A Better Secondary School History Curriculum

A Better Secondary School History Curriculum

There are three years of compulsory history in secondary school. That’s just nine terms. If history at primary school is about awakening the love of learning, and more advanced study is about in-depth study and the development of historiographical skills, the best way of using these three years is by ensuring that everyone who goes through them as a broad overview of the sweep of human history and how different historical events and their legacy contribute to making the world in which we live today.

There will be some who say that studying history should be about studying certain topics in depth. By all means do that with those who’ve chosen to study it in more depth, at GCSE, A-Level and beyond. But as someone who stopped history after Year 9, two of my nine terms were spent studying the French Revolution. An important part of history, certainly, and very interesting I found it at the time, but if I’d not been the sort of person to be reading outside school, how much use would this in-depth study of an arbitrary period been? That’s not to mention the amount of time spent in school on the Tudors and Stewarts and on the Second World War. It’s crazy that I could finish my formal study of history literally without even hearing the words Byazantium, Islam, British Empire or Cold War in a history class.

So below is my history syllabus for Years 7 – 9. he traditional topics aren’t excluded, but they’ve been cut down and other things added in their place. Its centre point is British and then European history – I believe it’s important for people in any country to study the history of the country and region in which they’re situated – but puts this in a global perspective, as well as highlights some of the key developments in the history of today’s major nations and the world as a whole. Most importantly, rather than isolated snippets, it attempts to convey a sense of the overall development of human history.


Year Seven – Ancient and British History

Term 1: Ancient Civilisations

  • First half term: an overview of the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Persians and Chinese
  • Second half term: in-depth study of one of Ancient Rome, Ancient Greece, Ancient China

Term 2: British History: The Dark Ages and the Mediaeval period

  • Romans, Saxons and Vikings
  • The Norman conquest and Norman England
  • The stirrings of democracy: Magna Carta, The Peasant’s Revolt and the Black Death
  • The Hundred Years War
  • The Wars of the Roses

Term 3: British History: Tudors and Stuarts

  • The Tudors (including Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, the English Reformation)
  • The Stuarts
  • The English Civil War, Cromwell and Parliamentary Democracy


Year Eight – From the Ancient World to the Modern Age

 Term 1: The World After Rome

  • The Byzantine Empire
  • The Rise of Islam
  • The founding of the Holy Roman Empire

Term 2: Religion and Nationhood

  • The Reformation, the European Wars of Religion and the Treaty of Westphalia
  • The Ottoman and Mughal Empires
  • Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite: The Enlightenment, The American and French Revolutions and the Napoleonic Wars

Term 3: The Age of Discovery

  • The great voyages – Columbus, Magellan, Vasco de Gama, Cabot
  • The colonisation of the Americas
  • The growth of global trade – focusing on the Portuguese and Dutch trading empires and the early years of the East India company.
  • The slave trade and abolition


Year Nine – Modern History

 Term 1: Industrial Revolution

  • The agricultural revolution
  • The industrial revolution and its impact on society
  • Political reform: the 1867 Reform Act, the rise of the trade unions and women’s suffrage

Term 2: Empire

  • The British in India
  • The Scramble for Africa
  • The Latin American wars of independence
  • The Opium Wars, the Boxer Rebellion and the Meiji restoration

Term 3: 20th Century History

  • The First World War
  • The Second World War
  • The Cold War (focusing on the USA, USSR and China)
  • The end of history? The fall of the Berlin Wall, Deng Xiaoping’s reforms and 9/11.

What do you think? What would you include?

15 thoughts on “A Better Secondary School History Curriculum

  1. I only did history up to year 9 as well, but I think we touched on *most* of those topics by then, if you include the upper primary years. The exceptions are most of what you’ve put in year 8 terms 1 and 2 (though some was, as I recall covered in RE), and year 9 term 2.

    I remember covering the Tudors several times in that period, but not that much about the Stuarts. Conversely, I learned very little about the various Revolutions, apart from the industrial revolution. I suspect there’s a lot of variation between teachers and also schools – the national curriculum isn’t as specific in what should be covered as your suggestion above. It might also depend on the demographic of the class/school in question, and any local attractions, be that Roman forts, Viking strongholds or Tudor mansions.

