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A Summary of Ofsted's History Report for Primary Teachers and Leaders

Here is my summary of Ofsted's research review into effective history curriculua. I have written it with a primary audience in mind although I hope it is useful to anyone who reads it. If I have misinterpreted any of the research, I would be gladly corrected, but I hope I have represented all of the findings in the spirit with which they were written. I've spent about 6 or 7 hours producing the information on here as (it's been a really rainy day in the holidays) I think it is a really useful document which provides an insight into effective history and should allow schools to evaluate their provision with some direction. Hopefully, the work I've done will save someone some time or will help them in any other way.

To view the original report from Ofsted's website, click here.

If you would like to support the work I do at the same time as downloading a high-quality PDF version of the visual summary, please visit my Gumroad page by clicking here. (I’ve included an additional PDF of the written notes and editable Microsoft Word version as a thank you for your support 🙏).

If not, you can find the usual download link at the bottom of the page.😀

Designing the Curriculum

  • 🏫Schools need to make decisions on three levels: topics, content and the balance between detail and breadth.

  • 📚Pupils need to develop both substantive and disciplinary knowledge as they progress through the curriculum. Secure substantive knowledge supports the learning of disciplinary knowledge and the acquisition of further knowledge. However, the two are mutually beneficial, and knowledge of the past should be shaped by how this knowledge is constructed.

  • 🧠👌🏻Knowledge in history can be understood as ‘residue knowledge’ - that which is important to enable further learning - and ‘fingertip’ knowledge which is important to understand the intended curriculum during the sequence of learning, especially by reducing cognitive load, but might be less useful to retain afterwards. This requires decisions to be made about which knowledge pupils are expected to retain as they progress through the curriculum.

Generative Knowledge

  • 🌱This is the type of knowledge that will be helpful for pupils to know in order to learn more in the future. It is unlikely that this is straightforward but would include knowledge that enables pupils to grasp new learning more readily at a later stage. For example, understanding that the Romans withdrew from England in the 400s would support understanding of why the Anglo-Saxons were able to settle in England without conflict with the Romans. Alternatively, the concept of a monarch could be introduced in stories about Kings and Queens in EYFS before learning about different types of monarchies that they study such as emperors, caliphs and pharaohs.

  • ⚛️ This core knowledge becomes ‘core’ when considered as part of its usefulness for future learning; there is nothing inherent within it that makes it core.

Types of Generative Knowledge

Substantive Knowledge

  • 👑 Substantive knowledge relates to abstract concepts which occur frequently throughout studying history, such as ‘monarchy’ and ‘taxation’. Pupils develop their understanding through planned, repeated encounters with these concepts through a range of contexts.

  • Substantive concepts have specific meanings in different contexts, rather than existing as definitions. Revolution is one example which represents an idea that has a different meaning depending to which period of time it refers: the French Revolution and Industrial Revolution, for example. Simply knowing the definition of ‘revolution’ does not enable pupils to fully understand the nature and essence of these two periods.

  • 🌿 Although it is important to intentionally plan for pupils to learn about these concepts, this in itself is unlikely to be sufficient, and pupils will need exposing to a range of concepts without explicit teaching.

  • 💰 The Matthew Effect occurs in history: the more children know, the more able it is for new knowledge to stick. This supports both intentional and incidental learning which teachers can encourage by selecting appropriately challenging vocabulary and texts.

  • 🔄 Meaningful examples with repeated encounters are the most effective ways of developing this substantive conceptual knowledge and understanding.

Chronological Knowledge

  • 📆 This is highly generative knowledge which allows pupils to organise their learning into coherent narratives.

  • 📈 Pupils should develop a mental timeline which provides an overview of what they are learning and supports its relation to what has been previously learned.

  • ⏳ Pupils should remember the broad features and characteristics of historical periods, and this can enable deeper learning in other contexts.

  • 🔗 Over time, pupils should develop a complex schema of how historical periods connect with each other, with a deeper understanding of the individual events and phenomena within each period.

