Why do we study the Great Fire of London at Key Stage 1?

Yes it’s that time again when our thoughts are firmly focused on planning for the year ahead. One problem for those teaching in key stage 1 is exactly what to teach in history, especially as regards significant people and events. The National Curriculum requirements provide us with some flexibility as far as events are concerned by just stating that we teach those beyond living memory. Just two specific examples are provided: the Great Fire of London and the first aeroplane flight in 1903 (see Voyagers Unit: 4). It also suggests adding events that are commemorated through festivals or anniversaries. While this freedom of choice may seem attractive it can also potentially lead to anxiety! Since the advent of the, now not so new, 2014 curriculum a great deal of thought has been given to which significant people should be taught, yet there seems to be much less energy directed towards which events are worthy of study. A quick survey of teachers would suggest that most of you are playing it safe in your choices and sticking with those taught in the pre-2014 curriculum, predominantly the Fire and the events of 5th November.
Why are we so narrow and traditional in our choice of events? ‘Remember, remember the 5th of November …’ starts the popular rhyme and yes we all do, as we studied these events at school and this means we have some background knowledge to begin to work from. Also these tend to be events benefiting from a range of published resources. It’s all very well for us to be told to teach other events, but possibly lacking the benefit of history specialist knowledge and with little time to develop our own resources it makes sense for us to stick with what is safe and familiar. These events are also great stories that never fail to capture the imagination. The Gunpowder Plot with its mystery and intrigue is full of great hooks, and it links into the present day with the celebration of Bonfire Night and therefore has relevance for primary pupils. Great characters in a story help too and here we have Guy Fawkes and the potential to debate on whether he is a hero or villain.
Once you have selected a possible event for study make sure you measure it against a criterion for significance or, better still, get your pupils to do so. You could use Christine Counsell’s 5 Rs of is it remarkable, remembered, resulting in change, resonant and revealing or devise your own measure. One simple gauge of significance would be if you removed this event from history what, if anything, would be lost? Also consider if the event has an impact on national, international and if possible, local dimensions. An excellent example here would be the focus on Armistice Day and how the end of the First World War had an impact on all these levels.  This would also link into the requirement for us to study significant events in our own locality. The Voyagers Unit 2: Who are our local heroes? will support you in this area.
One thing I am struck by when visiting schools and talking to teachers is not only how narrow our selection of events are, but also how few are taught over the course of the key stage. So the question is not only which events to select but also how many should be studied. The key point to keep in mind here is what do we want our pupils to learn from a study of these events? How useful is it for a primary aged child to have an in-depth knowledge of the Great Fire of London? I would argue it is far more useful for our pupils to have some knowledge of a number of events. The benefits are even greater if these events span a broad arc of time and where comparisons can be made with the present day. The introduction of this element, providing opportunities for linking events, will support the development of chronological understanding not only in relation to sequencing the events, but also the duration of these events and the interval of time between them. Our pupils will also begin to get a sense of period of the different times in which these events occurred. We can also begin to link events that fit within a theme, for example the development of transport. I can imagine that you are now thinking that even if you cut the content to be covered within each, you would still struggle to fit in more topics. You will need to be creative here and find possible opportunities, perhaps by linking to the study of significant people in history or in your selection of texts to use in literacy. Assemblies are also a great opportunity to introduce events, particularly through anniversaries.
Many of the events we choose to study are often rooted in complex issues relating to politics and religion. Yet at key stage 1 we are trying to study these events without the context in which the event occurred. Looking at the end of the First World War without a background of why the war occurred or the Gunpowder Plot without knowledge of the relations between Catholics and Protestants at the time is a challenge with any age group. Yet how can these complex areas be introduced for young children without oversimplifying them so much that the meaning is lost? This means a balance must be reached between a race to cover numerous events in history without any depth and the narrow view of history gained from just teaching a couple of events over the key stage. Voyagers provides us with help in achieving this through its plans for both the First aeroplane Flight (Unit 4) and the origins of Bonfire Night (Unit 3).
In preparation for next year here are some key principles to keep in mind:

  • Work with other teachers to make sure pupils have a balance of periods studied over the key stage and consider how this links into topics studied at key stage 2.


  • Be clear about what you want the pupils to gain from the study of the event. The focus may be different for each event studied.


  • Consider: is this truly a significant event? Yes, it’s been remembered over time but does this lie more with being a famous event rather than one truly worthy of study?


  • Adopt a model for how to approach the study of an event - the Voyagers units will help you with this. Then apply this model to the events that you wish to study.


  • When selecting events look for anniversaries that will be in the news, for example in 2018 key dates relating to the First World War and women gaining the vote.

Here are a few ideas for events.  It’s now up to you to decide if they are worthy, age appropriate for key stage 1 and relevant for your pupils to study. 

The sinking of the Titanic 1912 or the Mary Rose 1545,
The discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun 1922,
The eruption of Vesuvius AD79,
The Rainhill Trials (Stephenson’s Rocket) 1829,
The Ancient Olympic Games and/or the first modern Games 1896,
The Christmas Truce 1914,
Captain James Cook sets sail from England 26th August 1768 or other events related to significant explorers (see Voyagers Unit 6),
Women’s suffrage over 30 6th Feb 1918,
The invention of…you decide!
Bev Forrest is a primary teacher trainer, member of the Historical Association Primary Committee, a Primary History Quality Mark assessor and a member of the editorial board of Primary History.

Voyagers History and Geography provides everything you need to take children on a voyage of discovery with imaginative, hands-on history and geography lessons for the new curriculum.


history, History and Geography, ks1, ks2, voyagers

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