    But as with all subjects, it’s important to think about *why* you’re teaching something. Sure, the content is important, but the skills and general themes that are also crucial. That’s why few people advocate knowing the kings and queens of Britain (in its various guises) – after all, you can just buy a list of them in a ruler (I assume, haven’t seen one in a while).

    I’d like to have known a bit more about very recent history, and have heard people suggest that working backwards through history – though I’m not sure how well 11 year olds would take to discussing the geopolitics of the cold war and nuclear annihilation.

    There’s also the pressure of time, which is far from unique to history. In the example above there’s roughly 8 hours of teaching (1/3 of a term, so ~4 weeks, assuming 2 hours per week) dedicated to the Tudors. Well, there’s a *lot* that went on during that, which is why I suspect the Stuarts generally lose out.

    I’d say that a major motivation for teaching history is to get students thinking about why times were different, and what impact that had (and potentially continues to have). They should also be using historical sources and learning the challenges of interpreting such things. You also need to show them *why* history is interesting and relevant, rather than just *what* history is. Again that takes time, so you have to prioritise which bits of the “factual content” you include.

    1. I can definitely believe schools’ histories vary – and for what it’s worth, I’m not a big fan of the National Curriculum, so think of the above as ‘what I’d do if I owned a school’ rather than ‘what I’d impose nationwide’.

      I agree that learning the skills and techniques such as source interpretation are important – these would need to be embedded throughout the above curriculum, just as they are in whatever’s taught currently. I deliberately didn’t cover how history is taught, which is a whole different question! A couple of people on Facebook have argued that it doesn’t matter what the content is as long as you teach the skills, but I think from your comment we’re in agreement that both the content and the skills are important.

      I agree with all of your objectives in the last paragraph, though I would add ‘to understand and have pride in their country’s history’, which I suspect you wouldn’t. Back to the bit where we agree, a big part in the ‘understanding’ for me is to understand the big themes that shaped (and continue to shape) history and to understand the legacies that shape the behaviours of major powers in the world today.

      To that end, the above tries to convey at least a basic understanding of the evolution of democracy, nationhood, religion, colonialism and commerce, as well as giving a snapshot of the evolution of some of today’s major powers – China (3 sub-bullets), India, the Islamic World, Latin America (each 2 sub-bullets) and Japan (1 sub-bullet) – necessarily more limited than the coverage of their own country and region, but still something. Of course, which themes and which countries is open to debate, but the principal is the bit I feel important.

      1. Pretty much every time I’ve tried to design a lesson or short curriculum (at any level) albeit not for history, it’s the “why” and the skills that take by far the longest to learn. It’s very rare, in my (admittedly relatively limited, compared with qualified teachers) experience, to not have to take some content out.

        On the national pride aspect, I suspect I’d put less weight in that than you might, but largely because there should be a healthy dose of national humility as well (where appropriate). In fact, a better education would be to give the students a few examples and let *them* decide whether they’re proud etc. Let history be the judge, and all that.

        1. Chris, I find that approach is only ever suggested by people who see no value (or actively oppose) the thing in question!

          For the avoidance of doubt, I think all countries should teach their pupils to have pride in their history, as all peoples and nations have things to be proud of. To paraphrase Chesterton, “A person does not love their country because it is great; they think it is great because they love it.” That doesn’t mean not teaching the bad bits – the curriculum doesn’t shy away from that – but the self-loathing promoted by the Western intelligentsia is as unhealthy in a nation or culture as it would be in a person.

          Megan, do you also think modern Indians and Pakistanis should feel ‘shame and disgust’ because of the Mughal Empire (a contemporary and rival of Britain)? What standards do you use to decide one was more or less ethical than the other – and is this a meaningful question? I don’t want to discuss this more here (it’s a bit off topic) but would be happy to by email; alternatively, I would recommend Empire by Niall Ferguson as a fairly accessible read, that might give a broader and more balanced perspective than that peddled unquestioningly by the BBC or Guardian. https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00936RSAW/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1

          1. I’m not suggesting that people shouldn’t be proud of aspects of their history, though unqualified pride runs the risk of someone thinking a particular course of action is good simply because it’s the way it’s been done before (particularly in the case of children).

