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

Here is my summary of Ofsted's research review into effective history curriculums. 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.


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 t