I don’t think it can be emphasised enough how fantastic the inaugural West London Free School History Conference was.
I can honestly say that I would have attended every workshop if it had been possible and am grateful to those who have blogged about the sessions in detail (a compilation of which are here.)
Christine Counsell was both passionate in her advocacy of a knowledge-rich curriculum for the poor as well and measured about its potential misuses. Such caution is welcome. This is not a fad and the danger of it being adopted as one is real enough. Her distinction between fingertip and residue knowledge has really got me thinking about what we teach at primary and how it feeds into KS3.
Having gone through primary history schemes of work with a fine tooth comb for my NPQML two years ago, it is clear that there is much to be done to improve the teaching of history in primary schools. Even the best scheme I found had to be adjusted significantly so that the focus was actually history rather than a vacuous retelling of the past for “engagement” or attempts to lead children to the “right” interpretation of past events.
The primary bubble does need bursting for all sorts of reasons, but ultimately, getting children to play at being historians is pointless if they lack the knowledge and skills to ultimately become one. There may be as little as 18 hours a year to teach history in primary but if we are going to teach history at all then it should be worthwhile and be something that can be built on later.
This is not a task for individual primary teachers. The thinking behind creating a good historical foundation in primary requires knowledge of the primary curriculum as a whole, the secondary history curriculum and history as a domain. There is no good reason why it shouldn’t inform some of the content in EYFS either.
Heather Fearn’s workshop on the importance of prior knowledge and analogies was of particular interest. Even if the primary and secondary curriculums remain divorced due to choices made by individual schools, there is still a need for internal coherence.
What the workshop also highlighted was that conferences such as these may actually help to bridge a gap in a novel way. The main criticism I’ve heard of collaborations between primary and secondary is primary teachers feeling like they would be “told what to do”. What truth there is in this statement given that I never took part in such a collaboration nor knew anyone who had, is anyone’s guess. The other criticism, which I have more sympathy with, is that it would lead to an increase in demands on their time in terms of planning lessons.
Attending the workshops for me was purely about the underlying ideas rather than the specific content or examples, but that in itself was incredibly worthwhile. I am convinced enough to recommend primary history subject leaders attend a similar conference to see what they think of the experience. I walked away not with a sense that a change in primary units was needed as much as what was taught in them and how this could link across a primary history curriculum. This type of coherence would actually make teaching history easier overall rather than the isolated unit approach we have been lumbered with for so long.
Louis Everett’s slides linking the key principles from David Didau and Nick Rose’s book “What Every Teacher Needs to Know About… Psychology” to teaching and assessment are a great model not just for history but in general. It is also a really clear example of where it makes sense to put the work in, in order to reduce teacher workload in the long run. The problem for primaries is who will do this thinking in the individual subjects and review it overall in order to make a significant dent, given that primary history subject leaders are rarely if ever, given time away from class for any of the work they do.
Michael Fordham’s session on progression in history needs wider dissemination as his ideas impact on the teaching of history in primary as much as secondary. His mixing up of the level descriptors without anyone noticing only emphasised the arbitrary nature of them. As he outlined, as well meaning as the people who created them were, they have hindered rather than helped the teaching of history as a discipline. I know they shaped my thinking on units and contents when putting the primary history curriculum together in my last school, and looking back I was limiting what could be taught and achieved year on year. On a practical level, the examples of low stakes tests he shared could easily be replicated in primary schools, providing opportunities for reading comprehension and useful examples of writing across the curriculum.
The day ended with Roger Tombs speech, who highlighted both the need for and the issues relating to the teaching of history. I apologise for the ramblingly long comment/question but as I had told Toby French only moments earlier, I was rather in love with him by the end of his speech!
Tombs rightly pointed out that the history is not only used to create divisions between nations but within them. Nothing riles me more than the identity politics which informs some aspects of the teaching of history, particularly the Empire. The vogue for mining history for ethnic minority grievances and white guilt is not going to produce historians of any worth in my opinion, particularly from ethnic minorities, who are the main focus of such ideas. Tombs example of a Hindu girl from an Indian background questioning the relevance of the history of the country she was born and lives in and which has shaped the circumstances she finds herself in can only demonstrate the weakness of this approach to teaching history.
This was one of the most worthwhile days I have spent this year. Very impressed with the West London Free School, very interested to see what Fearn and Fordham will do in their new roles at the Inspiration Trust and very much hope to attend again next year.