Remembering things past

8th April 2005 at 01:00
This week's How special are subjects? conference questions the way the curriculum is structured. Here Steve Mynard makes the case for studying history

The Government's monitoring system has shown that over the past seven years, the time spent on literacy and numeracy has increased. Meanwhile, the time allocated to all other subjects, apart from information communications technology, has declined.

History is now taught for just 47 minutes a week in the infants and 58 minutes a week at key stage 2. That is less than 4 per cent of teaching time. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has expressed concern about fragmented teaching and inadequate links with other subjects. The Conservative party has seized on such reports, and promised to restore history's place in schools.

Meanwhile, government directives are telling teachers they should give the foundation subjects higher priority, be more creative and integrate the curriculum wherever possible. How do we square this particular circle?

First, we need to be clear about why we teach history: it prepares children for life. History is full of people, famous, everyday and infamous alike.

We all have favourite historical characters and they have an influence on our lives.

If history is taught well in primary schools then children become eager to go out into the world and explore. And history is all around them, so there is plenty of exploring to do. They might not become historians or archaeologists but wherever they go they will have some idea of the time periods they are passing through - town names from the Roman or Saxon period, a Victorian mill or a gap in a row of terraced houses left by bombing during the Blitz.

Children come to realise they are not that different from the children who lived 500 years ago. They still play with toys, they still need to be fed and clothed and receive love, they still learn and they still get punished if they are naughty. But they don't need to worry about working down the mines or getting plague.

The national curriculum and the QCA schemes of work have failed to provide an underlying philosophy for history teaching that would inspire teachers and children. Instead, they are obsessed with content.

"Children should learn the names and order of Henry VIII's wives" the QCA declares. Why? The schemes of work mean well - they set out to reduce teacher workload by supplying ready-made ideas. But this regimentation of the curriculum has failed to inspire.

Two areas in particular have suffered in recent years: visiting historical sites and local history. The essential ingredient of good history teaching is grabbing children's imagination. As a class teacher I always enjoyed taking children to visit historical sites where we would re-enact significant events and tell stories.

There are many excellent places to visit around the country and if we are to make full use of them again we need to overcome the culture of fear that has grown up around taking children out of school.

Every area has a history - whether it is a 1970s housing estate or a village sheltering under the walls of a magnificent castle. Children need to get out there and look at old maps and documents, collect anecdotal evidence from older residents and become historical detectives.

The D-Day museum in Portsmouth, for instance, is a place where children learn all about life during World War Two. More importantly they are learning what WW2 and D-Day meant for Portsmouth, for their own grandparents and the community they are growing up in.

Last year I decided to take a break from full-time teaching and set out to explore some ideas of my own about rejuvenating the curriculum.

I started a company, Metaphor Learning Limited, with the intention of putting some of the creativity and imagination back into professional development. Our most successful course has been the Living History course, which uses drama and storytelling skills to integrate the history curriculum with the literacy strategy. If there isn't enough time to teach history then some of the curriculum has to be taught through other subjects.

We start the Living History day with a lot of talking about our own memories of learning about history and what history means to us as teachers and as individuals outside teaching. The sessions practise techniques such as "hotseating", where someone takes the role of a historical personage and is interviewed; using writing frames and creating "frozen pictures" of historical scenes.

The thing that teachers come up with time and again is that history means something. It is not just dates and kings and queens. It is about us, every one of us, and we are part of something bigger. Each of us in our own small way makes some contribution to the history of the world.

History is the subject that children take on with them into adult life.

Most adults have strong memories of the history they learnt - and the teachers who taught them.

For me it is the vaults of Colchester Castle, where I could see the remains of the Roman temple that once stood on the site; the place where Boudicca slaughtered the Romans. It is the Tower of London and the Cutty Sark at Greenwich. These childhood memories have fuelled my own love of history.

The Living History course from Metaphor Learning is held all over England.

For information ring (01373) 300 748 or email

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today