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An Introductory Guide to Leading History

This probably won’t surprise you but history is my favourite subject! I love it for so many reasons which is why I do this for a living. It’s why I love(d) leading it across a number of schools; why I’ll always be a passionate advocate for it being so much more than just an agreed sequence of facts to learn. In history, it is rare to say something is universally agreed and/or objectively true which is why it can be a challenge to lead in an ever-changing world. As emerging historians, the children must learn not only the nature of the past but also the rigorous process by which claims are constructed, argued and developed by those looking back at what already happened. A reason why I believe it’s so key to learn about the past is that it helps the children begin to understand why aspects of the world around them exist as they do but also individuals, events etc that shaped them for the good, bad or ‘ugly’ reasons.

My aim across this two-part blog is to hopefully provide some clarity and thoughts on how to begin your journey as a history subject lead. As with anything history related, there is no singular pathway from novice so see this as a possible plan. It is the one I tend to use when thinking about history but am always open to other approaches and ideas.  

The Curriculum

When you first read the National Curriculum for history 2014, it’s so easy to become overwhelmed by what it says but what it doesn’t say. When it was first launched, Alf Wilkinson of the Historical Association described the changes and what it offers history leaders[i]. It’s important to remember that it is NOT a complete curriculum but rather provides a framework that schools can use as a start point. See the curriculum as a minimum expectation of what must be included and not an ambition to aspire toward.

Before you go any further, please make sure you’ve read all of it as each element offers something different. Teachers have huge workloads so part of the role to develop as a subject leader is to provide that overall understanding of the big picture and vision for the subject – this takes time so don’t worry if it seems like a mountain to climb at the start! Below is a very brief summary of what each part includes:

Purpose of StudyThis paragraph is the ultimate end point for the curriculum. It is identical for Key Stage 1, 2 and 3. It sets out what children should be able to do by the end of it so every time children learn about history, it should contribute to this ambition.  
AimsThere are 6 aims for the NC (6 is on the top of page 2 and easily missed). Each of them adds to depth to what the children should know, gain or understand. It’s easy to try and use these as a tick box that should be met in every unit but this would miss the point.  
1) The role of chronology in the curriculum.
2) What to select when teaching world history.
3) Teaching vocabulary/abstract concepts to ensure they are understood for that historical period.[ii]
4) Second-order concepts for history which are used to frame conclusions and historicise knowledge. They set the way in which knowledge is analysed, discussed, and debated etc.
5) Understand how we learn about the past through historical enquiry. It is a process which is used to analyse the available evidence about the past to construct claims.
6) The breadth of the curriculum to be taught and ensuring connections are made between branches of history and across periods of time. In particular, connecting local history to the region, nation and beyond; the types of history that can be stressed (social, military etc) and the importance of understanding short and long-term timescales.
Attainment targetsOne sentence, which at first glance looks less than helpful. However, it sets out the importance of having a clearly defined curriculum for both skills and knowledge. There isn’t a pre-determined list of what must be taught where – that’s for schools to decide upon. It is in line with the idea that the curriculum itself is the progression model.[iii]
Subject ContentBroken into two sections:
a) Processes which should be embedded across every unit of history where they are relevant. This works in conjunction with the above-mentioned curriculum areas.
b) Individual bullet points. This is the section teachers most often consider when planning but take some time to think about the nature of the statement itself. They aren’t just a study of the Great Fire of London or the Romans in Britain.

Most offer more guidance about where to add greater emphasis in terms of teaching time. 

Ask yourself:

  • Is your curriculum facilitating all of this? (Don’t feel you need to know this after one read through as I’ve broken it down into a number of stages you may wish to consider.)

Does your predecessor still work there?

In my mind, I have fingers crossed that they do… it would make things so much simpler if you can have a handover meeting with them and begin to understand what is in place. Think carefully about what would be important to know about their role (three suggestions below) and what their vision would have been should they have continued to develop it further.

However, it isn’t the end of the world if they have left or the meeting can’t take place. Take time to read what the schools’ curriculum includes. Knowing what has been done so far will help make sense of the curriculum as it currently stands.

Questions to ask:

  • What has been done so far in terms of curriculum sequencing?
  • Have there been any developments as a focus?
  • What plans did they have in place for where next?
  • Does anything have a particular emphasis across the curriculum?

Reviewing what is currently in place?

Once you feel that you have a greater sense of clarity over what the NC14 includes, start to reflect on the current curriculum provision. I’d always suggest looking at this in a number of ways to ensure you have covered not only the required subject content but also the underlying intentions of the PoS and Aims. The way in which you do this is, of course, based upon your experience of subject leadership but also confidence with the discipline of history. The list could be done in a day, across a half-term or progressively throughout the year:

  1. Are you meeting the subject content bullet points?
  2. Does the sequence look logical (see endnote for more detailed explanation of what this could look like[iv])?
  3. In how much depth is your curriculum defined and is it clearly prescribed enough to ensure subsequent teachers know what they are building on[v]?
  4. Is it a representative curriculum for your school in terms of diversity and role models?

Do you have plans in mind?

If you’re anything like I was as a new subject leader, I dived in like Scrooge McDuck (Google it if you’re too young to remember). I had so many ideas without a clear picture of what it would mean across the school. It meant I was charging around like a headless chicken, trying to get everyone as keen and excited as me – unsurprisingly, it didn’t work! That’s why the first parts to this blog look at what’s currently in place. I definitely fell into that trap! Being excited and energetic is great… being purposeful and taking people with you is infinitely better!

Ask yourself:

  • What do you want your curriculum to say about your school?
  • What does the school ethos and values add to how, what and why we make certain choices?
  • What do you believe in as a teacher and how can that intertwine with school ethos?
  • What is the school pedagogy and is there an agreed approach?

This isn’t complete! This is part 1 of 2 but I wanted to get it up quickly to give people a useful starting point… hopefully. If you have any questions or requests for part 2, please tweet, message or email me so I can try and build them into it with a Q and A section.

Part 2:

The list below is my current outline in a very rough and early form. The final version may be somewhat different.

  • What is the purpose of teaching history?
  • The discipline of history.
  • Where to look for support?
  • Order of operations?
  • What next?




[iv] When we talk about logical sequencing, there are many possible thought processes to consider. Think about the age of the children, prior experiences and the complexity of what is to be taught – can they actually comprehend WHAT is being taught in sufficient depth to avoid trivialising it. Content does not have to be taught in chronological order but do consider how children will build on what is learned based on what they learn next. Why this? Why now? In a nutshell.

[v] This is where the PoS and Aims are useful to scaffold the nature of what is going to be taught. Is it broad and ambitious as Tim Jenner (OFSTED HMI for history asked in his 2021 HA keynote talk)?