Key Takeaways from the Ofsted History Research Review

Just as primary teachers were packing their bags for the summer holidays and thinking of sun and fun, Ofsted delivered its long anticipated History Research Review- all 57 pages of it! Once they found the time to read it, many primary subject leaders asked what’s relevant to me? Even more loudly was the outcry from those working in EYFS and Key Stage 1.

The first point for primary teachers to remember is that it isn’t all relevant to you as this document spans history teaching from Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) through to A level. A survey of the 191 references indicates that the content is very heavily weighted to our colleagues in secondary. There are only 9 primary specific references within the document and key research carried out by major figures in primary history like Hilary Cooper, Jon Nichol, Alan Hodkinson and Penelope Harnett is largely overlooked. Breaking this down further the few primary examples that are included are very Key Stage 2(KS2) focused with most looking at the Anglo-Saxon period. The language in the document can appear intimidating with unfamiliar terms like hinterland or generative knowledge used. To support you in understanding these concepts you might want to take the time to read the primary focused, History in Outstanding Primary Schools written by Tim Jenner the History Lead at Ofsted.  Tim has also produced a useful webinar on YouTube that will help you in understanding some of these unfamiliar concepts making the Review more accessible. 

As this document focusing on the ‘quality of the subject’ plays a crucial part in the training of the inspectors destined to enter primary classrooms we should ignore it at our peril. Yes, Ofsted says they don’t have a particular approach in mind but when the word ‘knowledge’ appears 448 times you begin to get the message on what they will expect to see happening.

Key Takeaways

So what are the key take-ways for history subject leaders?

  • Teachers and pupils need to have a sound knowledge of both substantive (Knowledge of the past) and disciplinary knowledge (knowing how historians work).
  • Curriculum design is important and you must have a sound rationale for the choices you make in terms of what you are teaching and when.
  • Your curriculum must be broad and diverse covering different periods and geography.
  • Within your curriculum pupils need to be supported in developing an understanding of substantive (e.g government, church) and second order concepts/disciplinary (e.g. cause, consequence) through teaching them in context and through repetition.
  • Developing chronological knowledge is important and pupils need to be supported in developing mental timelines.
  • Enquiry questions should be used to structure your teaching and support learning.
  • Stories are an effective tool in learning history.
  • Tools to support pupils in remembering knowledge (cognitive science) should be used.  

I can’t argue against any of the above in providing the building blocks for effective practice and facilitating progress. Indeed, all of these factors played a part when I designed the Rising Stars History curriculum with its focus on the use of enquiry and developing an understanding of concepts. However, while reading the Review my years of experience of building up an understanding of what is effective primary and EYFS pedagogy makes me acutely aware of what is missing. Glenn Carter (Primary history subject leader at Ingelby Primary School, Stockton and a member of the Historical Association Primary Committee) shares my concerns and asks where is the reference to engagement, creativity and cross-curricular links? He comments, ‘Very little is mentioned about the strategies that primaries use to engage children and create that interest and enthusiasm which sparks a lifelong desire to learn more history’.

Simon Ellis, Assistant Head Teacher and History Subject Leader at St Mary’s Uxbridge, has productively used the Review with his team to inform the planning of next steps in the school’s curricular review.  St Mary’s use Rising Stars History and based on the scheme have worked together creating a schema of substantive concepts to ensure they are delivered through repeated encounters. Simon comments, ‘We have made some new changes in response to the Review. These have included developing teachers’ understanding of disciplinary knowledge, prioritising ‘core knowledge’ when teaching and helping pupils to develop a ‘mental timeline.’

So what are the key action points for subject leaders?  Audit your curriculum and pedagogy to check where the Review takeaways are present and if they are absent decide how you plan to include them in the future.

Don’t panic! Yes take action in response to the Review, but most important please don’t lose sight of the message in the History National Curriculum’s Purpose of Study that: we must …inspire pupils’ curiosity to know more about the past’. This is a key element in effective primary pedagogy and we must do it well, as this is the reason why pupils and teachers love the subject.

Bev Forrest is the author of Rising Stars History. She is Chair of the Historical Association Primary Committee and a HA Quality Mark assessor. 



Research Review: History

History in Outstanding Primary Schools blog

Tim Jenner: Webinar focusing on developing substantive concepts & chronology




'History, Foundation Subjects, History, History and Geography, key stage 1, key stage 2, KS1, ks2

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