Teaching KS3: Telling the story.

This is a lengthy blog and I’m grateful, in advance, to those who persevere.  In an attempt to break the cycle of throwing huge amounts at KS4 because of deficiencies in our KS3 curriculum I’m spending a lot of time thinking about how best to teach our younger students.  This post goes after my shorter one, on why I don’t think it’s a good idea to begin Year 7 with the “What Is History?” unit.


Apologies for the somewhat bossy tone.  If I sound like I’m being a know-it-all it’s only because I’m trying to be as clear as I can be with myself.  I’m very open to robust critique.  This post is supposed to be the beginning of my thoughts on this, not the end.  I will, I know, have make mistakes and oversights and welcome comments and responses that point out where I’ve gone wrong.

I’ve deliberately left out dealing with how different interpretations of narrative should be taught as I’m working on a distinct post on this.  Suffice to say that I am well aware of the dangers of teaching history as a narrative of accepted truths.


KS3 history courses should teach children chronologically.  This makes it easier for students to see links and recurrent themes and is clearer.  Curriculums that move between different time periods in a non-linear fashion can be confusing and can lead children into seeing Spitfires strafing William’s Knights in ‘The Mysterious Land of Long Ago’, which makes misunderstandings and anachronisms more likely.

So if KS3 is not to begin with “What is History?” then where should it start?  The Palaeolithic?  Celtic?  Roman?  Anglo-Saxon?  Normans?  Cases could be made for or against any of these, but with limited time decisions must be made.  Some schools, especially those with close links to primary feeders, consult with KS2 teachers to develop one integrated curriculum that avoids repetition.  While the ideal, in my experience, such close links are regrettably rare.  Most secondary school students arrive at very different starting points.  Some may have completed a project on Ancient Egypt, while others may have spent time learning about Victorian schools.  Some may have done both and more.  Where there is inconsistency in what children have studied at primary school, KS3 history shouldn’t be too informed by it, especially as even children who attend the same primary are likely to remember different amounts of what they studied.  That said, good departments should create and maintain links with primaries to avoid unnecessary repetition.

Where schools choose to start will vary according to the amount of time available.  Schools in which KS3 is two years will usually want to start later than those in which there are three years to play with.  Schools teaching  a three year KS3 course many want to begin with Roman Britain but those changing to a two year KS3, as a response to the more content heavy new GCSEs, may decide to start with the Norman Invasion with an overview lesson before it to set the topic in its historical context.

Once a department has decided where the course should begin, they should decide where it should end.  That this differs between schools is not bad thing so long as some careful thought has gone into why the course finishes where it does.  At my school, KS3 finishes with a thematic study of terrorism as we feel this to be a defining feature of the modern world.

These two bookends, the beginning and the end, provide a frame within which to plan the rest of the curriculum.  It may be helpful to keep the questions “how did we get from there to here?” in mind while planning, as this can help with threading a coherent narrative through the course.

Next, those responsible for planning KS3 history should decide which events in history are significant enough to warrant a place on the curriculum.  This is a big responsibility, especially given that for some children, KS3 will be the only time in which they meaningfully learn history.  Anything they don’t know at the end, they may never know, and not knowing aspects of our shared heritage excludes people from important aspects of our culture.

Allowing just one person to decide what will be studied is usually ill judged.  Doing so runs the risk of creating an unbalanced curriculum.  For example, should the Head of Department be fascinated by military history, their personal bias could mean that battles and wars are over-emphasised.  It is far healthier is to allow all members of the department a voice.  This is more likely to result in a well balanced course that reflects pluralistic perspectives.  An added benefit is that teachers who’ve had a hand in designing curriculum are more likely to teach it well because of their greater investment in it.  All those responsible for deciding what will be studied should be aware of the dangers of being too partisan, contrary or overly idiosyncratic.  Teachers may be experts in fields not considered mainstream and feel passionately that these areas deserve great attention.  While this passion is of course not in itself a bad thing it is important to recognise that including more left-field topics has an opportunity cost and if this results in children failing to know things considered culturally significant by wider society, they may well be disadvantaged by their teacher’s personal peccadilloes.

Those planning KS3 curriculums should be sensitive to the needs of their student demographic.  If, for example, the school has a large proportion of children from an East Asian background it would make sense to teach the East India Company, the Raj and the Indian Independence Movement.  This approach allows children from diverse backgrounds to see how their own stories fit into England and make it the country it is today.  If a school has a large number of students with a Caribbean heritage and less with an Indian one, it would probably be more sensible to teach some lessons, at the appropriate chronological time, on post World War Two immigration from Empire countries.  There are many similarities in this approach to how local history should be included in a KS3 curriculum which means, ironically, for some schools local studies could also be international ones.

