, nor does it chime with the wider variety of assessment models adopted in more recent years in higher education or in comparison with schools internationally.


Our Recommendations

  1. To make the study of history compulsory to age 16. History is a facilitating subject for a wide variety of careers. If we want to create global citizens who are both knowledgeable and able to think critically, analyse, weigh evidence, argue effectively and be effective communicators – skills that are required in a wide range of careers, we must allow history education adequate time on the 11-16 curriculum.
  2. To ensure that the curriculum at all stages is fit for the modern age and provides students with the context and confidence to tackle issues such as climate change.
  3. Linked to the above, to begin a curriculum review to revise the current Key Stage 4 arrangements and make better use of this phase of secondary education to develop the knowledge, understanding and skills that each subject provides.
  4. To begin a review of assessment and criteria at each educational phase and develop a range of approaches in consultation with teachers.
  5. Linked to the above, to develop a vocational qualification for history possibly linked to heritage work or tourism.  The UK has a huge tourist industry. In places where the economy is dependent on heritage tourism, those working in the industry will require knowledge of their local history in a wider context and knowledge of the heritage and tourism industry.
  6. To re-think the accountability measures used in schools. While schools must of course be accountable, we must seek to develop a more supportive culture in which the accountability measure or process (in the case of Osfted) does not dominate and is not such a blunt tool that takes too much time away from the most important function of schools – pupil learning.
  7. To provide teachers with annual compulsory and funded subject-specific CPD in order to equip them to hold the developmental curricular conversations to be dynamic and creative in their curricular design and delivery.
  8. Linked to the above, to revise the currently generic CCF and ECF and provide the requirement for teachers to develop as teachers of the subject.
  9. To adequately fund schools in order that proper release time for collaboration, planning and CPD is available to teachers.


30 April 2023



[1] https://www.history.org.uk/secondary/categories/409/news/4014/historical-association-secondary-survey-2021

[2] https://www.history.org.uk/aboutus/resource/10467/film-medlicott-lecture-2022-david-olusoga

[3] https://www.history.org.uk/secondary/categories/409/news/3826/ha-secondary-history-survey-2019

[4] National Curriculum Key Stage 3 Programme of Study for History: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/239075/SECONDARY_national_curriculum_-_History.pdf

[5] https://www.history.org.uk/secondary/categories/409/news/3826/ha-secondary-history-survey-2019

[6] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/research-review-series-history/research-review-series-history

[7] Times Educational Supplement https://www.tes.com/magazine/archive/revealed-ofsteds-favourite-subjects-deep-dive

[8] https://www.history.org.uk/secondary/categories/409/news/4014/historical-association-secondary-survey-2021

[9] https://royalhistsoc.org/racereport/

[10] https://www.history.org.uk/aboutus/module/8777/our-commitment-to-diversity/11494/equality-diversity-and-inclusion-at-gcse

[11] https://www.history.org.uk/secondary/categories/409/news/3826/ha-secondary-history-survey-2019

[12] https://results.ffteducationdatalab.org.uk/gcse/history.php?v=20210812%20 – FFT Education Datalab

[13] https://www.history.org.uk/secondary/categories/409/news/4014/historical-association-secondary-survey-2021