What makes a great primary history curriculum?


12th May 2021

What makes a great primary history curriculum?

History has always been a popular subject in the primary curriculum. Topics on Henry VIII, Vikings, ancient Egyptians and the like have continued to capture children’s interest. But what makes a high-quality, effective history curriculum? How should it be taught so that children learn facts and key skills, develop their chronological and conceptual understanding and continue to enjoy learning about the past?

What makes a great primary history curriculum?

Ofsted’s deep dive into history 

The subject was on Ofsted’s radar last spring when they reviewed the quality of history in outstanding primary schoolsTheir findings are not surprising. I think we’d all agree that children deserve a broad, rich, wellconnected history curriculum and one that provides ‘building blocks of progress’, as Ofsted put it, to help children learn over time.  

But there’s no shying away from it – designing such a curriculum is a fine artIt’s tricky and takes time. At Cornerstones, we’ve been through the process ourselves over the past year and launched a full primary history scheme this spring, which forms part of our sequenced, interconnected and knowledge-rich curriculum 

In this blog, Curriculum Director, Melanie Moore, shares the process behind the creation of the history scheme. 

How we developed the new Cornerstones history curriculum  

Four stages of Cornerstones pedagogy

1. Defining our approach 

We began by following our six steps of curriculum design process, which coincidentally dovetails with Ofsted’s 3 Is curriculum guidance. This process helped us to align the new history curriculum with our established pedagogy and principles. For example, we wanted the scheme to be knowledge rich, but to retain the engagement, innovation and expression that are core to the Cornerstones Curriculum approach. It was also important to us that children could hone their history skills through a combination of directed teaching, independent study, group debate and co-creation.   

Collaboration with history experts

2. Expertise and collaboration  

From the outset, collaboration was key for us. As members of the Historical Association, our Curriculum Manager attended useful courses at the start of the design process. The curriculum team also includes specialist primary curriculum writers, who took great care to research topics for accuracy and draw upon a range of evidence. On certain projects, we consulted with experts in the field. For instance, we worked with black history expert and author, Angelina Osborne, to ensure that our Maafa project was current in its approach and historically accurate. I am extremely grateful for Angelina’s time and advice, and very proud of the resulting project.  

Cornerstones' 10 big ideas

3. Mapping out historical concepts  

If you are familiar with our curriculum, you’ll know that our skills and knowledge framework is built around 10 Big Ideas. These are global themes and concepts that lend coherence to our curriculum, such as humankind, change and significance. Within these big ideas, we identified key historical concepts, including hierarchy and power, civilisation, changes over time, chronology and significance, and have ensured that they are explicitly taught and developed through our history curriculum.  

Other substantive concepts, including empire, invasion, war, democracy, parliament, resistance and enslavement, are also sequenced and revisited over time. For example, we introduce the concept of empire in the Year 2 project, Magnificent Monarchs, when the children learn about Queen Victoria. Empire is then explicitly taught and explored in the Year 4 project, Emperors and Empires, when the children study the rise and fall of the Roman Empire and its impact on Britain. Children go on to learn more about the consequences of imperialism and empire building in the Year 6 projects, Maafa and Britain at War. 

the building blocks of curriculum

4. Ensuring progression and sequencing 

As mentioned earlier, we already have a robust history skills and knowledge framework in place on Curriculum Maestro, which has really helped to direct our planningThis framework provides what Ofsted call ‘the building blocks’ of the history curriculumhelping to guide children’s progression  

We’ve designed the history scheme, just like the other projects in Curriculum 22, to be taught in a particular order so that children build their historical knowledge and skills over timeThe lessons in the topics are also written in sequence, showing the essential declarative and procedural knowledge to be taught in each one. Sequencing is really important, as children should not be undertaking tasks or be introduced to new concepts without having the required prior knowledge. 

 knowledge organisers and quizzes

5. Supporting knowledge acquisition 

To further support primary children’s developing subject knowledge, we have written the lesson resources, knowledge organisersquizzes and question sheets with this in mindThe resources are high quality and contain the essential facts that children need for each history topic. Teachers can also use resources, such as the quizzes and question sheets, to assess the children’s understanding over time.  

