History Resource Cupboard – lessons and resources for schools

History Resource Cupboard - lessons and resources for schools

Teaching Issues

Barriers to teaching Wider World Histories (2)

There is a strong case for English pupils studying more Wider world histories. I outlined in the previous blog post on this topic.

The National Curriculum at Key Stage 3 gives schools ample scope for such a study. Nevertheless, diverse world history units, in general, are somewhat hard to find in English classrooms.

Why is this? What are the barriers to Wider world histories having more prominence in the English curriculum?

A tradition of narrow content and focusing away from wider world histories

For the majority of the 20th century, according to Sylvester, history in English schools was taught in what has become known as the ‘Great Tradition’ ( 1994), where a mono-narrative approach was didactically followed. Slater (1989), for example, described the post-war school history curriculum in these terms:

“Content was largely British or rather Southern English; Celts looked in to starve, emigrate or rebel; the North to invent looms or work in mills; abroad was of interest once it was part of the Empire; foreigners were either, sensibly allies or rightly, defeated. Skills – did we even use the word? – were mainly those of recalling accepted facts about famous dead Englishmen.”  

As Slater suggests, the curriculum centred on rich, white, dead men. Classroom activities generally involved copying from the board and answering recall questions. Young would call this the ‘knowledge of the powerful’ and not ‘powerful knowledge.’

For many pupils in this period their experience of history involved learning and regurgitating facts – sound familiar?

 Change eventually came in the form of ‘New History’ in the early 1970s. The think tank, the Schools History Project (SHP), suggested that 14-16-year olds should study a diverse range of topics. They suggested topics such as the history of medicine through time, and the American West, the Rise of Communist China and the Arab Israeli Conflict.

Although, uptake for these courses was relatively low, SHP content did have some influence on the new GCSE specifications first introduced in the late 1980s. It also influenced the scope of history prescribed in the first history National Curriculum. Despite these policy changes encouraging ‘hidden history’ topics to be taught, change has been slow. 

There is some evidence that, over the last thirty years, the curriculum has remained as narrow as Slater described above. Peter Frankopan, in his introduction to The Silk Roads, makes just this point about his history education at Eton.

In a recent study into history teachers’ curriculum decision making, Harris and Reynolds (2018) discovered that, despite the freedom offered in the National Curriculum to diversify, an unofficial canon of white English history content existed. Topics chosen across history departments for pupils often included:

  • the Norman Conquest,
  • the Medieval Church,
  • the Peasants Revolt,
  • the Reformation,
  • Elizabeth I,
  • Oliver Cromwell
  • The Industrial Revolution.

Worryingly, wider world history was conspicuous by its absence. Some schools did cover topics like the Roman Empire and the Slave Trade, but little else.

Despite this apparent discouraging picture, in recent years, there have been attempts to include a more diverse range of topics in their schemes of learning. There is much discussion in the Twittersphere on this topic. Although few pupils are yet experiencing the benefit of such breadth, there is an awakening of interest in teaching the wider world. This is an opening we should exploit.

Arms-Length Control – Policy Changes

One reason for the lack of curriculum innovation is down to government influence. Globally we are in the ‘standards’ age (Ball 2015), where international tests scores are used to measure and compare the success of national educational systems. This focus on outcomes has been emphasised by a process of seemingly unending educational reform (Levin 2010).  

Interestingly, government policy changes in England since 2010 have appeared to encourage schools to have more freedom in many areas. The academy programme allows school leaders to control their budgets and introduce their own pay structures. It also gives them the right to opt out of the National Curriculum and design their own courses. Yet despite all of this, too few history specialists within schools have yet to introduce innovative or diverse historical content. 

