History Curriculum - How are we preparing our children for Key Stage 3 History?

History Curriculum - How are we preparing our children for Key Stage 3 History?

When I was still in the classroom, my favourite way of delivering a history lesson was to make it personal. I gave the children a story they could believe in, with amazing characters that would relate to their lives. I then rooted it meticulously in a different time, locating it precisely between other historical events they knew and then got them talking about everything: a sensory emersion (of taste, sound, smell and touch), a comparison to their lives and other historical lives. We then distilled this discussion into two key judgements – how this story impacted history’s direction and the lessons WE could learn from it today.

The photographs at the start of this blog are a great example of storytelling. My great grandparents at my parents' wedding in 1965 side by side with formal photographs of them from the start of the 20th century (sometime just before World War One). So many stories can be told about them and the generational changes they saw in their lifetimes – living and working in an industrial northern town, two world wars, a pandemic, poverty, changes in transport, changes in music…… so much to compare to the way our lives are being played out today.

The recent Ofsted review of history has cited some great progress in the quality of teaching history in schools over recent years.

"In most of the schools we visited, history was highly valued by leaders and teachers, and pupils were given enough time to study the subject. The trend towards the erosion of history as a distinct subject appears to have been reversed……. significant work has been done to develop a broad and ambitious curriculum in history."

Inspectors structured their review within the following parameters:

  • Curriculum design and organisation
  • Pedagogy
  • Assessment
  • School systems and leaders’ impact on history education
  • Subject knowledge and professional development, and
  • The impact of the above on what pupils learn
An area that remains mixed in the picture is the development of disciplinary knowledge. The type of activities children should undertake to develop this knowledge before they arrive at high school is essential to their success in Key Stage 3. They stated:
"Curriculum plans relating to disciplinary knowledge were typically not ambitious enough. The teaching of this was less effective than it could be. The complexity of disciplinary traditions and approaches was often misrepresented. We saw just a few schools where pupils developed more complex knowledge over time of how historians study the past and construct accounts………In the best schools, pupils developed rich and connected knowledge of the past. In others, pupils’ knowledge of history was disconnected or superficial, or there were significant gaps."

Ofsted defined knowledge in the recent research (2023) below:

  1. Substantive: knowledge about the past
  2. Disciplinary: knowledge about how historians and others study the past and construct historical claims, arguments and accounts. This is not a set of generic skills but a complex body of knowledge.

When designing history curriculums, some history teachers also distinguish between:

  • core knowledge: content that, within a particular lesson or topic, curriculum designers and teachers consider most important for pupils to secure in their long-term memory
  • hinterland: background information that helps to make core knowledge meaningful by placing it within a rich context

They explain that this requires careful building over time, and they have deliberately used the word ‘encountering’, which clearly makes the point that children’s learning experiences need to be cyclical and grow over a number of years. It is important that we understand the direction of travel for our learning in history, pre- and post-primary phases, and that we are responsible as teachers within the whole arc of the learning journey. This will then allow us to carefully craft a range of opportunities to develop the disciplinary knowledge that needs to be embedded before children complete Key Stage 2 under the three themes below:

  • Chronology & Causation
  • Historical Enquiry
  • Historical Significance & Interpretation

Progression in the National Curriculum

From its earliest iteration, the history curriculum is deeply rooted in four key strands. Each time they are revisited, they become more complex, requiring a new, deeper layer of understanding rather than repeating the skill with a different substantive knowledge base.