            I’d also agree that unconditional self-loathing is unhealthy. After all, times have changed, so past actions should be framed within the “morals” and level of understanding at the time (providing those morals are also critically evaluated).

            But if you want people to be proud (or otherwise), you’re much better off getting them to reach that conclusion themselves than telling them what they should think. Of course, they may reach a different conclusion to you but that’s OK.

          2. It’s very difficult in practice to achieve that balance.

            The last I’m afraid simply isn’t true. The utter collapse in national pride/patriotism indicates it, as does the fact that it is higher in countries that do teach with pride. Even more compellingly, it’s completely incongruous with how we teach other things. We explicitly aim to instil a love of learning, kindness, other cultures – are you suggesting that the one area we can’t try to instil is the one which (most) educators and those on the cultural left (which dominates education) don’t support themselves? That would seem a big coincidence.

            You can see a similar pattern in the way we teach kids not to take illegal drugs (here are the facts, make your own decision) and the way we teach them not to be racist (racism is bad, don’t do it, don’t advocate it, we’ll punish you if you do). Is it really likely that the way we teach kids not to be racist is completely different from the way we teach them not to do drugs? Or is it more likely that (most) educators/those on the cultural left see racism as bad (which it is of course!) but don’t see much of a problem with illegal drugs? Again, we could look at how this so conveniently lines up with their opinions outside the classroom.

            In many ways open disagreement would be much better, because it then at least would be exposed to public scrutiny.

          3. Not sure those are the best examples – teaching racism is all part of teaching kindness (i.e. teaching others with respect). There’s also a difference between illegal drugs, where to first order the one who suffers is the drug-taker, and racism, where the one who suffers is someone else. There’s quite a lot of personal/social/health education (PSHE) around racism, much of which is along the lines of “how would you feel if someone said X about you?”. There’s also currently debate about whether all drugs should be illegal (though this isn’t the place for that discussion), though for the moment they are illegal (so there’s a fairly clear penalty, at least of you get caught). I’m not sure that’s such a strong left-right split, either.

            The big problem with teaching national pride is that it can instil the opinion that your country is better than others (just look at the US!). While that kind of competition is fine when it comes to sports competitions etc., I’m not sure that’s a good thing in the internationalised world we live in, particularly when a small but significant minority of the population grew up in (or have roots in) another country. It all adds to the idea of competiton and, at its worst, gives the far-right justification for their (much more extreme) views. [For clarity, I’m not having national pride puts someone on the far-right].

          4. The points you make here are all reasonable ones – but they reinforce my argument that the reason people advocate ‘let people make their own mind up’ in certain areas is because they don’t actually think teaching a strong message in this area is the right thing to do.

  2. I would love to have studied this curriculum. As it is, everything I know about the Byzantine and Ootoman empires comes from a personal interest fuelled by some good books; everything I know about the British empire comes from researches kicked off after I went to an excellent museum in Kuala Lumpur; and I’ve mostly learned about the Napoleonic era by reenacting it! Having said that, I think your school would have to be pretty academically selective in order to get through this entire curriculum without putting the students off history for life. Not everyone devours knowledge like you do.

    I think there’s a fundamental question here about what the first three years of secondary school are really about. I like your premise that primary is about love of learning, and year 10 and above about specific topics; however I fear that for many children primary is actually about mastering basic skills and there’s still a way to go on love of learning in early secondary school, so I’m reluctant to pack too much content in.

    I really like the emphasis on thematic exploration, as I agree that seeing patterns in history is incredibly important. I also agree that there’s a balance between that and understanding the evolution of specific cultures/countries that one might come into contact with – but I think ultimately the emphasis should be on patterns illustrated by examples, as one can always look up the specific knowledge in a time of need, if one knows where to look. One interesting example here which I’d like to see taught is the differences between American and UK culture and the historical context for this, e.g. gun laws, equality, attitude to money etc. Curiously, one of the overseas (expatriate) placements which fails most often is UK to USA, perhaps because we think they are the same, when in fact there are some significant differences.