One reason for this is that, paradoxically, schools are now held under tight control, albeit it at arm’s length, by central government. This arm’s length control takes on many guises. One is via educational policy reform. In 2016 new GCSEs courses for 14-16-year-old pupils were introduced which, in line with the DFE’s prescribed subject criteria, included more historical content (DFE 2014). The effect of this has been outlined in the Historical Association’s Annual Survey of teachers of history in secondary school, where the weight of GCSE has been felt profoundly by many teachers and their pupils.

The ripples of GCSE content have influenced Key Stage 3 curriculum both in terms of the content to be covered and the style of assessments which are used. Some teachers have come to rely on using GCSE questions for Key Stage 3 assessment. Forty per cent of those history teachers surveyed in 2019 are deliberately planning their Key Stage 3 and GCSE curricula in ways that allow them to revisit content. In addition, many seem reluctant to stray from the examination board approved textbook. Therefore, there appears to be a hesitancy to innovate and focus on topics such as Korea, China and West Africa.

Arms-Length Control – Ofsted

Depressingly, Ofsted and its inspection framework is one of the most powerful influences over what happens in English teachers’ classrooms (Ainscow et al, 2012). Between 2012 and 2018, under the leadership of Sir Michael Wilshaw, Ofsted’s main focus was not on the curriculum or knowledge but instead on outcomes. 

When making judgements about schools, inspectors gave considerable weight to pupils’ achievement and progress and this was judged via the benchmark of GCSE results (Ofsted 2018 p58-9). Eager to please Ofsted (Ainscow et al, 2012), some school leaders encouraged teachers to teach to the test, drill pupils in how to answer examination questions and increasingly focus on content that led to success in external examinations. Sound familiar?

Comparatively little thought was given to the knowledge pupils took away from their education. This coupled with a relative lack of curriculum time for history has negatively impacted on curriculum planning in schools. 

The unintended consequence of all of this, according to the present Ofsted chief inspector, is that teachers simply don’t have the professional knowledge to innovate and design new curricula (Spielman 2017). This is itself comprises a key barrier to change.

Time and the availability of resources

Lack of knowledge of wider world history is one of several practical challenges faced by any teacher wishing to introduce Wider world histories into their schemes of learning. Areas such as Korea, or China have seldom been taught before, so there is no tradition of teaching about them. Consequently, there is a lack of accessible and appropriate resources for teachers, and publishers are less willing to publish materials for new topics unless there is a demand which at present does not exist. Although this might be about to change?

In addition, the pressure of time means teachers are less able to update themselves on new topics. Researching, planning and preparing is a most time-consuming activity. For an increasing number of teachers, there is some interest in broadening the curriculum further. However, without access to first-rate resources and well-focused training, change is difficult to manange.


Ainscow, M. et al. (2012) ‘Making schools effective for all: rethinking the task’, School Leadership & Management, 32(3), pp. 197–213

Ball, S. 2015. “Education, Governance and the Tyranny of Numbers.” Journal of Education Policy 30 (3): 299–301

Department for Education (2014) The national curriculum in England: complete framework for key stages 1 to 4.Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-curriculum-in-england-framework-for-key-stages-1-to-4

Harris, R & Reynolds, R (2018) Exploring teachers’ curriculum decision making: insights from history education, Oxford Review of Education, 44:2, 139-155, DOI: 10.1080/03054985.2017.1352498

Levin, B. (2010). Governments and education reform: Some lessons from the last 50 years. Journal of Education Policy, 25(6), 739–747

Slater, J, (1989), The politics of history teaching: a humanity dehumanised? London: Institute of Education

Spielman, A (2017): HMCI’s commentary: recent primary and secondary curriculum research, DFE website, available at https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/hmcis-commentary-october-2017 last accessed on 17/6/2019

Sylvester, D. 1994. Change and continuity in history teaching. In Teaching history, ed. H. Bourdillon, 9–26. London: Routledge

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About the author
Richard McFahn
Founder of History Resource Cupboard, Richard has worked for 20 years as a history teacher, subject and senior leader, Advanced Skills Teacher, local authority adviser and history ITE tutor.

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