'Why my school doesn't teach history or geography until GCSE'

This school in Bristol chose to ditch discrete teaching of these subjects and opt for a 'literacy-based' curriculum for KS3 instead

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I was about as welcome as a rat-infested mattress in your front garden the day I told the humanities department that history and geography were to be ousted from key stage 3. What saved me from eternal banishment from their corridors was the explanation that came next: the new approach would deliver students to Year 10 who understood the humanities in greater detail than they ever did before.

Our school has a number of students who struggle with literacy. It's in a deprived area of Bristol and, often, students enter working significantly below the national averages for attainment. History and geography were popular choices for the students in the school.  But learning was superficial, with just an hour a week for each, and often with shorter written pieces that didn't stretch students' academic writing.

What we needed in KS3 was a different approach that better supported literacy. We looked at lots of models and liked one featured in Ofsted's 2015 report 'Key stage 3: the wasted years?'. But it took a trip to Q3 Academy Langley near Birmingham to give us the confidence we needed to change what we were doing.  The school advocates a literacy-based curriculum with topics given more time than in traditional history and geography.  We were inspired.  As my headteacher drove us down the M5, the curriculum was already mapped in my head.

Curriculum design

Now what we do is so different.  Rather than adapting the subjects individually to do what we needed, we required something that showed how everything is linked. So we now teach five hours per week of 'World Studies'.  World Studies is a literacy-based curriculum that gets students to answer challenging enquiry questions over nine-week study blocks. It keeps the key principles of the national curriculum and GCSE specifications for history and geography, but links them together for delivery. The whole course has been designed to fit our kids, teachers and context. The topics are chosen by the teacher based on what they think is urgent (timely) and inspiring. It is then broken down into smaller sub-questions and students produce a written essay for each one.

Real-world sources are used and key historical and geographical skills are central to the teaching. The final module assessment is a two-hour exam answering questions that test skill with sources, followed by the main overriding enquiry question.  There are four cycles per year with a different teacher in each module.  Our students dig their teeth into questions such as "how fragile is our planet?" and "how can invasion be a positive thing?".

For an example of it in practice, my Year 7s are currently finishing the question "how powerful is China?". The students start off looking at the concept of a state and the main types of power it holds. They look at geographical location, weather, population, the one child policy, communism, capitalism and, finally, human rights.  They then answer the question, taking their own slant based on the evidence that they have collected.  They need to understand how the component parts link together and how communism links to human rights and then to the one child policy ─ boosting the logical thinking that our students so desperately lack.

Learning benefits

Underpinning this are the key literacy skills that are needed for students to be successful communicators.  Correct spelling and grammar must be used consistently.  Students learn to introduce, conclude and sequence; to create an argument in a formal academic style.  The benefit is simple: the reinforcement of the skills they're developing in English.

What is missing, perhaps, is the core knowledge of both subjects that is traditionally taught in KS3.

Nay-sayers will say that students need to understand an oxbow lake before Year 10. But even those at our school who had the staunchest initial opposition to this approach have seen the sheer depth of understanding and the improved writing skills of the students.  We're always developing the geographical and historical skills, so students can pick up that key knowledge in GCSE, confident that they can write in the manner that is required of them for GCSE.

And do the students prefer the approach? Very much so. The last word should go to a student who said this mid-lesson about human rights: "slow down, this is too interesting ─ I can't handle it!"

Benjamin Davey is assistant headteacher at the Bridge Learning Campus in Bristol

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