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History at primary school

Learning about the past

Learning about history topics in primary school can be great fun. Children are inspired to research events, they love thinking about people of the past, and especially enjoy all the bits that are gory, nasty or just plain mad (that’s why Horrible Histories is so popular)! It is also fantastic for using so many English, ICT, Art and collaborative skills that we just cannot ignore the wonderful advantages of learning about the past.

The history curriculum in primary schools in England

History in the National Curriculum can be summed up in just a few statements: ordering events in time; finding differences and similarities; writing and talking about the past; using different sources for information; asking and answering questions. All classes in each year group will do all of these at some point and aim to link ‘then’ with ‘now’.

Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS)

The early learning goals at EYFS are very much focused on the memories of the child. It may be that they are asked to remember a special event or routine or custom for their family. They may talk about differences between different family members or different generations.

Key Stage 1 (Years 1 and 2)

At Key Stage 1, children may be asked to learn about specific people or events that are both within and beyond living history. Teachers are more free to choose who or what they would like to teach about so there is a lot more variation between individual schools. Popular choices often include people like Neil Armstrong or Tim Peake, Grace Darling, or Florence Nightingale. Events such as the Great Fire of London, the first aeroplane flight, or themes such as castles or toys lend themselves very well to learning about the past. There will often be a very strong link to a local event or person.

Key Stage 2 (Years 3 to 6)

At Key Stage 2, the curriculum is much more prescriptive. Your child will learn all about the following periods of British history over the 4 years in Key Stage 2.

  • Stone Age
  • Ancient Romans
  • Anglo Saxons and Scots
  • The Vikings
  • A local history unit
  • A period of history later than 1066 (e.g. World War 2, Victorians, Tudors, the 1960s).

Children will also be introduced to some world civilisations in history. There is some variation allowed for schools here as they can choose one of each section. It may depend on the period of history most relevant to the children themselves.

  • Ancient Greeks
  • Ancient Egyptians or Ancient Shang dynasty of China or the Indus Valley
  • The Mayans or Islamic Civilisation or Benin (AD 900-1300) to contrast with British history

The history curriculum in primary schools in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland

  • For the Curriculum for Excellence experiences and outcomes for social studies in Scotland visit Education Scotland
  • Details about history in the national curriculum for Wales can be found on the Learning Wales website.
  • In Northern Ireland, history is included within the World Around Us area of learning. Visit CCEA for more details.

How can I support my child with history?

Often there will be a history day at school. Whilst you may groan when you get the letter, children will learn so much more by getting more from being involved with the past, than just from writing about the past. These days also provide something to remember and a link with the history being learnt. Teachers also love parents and grandparents who are prepared to come in and help on history days, or who can come and talk to a class if they have a specific knowledge about a period of history — for example, life before the internet (yes, this does now count as history!), the moon landings, or rationing.

Another way to help is to visit museums, historic houses and talk about the topics that they are doing. The children who love history are often the ones who have seen a love of the past in their parents. There are many free museums, especially in the bigger cities. Use them as a resource and spend quality time sharing the past together. Otherwise, watch age-appropriate history programmes on TV.

There are some fantastic children’s books based in the past. Whilst these are often fiction, there will be facts and figures in the books that children will remember. Some good examples include: anything by Caroline Lawrence (the Roman Mysteries), Goodnight Mr Tom (WW2 and evacuation), Stig of the Dump (Clive King) and picture books or non-fiction books that you can share at bedtime.

Finally, if all else fails, embrace the Horrible Histories approach and go for the gross! Knowing about toilet etiquette in Roman times, that the Ancient Greek men did sports naked, or that the Ancient Egyptians used to hook the brains of dead people out through their nose before mummification will be enough to liven up any conversation about history!

Further support and useful weblinks

  • The BBC website (though no longer being updated) has loads of links to videos, games and information a range of historical periods
  • Try Teaching History with 100 Objects for some great ideas for using artefacts to teach history




Subject guides