  • ➕ How periods connect is important to prevent pupils from developing a disconnected or episodic understanding of the past.

  • 🤿 It is possible for pupils to gain a sense of the overview through investigating the depth. For example, studying life in the workhouse might enable pupils to deduce and understand the beliefs and values of society during the Victorian age.

  • ⛪️ It is important for pupils to understand the chronological order of broad periods of time and build their knowledge of developments, links and themes across time, such as the spread of Christianity, or impact of technology.

Teaching Substantive Knowledge

  • 📝 Specific examples can make the unfamiliar elements of new material more meaningful and make it more accessible for pupils to make sense of more abstract ideas.

  • 🔁 Repeated encounters enable pupils to develop their schema and increase their security with knowledge. Intentional curriculum design can prioritise content to support pupils’ progress.

  • 📈 The more content pupils learn, the more teachers are able to increase the range, depth and complexity of their learning as they progress through the curriculum. This expanding knowledge is not only progress in itself, but also a driver of progress.

  • 😕 It is not always possible to know what previous knowledge pupils are drawing on when making sense of new ideas, and a curriculum cannot always guarantee the precise knowledge the pupils will acquire. However, curriculum design and teaching can significantly influence what pupils know.

  • 🛑 It is important not to reduce a curriculum to ‘core’ knowledge only’; the importance of background knowledge is stark in history.

  • 🌆Hinterland knowledge provides meaningful examples and secure contexts for learning and develops familiarity with new learning.

Disciplinary Knowledge

  • 🏗 Pupils learn about how historians study the past and construct accounts through specific examples. This requires substantive knowledge about relevant historical contexts.

  • 🔎 Historical enquiry is not a pedagogical approach: it refers to the means by which historians enquire about the past and use their findings to construct meaning. Enquiry is a sophisticated device for shaping the curriculum content: it enables both substantive and disciplinary thinking to be developed simultaneously.

  • 🕵🏾‍♀️ Teaching how historians learn about the past is very different from everyday thinking and needs explicit teaching, alongside a secure understanding of the substantive knowledge that is considered alongside it.

  • ☯ Substantive and disciplinary knowledge are meaningless without the other.

  • 📝 Disciplinary knowledge can be developed by following these principles:

    • Avoiding generic approaches for ‘skills’ such as source analysis

    • Using the work of academic historians to inform teaching and learning

    • Teaching the language of analysis explicitly

Disciplinary Concepts: Cause

  • 🔗 This requires teaching pupils to use detailed and developed substantive knowledge to examine how and why events or states of affairs occurred or emerged.

  • 🔎 Pupils should select and combine information about potential causes and shape them into an explanation. Pupils need repeated encounters of how historians construct such arguments.

  • 🚂 Models and diagrams can help pupils develop understanding of causal arguments.

  • 🤔 Some likely misconceptions that pupils can develop are that certain events were inevitable, and a failure to appreciate relationships within the context of the study.

Disciplinary Concepts: Consequence

  • 😠This is challenging for pupils and is unlikely to be worthwhile unless they are working with a broad and secure knowledge of the pertinent developments.

  • ☝️ It is better for pupils to consider either cause or consequence in isolation rather than at the same time.

Disciplinary Concepts: Change and Continuity

  • 🌿 This relates to the pace, nature and extent or characterisation of change.

  • ⁉️ Questions about change are often ones where pupils can think and argue about continuity at the same time: what changed, and what stayed the same or similar?

  • 4️⃣ There are four types of change to consider and teaching is likely to be most effective if it concentrates on one aspect only:

    • Extent or degree

    • Pace or rate

    • Nature or type

    • Process

  • 💬 Strategies which support teaching about change and continuity include: teaching historical language; using metaphor; using visual representations of change or models to represent abstract ideas.

  • 📈 A common misconception that pupils hold, which can be addressed through explicit teaching, is that change is a discrete series rather than a continuous process. Pupils require security in substantive knowledge in order to fully appreciate this.