  • Knowing similarities and differences develops into making connections, drawing contrasts and analysing trends
  • Drawing on experiences develops the historian’s ability to make claims and argue interpretations of the past.
  • Talking, including asking and answering questions develops the historian’s ability to pursue enquiries
  • Using books and stories develops into the accurate use of sources
EY Statutory Framework National Curriculum
Understanding the World ELG:
Past and Present Key Stage 1 Key Stage 2 Key Stage 3
  • Talk about the lives of the people around them and their roles in society
  • Understand the past through settings, characters and events encountered in books read in class and storytelling.
  • Pupils should develop an awareness of the past, using common words and phrases relating to the passing of time
  • Know some similarities and differences between things in the past and now, drawing on their experiences and what has been read in class
  • Know where the people and events they study fit within a chronological framework and identify similarities and differences between ways of life in different periods.
  • Develop a chronologically secure knowledge and understanding, establishing clear narratives within and across the periods they study.
  • Extend and deepen their chronologically secure knowledge
  • Use common words and phrases relating to the passing of time.
  • Note connections, contrasts and trends over time
  • Identify significant events, make connections, draw contrasts
  • Analyse trends within periods and over long arcs of time.
  • Use a wide vocabulary of everyday historical terms.
  • Develop the appropriate use of historical terms.
  • Use historical terms and concepts
  • They should ask and answer questions, choosing and using parts of stories and other sources to show that they know and understand key features of events.
  • Regularly address and sometimes devise historically valid questions about change, cause, similarity and difference, and significance.
  • Pursue historically valid enquiries
  • They should understand some of the ways in which we find out about the past and identify different ways in which it is represented.
  • Construct informed responses that involve thoughtful selection and organisation of relevant historical information.
  • Create relevant, structured and evidentially supported accounts
  • Historical sources are used rigorously to make historical claims
  • Discern how and why contrasting arguments and interpretations of the past have been constructed. 

Getting Writing Right

When pursuing responses to historical enquiries, teachers must be careful to ensure children are actively being taught to present a historical response rather than shoehorn the response into a literacy-based writing structure. We must think – ‘What is the best way to present the findings of this enquiry?’ The National Curriculum states children should know the different ways they can represent what they find out, and this develops to ‘constructing informed responses that involve thoughtful selection and organisation of relevant historical information’ and then ‘creating relevant, structured and evidentially supported accounts’, and these will not always lend themselves to the current writing genre theme in a classroom.

Make it Personal!

Below is a summary of some activities that will develop the children’s disciplinary historical knowledge over time. These activities stem from the idea of ‘making an enquiry’ about how something happened in a time and place, who did something in the past and why something happened.

Drawing on a wide range of skills readily used in other subjects (notably science and geography) reinforces children’s independent learning behaviours and connections made back to their current lives, helping them understand more about the world they live in today.

Wider Enquiry Application Skills

  • Ask questions (discuss and debate)
  • Analyse information
  • Think critically
  • Develop perspective
  • Make judgements

Disciplinary Development Activities

Timelines & Chronology

  • Order events through time and understand when things happened consistently throughout school. Set up a timeline in each classroom and plot the curriculum for your school. By Year Six, children will have a deep understanding of where events take place over time.
  • Connect events through time by patterns of behaviour or action, e.g. technical innovations, wars, migration.
  • Immerse new events within this precise chronology – discuss how life was before and after a significant event and make comparisons. Ask how this event changed the course of history.

Broaden Use and Understanding of Historical Vocabulary

  • Carefully craft a bank of increasingly complex historical vocabulary with specific definitions for all staff and children.
  • Use the vocabulary of ‘sources’, so children understand them as a place to source evidence and make interpretations and arguments (primary and secondary)

Primary and Secondary Sources

  • Explore the reliability of a source (great connections to the internet today)
  • Planning trips into a unit of work is a great way to provide concrete opportunities to access a primary source. Just be careful when planning what you want the children to learn from the trip.
  • The news is a great way to make connections, whether it’s an archive news article from the past or a current event where history is repeating itself. Immerse the classroom in news every week and get communication about connections.


  • Use storytelling as a mechanism to make emotional connections, notably empathy.
  • Create scenarios using source information for children to gather clues to build the story of a life lived in the past – Prisoner 4099 in the National Archives is a great source of information for clue-building. https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/resources/prisoner4099/)
  • Local, national and international stories – get the children to make connections on a global scale – same story, different place? An opportunity to value the range and diversity of international and local cultures.
  • Explore events through different points of view. Explore why these points of view exist and which present the most likely factual standpoint.

Writer Profile

Emma Ford is a well-respected, successful educational leader and consultant with over a decade of headship experience in challenging contexts. Emma has a significant track record of developing schools, showing rapid improvements sustained over time, leading schools successfully through many Ofsted inspections, and taking schools from special measures to good. Emma has a proven track record in creating school cultures that put values at the heart of all practice. She achieves this through meticulous transformation of professional expectations and cultural behaviour. She is proud of her work in succession planning and developing leaders who move into successful senior leadership and headship positions.

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