Tellin’ stories

Once a department has decided the events to be studied it should then decide which stories it wishes to tell, and which themes and factors will be emphasised.  Stories are important.  They give meaning to events that appear otherwise unconnected and make history easier to remember.

These stories and themes should be influenced by those in the KS4 course but shouldn’t be dictated by them.  For example, if students are to learn the Anglo-Saxon and Norman Invasion topic at GCSE, it might make sense to tell the story of how political power and control has changed in KS3.  This could be done by looking at the way in which England was controlled changed under its kings and queens and then how monarchical power declined during and after the Stuart period.   However, KS3 curriculums should not slavishly follow the themes in the GCSE course.  Doing this is likely to mean distorting events to artificially meet narratives that don’t really fit and will confuse students.  Such an approach can also lead to important stories specific to events in KS3 not being told.  For example, changes in the level of influence of religion in England might not be particularly relevant to GCSE but is fundamentally important to understanding England between 1066 and the features of the present day Church of England.  Not teaching this story would be a mistake.

The stories and themes that a department decides to tell and emphasise at KS3 should be explicitly communicated and regularly revisited.  It should be clear to children that the events they learn about fit into overall narratives and link together, building a sense of causality and preventing children seeing past events as islands unconnected to anything else.  Deciding on the stories and themes also makes deciding on the amount of time to spend on each topic easier.

Thematic studies

While KS3 history should be taught in a predominantly chronologically it’s a good idea to also teach a thematic study before the GCSE years.  This is desirable, firstly because it gives students a more nuanced understanding of what history as a discipline is.  Historians do not just write on specific, defined eras.  For example, Roy Porter’s tremendously enjoyable work on medicine is thematic and to not give children an opportunity to understand approaches like this one is to limit their understanding of the subject itself.  Not doing so also runs the risk of teaching narratives that imply history is the story of an upward march from the depths of depravity to the sunny uplands of modern civilization.  Departments eyeing good exam grades may also teach a thematic study in KS3 so that students choosing GCSE history have experience of working this way before embarking on the development study component of the new KS4 courses.

How much history is enough?

History teachers are generally more comfortable with the idea of depth studies than they are examining events in less detail over a longer period of time.  This is understandable.  Historians have produced lengthy books on every imaginable topic appearing on the KS3 curriculum and this makes teachers uneasy with what could appear to be skimming over hugely significant events and eras.  GCSE courses which, quite rightly, drive much of the way in which KS3 is planned compound this issue by focussing in more detail on comparatively shorter periods of times.  Of course, some courses contain elements that deal with very long time periods (e. g the wonderful Medicine Through Time course) but these thematic studies are, unfortunately, less commonly taught to KS3.

While there is apparent security in teaching a limited number of topics in depth such approaches come at a price.  If more time is spent on less, less time can be spent on more.  Very significant events can be left out altogether and the events that are included assume significance in the eyes of students that they might not always warrant.  This can create the impression history began with the Norman Invasion, and then moved to the Tudors, who turned into the Victorians who fought the world wars. A reason for this can be seen in the way World War Two is taught in many schools.  Such units are often huge, including some or often all of the following as individual lessons; Appeasement, The Phony War, Dunkirk, Battle of Britain, The Blitz, the Home Front, The Eastern Front, VE Day, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the effect on Empire and the origins of Remembrance Sunday.  This is not to say that World War Two is insignificant, but it is worth having a look at the long list of important topics which usually aren’t taught at KS3 and considering whether such a focus on one, admittedly extremely important, event is justified in a wider context.

I’ve recently come across what seems a very helpful approach to balancing breadth with depth in Jim Carroll’s work.  Teaching a broad ‘framework’ of history and then studying carefully chosen events in detail within this seems to me a fundamentally sensible strategy and will be one I’m going to be thinking hard about as we continue to revise our own KS3 curriculum.

While certain carefully selected topics should be taught in depth, history teachers should not be scared of covering more in less detail.  Breadth should not be a dirty word.  A lot can be learned in two or three years and if we see history as “drinking an ocean but peeing a cupful” as Gustave Flaubert did, it makes sense to me that we show our children how wide the ocean is before descending into its depths


11 thoughts on “Teaching KS3: Telling the story.