Disciplinary Concepts: Similarity and Difference

  • 👨🏻‍🏫 This refers to the extent and type of difference between people, groups, experiences or places in the same historical period. It often involves detecting and analysing generalisations.

  • ✋🏽Generalisations can be powerful tools for historians to use to describe historical entities but pupils should be taught about their limitations.

  • 🗺 Pupils’ knowledge can be developed by teaching about similarities and differences on different scales. This can be effected by using individual stories to develop a complex understanding. Again, this requires security in substantive knowledge.

Disciplinary Concepts: Historical Significance

  • ☝️ This refers to how and why historians ascribe significance to events, trends and individuals.

  • 👑 A common misconception is that pupils think some events are inherently significant rather than understanding that this status has been ascribed to them.

  • 🤫 It is also important to consider historical silence: why things haven’t been considered significant.

  • ⛓ Teachers are able to focus on factors which can lead to historical significance, and again, pupils need a secure substantive knowledge in order to understand this concept.

Disciplinary Concepts: Sources and Evidence

  • 🔎 Pupils need to learn how historians use sources as evidence to construct, challenge or test claims about the past.

  • 🗞 An effective curriculum is designed to provide clarity about sources as artefacts of evidence and how these relate to the claims that are being made.

  • 😠 A common misconception developed by pupils is that bias in a source is a bad thing; teachers should focus on what bias in a source means for its analysis. In additional, some pupils make claims greater than the scope of the evidence which individual sources can provide.

  • 💬 It is important to teach pupils that sources can establish evidence for specific historical questions and that they should be interrogated with particular questions in mind.

  • 📚 Pupils should study anthologies of sources so they can understand how historians use such collections to learn about the past. These should include longer extracts and whole texts, in addition to non-textual sources such as photographs, songs, folk-song and oral traditions.

  • 🧠 It is important for pupils to study sources with a rich and detailed knowledge of the context in which they were produced. They need this detailed factual knowledge in order to draw inferences, as well as understand how historians are able to draw inferences from sources.

Disciplinary Concepts: Historical Interpretations

  • 🤯 This relates to the how and why of why different historical accounts of the past are constructed. A common question thread would be, “Why do historians disagree about the causes of…?”

  • 🏗 Pupils encounter problems when they treat interpretations as fixed or given: they need to be taught that different interpretations exist and can change in accordance with evidence and different means of analysis.

  • 👨🏼‍⚖️ Such enquiries should not invite pupils to make a judgement for themselves; rather, they should study different and specific interpretations and understand how and why they have been constructed.

  • 🧠 In order for pupils to engage critically, they require secure substantive knowledge of the context in which the events described occurred, and the context when the interpretation was produced.

Breadth and Depth in the Curriculum

  • ⏳ Like in geography, there is a tension between providing sufficient breadth and depth in the curriculum. Although some periods of time are prescribed by the National Curriculum, curriculum designers have the freedom to choose which content they intend to teach. There are a few principles which can help in making such choices and decisions.

  • 🕌 Pupils need to develop a secure knowledge of a range of historical periods and can benefit from studying the past on a range of different timescales. Any gaps in a pupil’s mental timeline might be a barrier to future learning.

  • 🤴🏻Conceptual development can benefit from studying recurring concepts in different periods of time. In primary, this might include trade, government or empire: the order in which they are introduced and developed can affect how they are constructed and how pupils will be able to use their understanding to make contrasts between different time periods.

  • 🧠 Pupils need to gain a rich, thorough knowledge of what they study so they can grasp the complexities of the concepts about which they are learning.

  • 🏟 Each period of time has peculiarities which can be studied in their own right.

  • 🌍 When designing the curriculum, teachers and leaders should consider the extent to which they take pupils outside of their everyday experiences but at the same time reflect their identities so that that pupils can see themselves in the curriculum.

  • 🌏 Having a geographically diverse curriculum enables pupils to develop their concept of interconnectedness as well as understanding different scales. The notion of “meanwhile, elsewhere…” is useful for this so that pupils understand how the focus of their study can be understood in a wider context.