    1. You’re probably right, Megan, that it might need to be aimed at reasonable able pupils. Perhaps history could be like maths, with higher and lower tiers? I do agree that basic skills are very important in primary school (in English and maths); I’m not sure that history in KS3 should still be about basic skills though, at least not for the majority of students.

      It’s a good point about US and UK culture being so different and it would be interesting to learn about it. I’m constantly surprised by how different the French are about some things, too!

    2. This is slightly off-topic, but still relevant. I think there’s sometimes a bit of a problem with what Key Stage 3 (age 11-14) is all about. Primary is very investigative, and enquiry-led, while 14+ onwards is slightly more specialised, and targeted (rightly or wrongly) at passing exams. In between, there’s a risk of a lost period.

      Nothing fundamentally changes when children hit 11, apart from the fact that this is roughly when hormones start to go crazy. At the same time they’re moving to “big school” and having to make new friendship groups. Simultaneously, their education switches to “high school” mode, and there’s a risk that they lose the love of learning because it all gets very serious. For example, this is about the time that students drift away from science, and I suspect the same is true of other subjects.

      I grew up in an area that had “middle schools” from age 11-14, though that is largely bring phased out not. While this system has/had fairly big disadvantages, it is possible that it does make it easier to have a transition from primary to high school.

      Why is this relevant? Because I’d worry that such a large amount of content would be very “serious” in terms of curriculum (though I appreciate that you’re not specifying *how* it is taught). It may be that some element of streaming could be a partial solution, so those with an interest in, or aptitude for, history can do more (timetable-pernitting etc). What’s included in the “advanced” history lessons should be carefully chosen, so that taking the “standard” curriculum didn’t preclude studying at higher level (c.f. triple science at GCSE level), though there is a risk of duplication

      I suspect that would mean picking core topics in your list. That might mean that everyone studies the Tudors, for example, but only the “advanced” lessons cover the Stuarts in detail.

      1. I’m very unfamiliar with middle schools but am open to the idea that they’re a Good Thing.

        I like the idea of a lower/intermediate tier just doing some topics, rather than reducing the amount across the board. If we take your Tudors not Stuarts as a starting point, we might also do one of instead of both the Ottomans and the Mughals; ditto the American and French revolutions; lose the Holy Roman Empire in 8.1. I think you could potentially also lose the Agricultural Revolution in 9.1 and Latin America and Africa in 9.2 whilst still keeping the gist of the matter.

  3. Out of interest, have you seen the changes taking place in Wales over the next few years? Have a look at

    The entire curriculum (up to age 16) is being replaced with more of a “framework”, with much more interdisciplinary work. It’s similar so Scotland, with the report it’s based on also written by the same person (Donaldson).

    The six Areas of Learning Experience (AoLE) are:
    * Humanities [aka History, Geography, RE, Economics/Business]
    * Science and Technology [aka science, engineering, D&T etc.]
    * Maths and Numeracy
    * Health and Well-being [aka PE, PSHE etc.]
    * Language, Literacy and Communication [aka English, English Literature & Modern Languages]
    * Expressive Arts [aka Music, Drama, Film/Media Studies etc]

    Each AoLE has a set of statements of “what matters” that students should know, at all levels of education. Those are currently being argued over, but the latest (public) version for Humanities is:

    1) Continuity, change and diversity impact on our world
    2) Society is influenced by community, culture and power
    3) Humanity faces many challenges that require informed and considered responses
    4) People interpret and represent the world in different ways
    5) Developing inquiring minds allows people to make sense of and engage with the world around them
    6) Responsible citizens are ethically informed, critical thinkers and play an active part in society

    The idea is that each school (or possibly educational consortia) will be able to define its own curriculum within the framework. That bit is similar to e.g. Finland, though Finish teachers have around half their time for planning, preparation and assessment, whereas it’s more like 10-20% in the UK (or at least in England and Wales).

    I intentionally present this without comment (I have thoughts and opinions…), other than to say that it you want to define a school’s history curriculum, you could just move to Wales 🙂

    1. I hadn’t! I don’t have views one way or the other on a lot of this (e.g. the groupings) but I do like schools being allowed to choose their curriculums! Though I suspect I might need to do more than move to Wales for someone to give me a school. 🙂

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