  1. Alka says:

    Dear Ben, I think you have a thoughtful and intelligent plan for your History syllabus. The only point I would be wary of – at least in the way it is expressed – is of including the topics of the East India Company/Independence, or West Indian immigration, on the basis of meeting the needs of specific groups. I think this could have unintended consequences of reinforcing difference, when maybe what is being aimed at is something more universal. As it happens, in my (non- History specialist) view, I think that both topics are perfectly valid for all pupils as long as they are strongly framed as history and not as part of a more politicised discourse. ( Personally I think the different role and status of the East India company, between the 18th and 19th centuries, is fascinating; as is the fact that it was becoming such a source of concern for the Victorian governments, as indicated in the series, Taboo, which also has the plus of Tom Hardy!). Thank you for posting.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Alka says:

        Hi Ben, From my own teaching experience (English teacher) and study, I’d say, in principle, yes. I think the first responsibility of the curriculum is that it comprises of subject knowledge derived from disciplinary knowledge (produced mainly, but not exclusively, in academia). While I think there is scope for experiment in line with contextual specifics at the level of practice, I think the drive to match curriculum knowledge to perceived needs of particular groups, which really got underway with the Swann Report in mid 1980s, might be well-intentioned, but wrong-headed educationally. It assumes 1) that certain groups have separate needs or interests regarding knowledge, and 2) it introduces an element of relativism in relation to school knowledge which is unhelpful if you believe (as I do) that the best knowledge for a curriculum is that which is capable of extending pupils’ imaginative, analytical reasoning, and synthesising interpretative faculties, In other words, the aim might be expressed as creating new, intellectual needs rather than meeting imputed existing needs of affirmation/engagement/motivation/self-esteem etc.

        As I said, your suggested topics could be taught as legitimately historical topics; but unfortunately in today’s context, such topics are often placed in the curriculum as they are found in wider popular discourse, where they are often ideological opinions rather than historical knowledge, and aim to affirm particular values covertly, rather than open-minded questioning. One concrete example from an exemplar syllabus in History at the time of Citizenship Education being introduced, is where the authors (from the exam board) suggested that a unit on the French Revolution should include e workers’ rights (the CGT didn’t exist until much later in the 19th century).

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Fascinating and very helpful. I’ll consider this carefully and do some more reading. My concern would be that unless some adaptation is made, some students might not be able to see their place in the big picture.
    Do you also feel the same way regarding local history in a curriculum? For example, would you not emphasise Manchester’s part in industrial revoltion if teaching there?


  3. Hi Ben,

    This is really interesting and useful guidance for any head of department or similar and makes a lot of sense. I think your point about breadth is really crucial and is something we often miss: the need for a strong overall framework within which to fit depth studies.

    Two things I’d question:
    1) Given this need for a framework of breadth, my own belief is that the curriculum cannot be purely chronological if it is to serve students’ needs for a chronological framework. Students need to revisit ideas and eras if they are to develop that framework – I’ve argued this here: https://improvingteaching.co.uk/2013/10/20/why-didnt-the-spanish-armada-check-that-thing-that-tells-you-the-weather-and-other-thoughts-on-teaching-chronology/

    2) I struggle to accept your praise for GCSE Medicine Through Time, (although I agree with you about Roy Porter)!

    Really interesting to see this blogged so thoroughly, thanks for sharing.


  4. I’m with Alka on the tailoring history to the demographics argument. By this logic you wouldn’t teach the East India Company to white pupils. No matter how well meaning you are intending to be it doesn’t change the fact that if you teaching children by race/ethnicity then you are teaching race/ethnicity with the history being incidental.

    Also ask yourself – when it comes to “relevance” what evidence is there for this? How many children from ethnic minority backgrounds who have gone onto become historians only did so because a topic related to their ethnicity was taught?

    I was spellbound by a visit to the archaeological site being excavated in the city centre (where St George’s Retail Park is now). What sparked me was the fact that the Romans had really lived in my home town!

    If you want historians then teach the history topics you think they need to know given the time constraints and realities of teaching KS3 history that will give them the best shot at getting them there.

    Their particular interests will vary and you can’t account for them all or for the myriad reasons they might be interested.


    • Thanks as always for the thoughtful comment. I do see the point. Does that also mean that if you were teaching the industrial revolution in Bradford, you wouldn’t emphasise the role of the woolen industry more than if you worked elsewhere? A genuine question as writing about how to include local history.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I do think the when and where of history is linked. I was watching a video where a teacher adds key events and people to a class timeline as well as map over the course of a year to add depth to their understanding. How much history makes sense without the geographical link too?

        Depending on where one lives the geographic units would be different (e.g state level in the US) but these geographical units are usually linked to historical events and processes so it makes sense to use them to help categorise history.

        Covering local history will be specific to where one lives. If one lives in Brixton then part of the local history would include the 1980s race riots.

        Herein lies the difference – I would teach it because it’s significant, both locally and nationally, but I would teach that whether the school were full of white children or black, male or female, rich or poor, whether they have long ancestral links to the area or moved in last week. It was a significant event in the locality they live in and need to understand.