  • ⚔️ The National Curriculum requires pupils to learn about the political, economic and social history. The political history of a country, for example its rulers or governments, can be a useful organising framework for pupils and develop concepts such as monarchy, empire and invasion. The social and cultural history can develop understanding of concepts such as ‘poverty’, ‘households’ and ‘leisure’.

  • 🕌 Studying diverse civilisations in KS2 allows teachers to lay the foundations for deeper comparisons at KS3 and beyond.

  • 📚 It is important to represent diversity in the curriculum, which can come through the richness of individual stories.

EYFS and KS1

  • 🏗 In the early stages of education, teachers should focus on developing knowledge of a few concepts that are important to create familiarity for what pupils will learn afterwards.

  • ⏳ Meaningful examples for younger children might include family histories and local history - stories with which the children can more easily connect.

  • 📚 Stories are powerful vehicles which enable pupils to access unfamiliar content. Fictional stories can also be useful to illustrate concepts.

  • ⏳ It is important to remember that the concept of the ‘past’ is incredibly abstract for children, and as such it brings challenges for teaching and learning.

  • 💬 Pupils benefit from vocabulary development including learning and understanding chronological markers such as ‘ancient’ and ‘in the past’.

KS2 and beyond

  • 🌏 In Key Stage 2, the curriculum should become much broader and pupils will begin to learn about disciplinary concepts.

  • ⛓ When designing the curriculum, it is important to consider: the need for secure substantive knowledge; the likelihood of misconceptions; the importance of pupils developing disciplinary knowledge through studying meaningful examples.

  • 🏗 The aim of history in KS2 is for pupils to progress towards constructing their own historical arguments and accounts; younger pupils benefit from specific examples of how historians work.

Effective Teaching

  • 🧠 The goal of teaching should be for the retention of knowledge, which is more likely to occur when children’s minds have been engaged analytically.

  • 👨🏻‍🏫 It is likely that teaching disciplinary knowledge requires distinctive teaching approaches.

  • 💬 When teaching for memorisation, teachers should draw attention to important terms and expressions.

  • 📝 Pupils need repetition and practice to develop their substantive and disciplinary knowledge.

  • 🤯 A barrier to effective teaching is that it is difficult for teachers to consider all potential barriers to comprehension.

  • 📚 Stories are an effective way of teaching children due to the power of narrative and the way in which they develop both core and hinterland knowledge.

  • 🧩 Children with SEND are entitled to learn the same curriculum as the others in their school, though it may be necessary to adapt how they are taught. They should never receive a reduced curriculum, except in the most exceptional of circumstances for a handful of pupils. Reducing content coverage is counter-productive as it often makes further learning more difficult to achieve.


  • 🎣 Formative assessment should be used to assess the range and security of knowledge, conceptual and chronology.

  • 🤔 Teachers need to make decisions about what content to prioritise when assessing formatively, and it is likely that this should include important, highly generative knowledge.

  • 🕵🏾‍♀️ Whatever is assessed must allow teachers to draw valid inferences about pupils’ current levels of understanding.

  • 📝 When assessing disciplinary knowledge, a similar approach should be taken. It is important to provide specific feedback based on the specific content of what is being assessed.

  • ✅ It is unlikely that skills ladders or generic approaches to assessment could capture the interplay between different layers of knowledge that pupils will be drawing upon.


  • ⏰ Leaders should ensure sufficient curriculum time for history, made in the context of the required breadth of the curriculum.

  • 🖌 Where schools use generic models of progression, they should avoid uncritical application of such models to history, which might fail to take into account the precise requirements of effective curriculum design.

  • 🧠What makes a significant different to the quality of the curriculum is the content knowledge of teachers as well as their pedagogical content knowledge - how much they know about how to teach the content of the curriculum.

  • 🏅CPD is a driver of curriculum effectiveness.

A Summary of ofsted's history research report
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