March 2022 saw the publication of the government’s “Inclusive Britain Strategy”. This was a response to the controversial Sewell Report of March 2021. The report’s denial of systemic racism garnered most headlines, but it also contained 24 recommendations to solve problems the report seems to claim do not exist.
One of the recommendations in the Sewell Report was to improve the curriculum taught in schools, drawing primarily on work by the US scholar, E.D. Hirsch and the British sociologist, Michael Young. Interestingly, the Sewell Report suggests that the purpose of the curriculum should be to create a “sense of belonging” by showing the contributions of the “forefathers and mothers” of pupils of different ethic background to “this country”. As the report notes, “This is not about teaching the personal history of each individual but rather linking the story of different ethnic groups to a unifying sense of Britishness.” The report goes on to conclude that a “well sequenced, knowledge-rich curriculum” is the answer to a more inclusive Britain, and invites the government to advise schools on how to plan a “politically neutral” curriculum.
The recommendation on curriculum was picked up in the 2022, Inclusive Britain Strategy. Action 57 states that: “To help pupils understand the intertwined nature of British and global history, and their
own place within it, the DfE will work with history curriculum experts, historians and school leaders to develop a Model History curriculum by 2024 that will stand as an exemplar for a knowledge-rich, coherent approach to the teaching of history.”
Suggesting the need to make curriculum more diverse and inclusive is not new. Similar (and better grounded) recommendations can be found in the Rampton (1981) and Swann (1985) Reports, as well as suggestions for changes to the National Curriculum framework in the MacPherson Report (1999), for instance. What is new here however is the suggestion of creating a model curriculum to show how schools might create more inclusive history in their classrooms.
The DfE have been trailing the idea of a model curriculum for history for a while now. March 2021 saw the publication of a controversial “model curriculum” for Music. Similarly, Nick Gibb was suggesting the need for a model history curriculum to address issues of diversity and inclusion in October 2021. It is interesting that Gibb and Sewell both seem to suggest that the reason schools are not teaching more diverse and inclusive histories is due to the failure of teachers to plan ambitious curricula. Neither seem to acknowledge the role played by Michael Gove’s curriculum reforms of 2013-4 which actively shifted the National Curriculum to be a much narrower, traditional, nationalistic narrative, framed as cultural capital (or more erroneously, powerful knowledge). It is notable that, over the last few years, many schools have shifted to try to teach this perceived historical canon, something I have written about previously. I don’t really blame schools for this, the whole narrative from government and Ofsted has been about the provision of cultural capital. And the DfE themselves have actively promoted textbooks which promote a similarly narrow curriculum view.
What is the model curriculum?
Whatever the context we are now in a position where we know the DfE are officially beginning work on a model curriculum for history. Few details have been released so far on what this will involve, or indeed who will be involved. Below is a summary of what we know so far.
- The model curriculum will be created for all but will not be mandatory in schools.
- The curriculum will aim to create a sense of belonging for pupils of different ethnic backgrounds as part of the UK.
- The model curriculum will take a knowledge-rich approach to enable “better curriculum design and sequencing”
- There will be a focus on Britain’s place in the world and on the national stories of the four nations of the UK.
- The DfE will consult “curriculum experts, historians and school leaders” to produce the curriculum for 2024. The process by which this group was/is being selected is not made clear.
- It appears this group is already being consulted and one of those confirmed in the group is Christine Counsell
- The DfE will signpost relevant resources to support the delivery of the model curriculum.
On the back of the announcement and given the lack of consultation the DfE seem to have done with history teachers, I thought I would do my own exploration of teachers’ responses to the proposals outlined above. The remainder of this blog is an analysis of the results gleaned from the 261 anonymous responses I received from educators connected to history across the Primary, Secondary and Tertiary sectors. I am absolutely not claiming these results to be statistically representative, however I think they provide a good litmus on general opinion from a wide range of schools. The responses were sought via Twitter and on GCSE History exam board groups.
Risks and Benefits
The first area I wanted to explore was in terms of risks and benefits. I presented a list of potential benefits of having ONE model curriculum for history and asked respondents to say whether they felt the benefits described outweighed the potential risks respondents perceived. The results were interesting, with Primary (n.14) teachers seeing significantly more potential benefits than their Secondary (n.218) counterparts. For Secondary teachers the benefits are seen as less significant than the risks in all but one area (CPD). Primary teachers were more positvie about potential benefits, though still had concerns about the DfE's involvement with the creation of the curriculum. This is certainly worth bearing in mind. My wife was a Primary teacher for 12 years and the challenge of managing and resourcing multiple subjects was huge. I can therefore see why a model curriculum might be appealing here. When asked to comment on any other benefits, most people commented on concerns instead. Full results are given below:
In the second set of questions, I presented a number of statements in relation to the proposed model curriculum and asked respondents to comment on how concerned they were about these things. What is notable is that levels of concern across almost all areas were much higher than the perceived drawbacks from the last set of questions. There were no questions where the majority of respondents did not have concerns. In most instances, well over 75% of respondents expressed concern and over 50% expressed significant concerns. Again, Secondary colleagues were more likely to express concerns than Primary colleagues, but the picture is still quite striking.
There are clearly a lot of concerns being raised here by teachers on the ground, especially in relation to the potential restrictiveness of having a single model curriculum. There are also deep concerns about deprofessionalisation. These concerns are not unfounded. There has been a big focus in recent years on teachers delivering content which has been planned and sequnced by others.
Another set of concerns revolves around the local contexts of schools and the need for curriculum to be flexible and adaptive to local needs. The proposal is for a voluntary curriculum model, but there were many expressions that this might not remain the case, or central pressures would mean the curriculum became expected. Many teachers expressed the concern that the content would be too rigid and prevent deviation. Meanwhile the complextiy, amount and pitch of the content was a signifciant worry among Primary teachers.
There was significant unease (on both sides of the political spectrum) about the model curriculum being politically motivated and therefore one which would constantly change with each successive government. There were lots of uses of the term indoctrination, with some citing "woke" academics as the issue and others "nationalists".
Finally, the comments reveal some themes about levels of trust and transparency which I think the DfE (and Ofsted) need to acknowledge and address urgently. Many people expressed concerns over who would be consulted on the model curriculum, whilst others were thought the model might become mandated either via the DfE or through Ofsted expectations.
All of these concerns are significant. They demonstrate, I think, that teachers are not opposed in principle to curriculum models being shared, but they are extremely worried about the way in which this may be enacted, and for a range of very valid reasons.
I am going to stop here. At some point soon I will follow up with some suggestions for what the DfE might do next so that it can capitalise on the potential need for curriculum models - especially in Primary, whilst alleviating many of the concerns people seem to have around the processes currently in place.
If you would still like to contribute to the survery, you can find a link HERE. I would be interested in any other comments below.