        All children deserve to learn about the same history in so far as possible – where locality is linked it should be to units that also have importance at other levels (regionally, nationally, internationally – this is not usually that hard a link to make to be fair!). So why not based on their personal characteristics?

        I go back to the point – history or identity – what are you teaching? The fact that the former can and does form part of the latter is still incidental rather than the reason to teach history. I have learnt about the history of many places and people without it forming part of my identity. Should I have left those to one side?

        In my experience, those who justify teaching certain units because of the need to form or celebrate identity inevitably skew the facts taught. This is because they don’t want to look at the variety of interpretations. The possibility it would disrupt the narrative they are building or chances of increasing the child’s self-esteem get in the way.

        I’m not from that school (ha!!) – I don’t care if the history is painful or doesn’t support the worldview a person wants to build up. When I was taught about colonialism in India in Year 6 – my teacher taught us different interpretations of the Raj. I am sure we all had a few awkward feelings – the idea that the Raj could be positive/negative, role of different grps in collaborating/subjugating, etc. I actually can’t imagine many history teachers having the guts to do this in such a blunt way now!! I could be wrong for KS3.

        I’ve heard plenty of arguments about how “everyone” does it (teaches history in a one-sided way on purpose if not consciously then because of false consciousness or deep down prejudice that can be attributed without evidence). I don’t agree – we know when history has been taught deliberately with a view to excluding facts and interpretations – it doesn’t happen by accident. As a community of teachers we certainly need to continue to debate the merits, incorporate new facts, evidence and interpretations but to accept this line of argument is to say we are not capable of acting with integrity and that I don’t agree with.

        This has been a long reply – I hope it sheds some clarity on what I am thinking.


      • Thanks again, Tarjinder. I’m not going to reply properly as we’re beginning to shade into interpretations, which my next blog is about. Could you just clarify for me why you think teaching Brixton riots would be appropriate but not the reasons for significant immigration into a school’s locality? Perhaps I’m not being clear as I want to be, in that I don’t advocate teaching anything simply because of a school’s demographic, but feel perhaps it is acceptable to teach local/international history that does tie into the bigger picture.
        Or by doing this do we inevitably contort narrative to fit?


      • I think with any unit of history you teach you have to be able to justify why it is significant.

        In my last school KS1 taught about Daniel Lambert as part of local history. I knocked him off because what was the historical significance of his being a very large man?

        I changed it to Alice Hawkins because she was significant locally and that tied in with the national movement for women’s suffrage. I could justify her significance with regardless of the school’s demographic.

        Brixton riots – are they significant? Why? If you are only teaching about them because you have a class of black pupils then would you stop teaching about it if the class/school were no longer predominantly black? What if the demographic of the area changes? If it became an area where there were large numbers of say, Polish. Do you stop teaching about the riots? Is it no longer significant? Why?

        Short term and long term we may select other more relevant people and events (inevitable as we can’t teach it all and history just won’t stop!! It’s an ever enlarging subject)

        The distortion comes not from teaching any particular content but from assuming (and it is an assumption that has no basis from any evidence) as opposed to significance historically (which is based on our understanding of the importance of people and events).

        I know I’ve said it before but what are you teaching? History or identity? The criteria for inclusion may overlap by coincidence but not because they are in fact the same.

        I don’t think we do contort narrative but we do have to make choices and healthy debate over what and why by a wide range of different historians is needed to work this out. Out of the subjectivity we can try to piece together something more objective to guide our choices.


  5. Alka says:

    Hi Bennewmark , agree with Tarjinder’s points re. identity/unconscious bias. On the relationship between local history and broader syllabus, I would have thought that maintaining the distinction between curriculum and pedagogy might be helpful. A topic could be taught through teaching selected content in relation to themes, historical concepts, dates etc. illustrated with lots of examples. Or the same broader themes, concepts could also be taught through a single, carefully chosen, example, which might also be of particular local interest. In other words, using what is local as a pedagogic resource for teaching the bigger picture syllabus, rather than teaching local history per se, which to my thinking, is too specialised a topic for GCSE level. So if, for example, (remember I’m not a History teacher!), I were teaching a topic from the Elizabethan era, in a Norwich school, I might draw on local examples of how textile manufacture, which had been strong in the region at the time, was being overtaken by new methods in Holland, and that subsequently, local Norwich businessmen applied to Queen E. for permission to allow a number of Dutch weavers to come and live in Norwich to teach skills to locals. Thus linking local examples to themes of growing trade/shipbuilding/ and developing society/culture which made better materials/dyes etc. more desirable and possible for sections of society.


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