It was important for us to bear in mind the cognitive load on children. Knowledgerich content can be overwhelming if delivered en masse, so we made sure that lessons introduced new facts and concepts in manageable ways. New content builds upon prior learning, and the teaching narrative encourages the recapping and retrieval of essential factsAs the lessons are housed on Maestro, everything can be easily adapted to suit the children’s needs.  

primary history projects

6. Exploring historical sources  

It’s important that children learn how to explore and use historical sources. Throughout our history curriculum, both in Key Stages 1 and 2, children study primary and secondary sources of evidence, discover how pieces of evidence create a picture of the past, and, in upper Key Stage 2, identify and explore the viewpoint of the authors of written sources. 

building subject vocabulary

7. Building vocabulary  

We know how important is to teach children correct subject vocabulary. Rather than a oneoff approach, we’ve built consistent use of historical vocabulary across the projects, due to their connected themes. For instance, children become familiar with terms, such as monarchy, government, power, democracy and hierarchy, that help them to articulate their developing historical knowledge. 

This consistency is built into the daily teacher planning and lesson resources on Maestro, so that children encounter the same vocabulary used by teachers in the resource videos and in the written texts.  

Cornerstones history curriculum teaching resources

8. Offering highquality resources  

Resources are an overlooked aspect of curriculum design but are vital for bringing history content to life. For this curriculum, we’ve sourced images of real artefacts wherever possible, involving extensive searches for some. Our design team have taken care to draw accurate illustrations, too, as we didn’t want the oversimplified, comic look that some resource companies offer. This was possible because our team gained permission to rare images and footage from world museums and image archives.  

We also decided to use audio resources to bring the past to life and present children with different perspectives. For example, the team created a historical podcast with professional actors, called Ancient Times, which features in many projects.  

Curriculum projects and resources

9. Providing complementary projects   

In our experience, children benefit from an authentically connected curriculum. Alongside the history resources, we wrote a series of companion art and design or design and technology projects. These enable children to explore historical aspects in different contexts and sometimes in more depth. For instance, in Year 3, when children learn about the Beaker pots, they begin to understand how the technology of the Beaker folk pottery influenced everyday life and vice versa. Likewise, in our Dynamic Dynasties project, children explore the Shang Dynasty’s bronze casts and begin to appreciate the complexities of this technique from a period synchronous with the Chinese Bronze Age. 

What schools say   

A great deal of work, love and expertise has gone into the making of this history curriculum, and how it interconnects with the other subjects in Curriculum 22. It’s taken nearly two years to produce, and I’m immensely proud of what we have achieved. But the real thrill, for me, is to see it being brought to life so beautifully in schools across the country. That’s what a curriculum is all about, after all. 

Here is some of the kind feedback that we’ve received about the curriculum projects. 

Absolutely love the level of detail in the knowledgerich projects.’’  Claire Wilkes, Teacher, Wolverhampton

Cornerstones has helped with the knowledge, sequence and progression across our foundation subjects.’’  Hannah Brookes, Senior Leader, York

The supporting materials are well considered, creating a depth of knowledgerich resources.’’  Anthony David, Headteacher, Barnet 

The knowledgerich projects support our curriculum intent, and we’re incredibly excited to add them to our curriculum.’’  Vicky Musson, Director of Education, Witney

Are you ready to bring a great history curriculum to life?   

The primary history scheme is now available for schools on Curriculum Maestroa platform that’s helping to bring learning to life in over 1600 schools. The history curriculum is just part of a fully sequenced and interconnected curriculum that also covers geography, literacy, art and design, design and technology and science (coming soon) Maths is also available on Maestro through a full series of sequenced White Rose Maths plans and resources for Year 1 to Year 6.

If you’re interested in finding out more about this exciting curriculumplease get in touch 

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