Social Studies and the Primary Curriculum in England

Stuart J. Foster and Penelope Harnett

Although historically the term “social studies” was used occasionally in English schools to encompass children’s learning in history, geography, and religious education, following the introduction of the National Curriculum in England by then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government in 1988, the term completely disappeared from curriculum documents.1 For more than a decade now the primary curriculum in English schools has been almost exclusively based on the subject disciplines that include history, geography, and religious education.2 Significantly, the establishment of a centrally-mandated and discipline-based national curriculum in many respects ran counter to English primary schools’ rich tradition of interdisciplinary, project, and thematic work. Furthermore, it represented a marked change in the curriculum organization of schools and the professional identities of teachers.

The 1988 Educational Reform Act and the National Curriculum

The Educational Reform Act that established the National Curriculum required all government maintained schools to provide a balanced and broadly based curriculum that:

In an unprecedented change, the Education Reform Act required all state schools to follow the mandates of the National Curriculum. Prior to the introduction of the national curriculum, no statutory requirement to teach specific subjects existed. Indeed, the only statutory requirement for the curriculum was the 1944 Education Act’s provision for religious education and a daily act of worship.

The national curriculum adopted a traditional subject-based approach to curriculum organization. Ten subjects are now included within the primary curriculum, including the three “core” subjects: mathematics, English, and science, and six “foundation” subjects: history, geography, physical education, music, design technology, and art. In addition, the subject of information and communication technology is now required.3 For each curriculum subject, programs of study (POS) were devised. They incorporated knowledge and understanding goals and an outline of progression within each subject for children aged from 5 to 16 years.

The programs of study for history and geography were determined by subject working groups directed by the Secretary of State for Education. The proposals from the working groups were put forward for national consultation by education professionals and interested members of the public. National working groups, which were organized by subject area, took into account external concerns as they framed the programs of study for different subject areas.

While history and geography content were determined at the national level, the content of the curriculum for religious education was decided locally. Local Education Authorities established Standing Advisory Councils for Religious Education (SACREs) to discuss religious education appropriate for the local community. For example, the SACRE for the County of Avon, centered in Bristol, took into account the needs and interests of different ethnic communities living in the inner city, alongside those of rural communities on the outskirts of the city. Members were selected from Christian, Jewish, Sikh, Hindu, and Muslim faith traditions. The curriculum devised celebrated the differences in various faiths as well as looking for commonalities between traditions.


Requirements for National Curriculum History and Geography

From the outset, nine subject working groups (all operating independently) produced their ideal blueprints for each subject mandated by the government. As a result, the national curriculum was very overloaded with far too much prescriptive content. In response to widespread criticism from educators, the curriculum was revised and reduced in 1995, and again in 2000. Thus, primary teachers have dealt with constant change for more than a decade.

Programs of study for history and geography included content knowledge to be learned. Significantly, they also incorporated learning about the methods of the historian and the geographer. Thus, history included specific periods to be studied through a range of resources that included artifacts, pictures, documents, maps, sites, and buildings. Key historical concepts such as recognizing change and continuity, working with evidence, establishing cause and effect, and developing chronological awareness also were included. Similarly, geography encompassed a range geographical knowledge about different localities and human and physical environments. Key geographical skills were identified with emphasis placed on field work and developing geographical inquiries.

Originally, the government also intended for children to take tests in all the national curriculum subjects at the ages of 7, 11, and 13. To this end, History Standard Assessment Tasks (SATs) were devised for 7 year olds in 1993. However, these tasks proved immensely complicated, were severely criticized by teachers, and eventually were abandoned. Currently, no formal national testing takes place in any of the foundation subjects (including history and geography) before aged 16.4 However, at the ages of 7, 11, and 13, children in England and Wales do take national tests in the core subjects of mathematics, English, and science.


A Focus on History

Selected attention to history exemplifies the broad structure of all national curriculum subjects. Two components are consistent. First, the curriculum for children aged 5-16 years is divided into “Key Stages” one through four: for children aged 5-7 years; 7-11 years; 11-14 years, and 14-16 years, respectively. Second, each Key Stage is sub-divided into units of study. Accordingly for Key Stage 1 history, National Curriculum 2000 states that the following units of study be taught in all schools throughout the country:

Children’s own personal histories are significant for this age group. Collections of baby clothes for children to handle, measure, and discuss are frequent displays in early years’ classrooms, along with other items such as photographs, birth certificates, and birth greeting cards. Children are encouraged to draw timelines recording changes in their growth and to develop their awareness of the passage of time.

Moving outwards from children’s immediate environment to times further in the past, children study different ways of life, which in practice very often center on domestic life. For example, a book by one of us (P.H.), A Day in the Life of a Victorian Child, encourages children to contrast their own lives with those of children in Victorian times.5 Children are also introduced to different artifacts and are asked to place them within the context of the time.


At Key Stage 2 ( 7-11 years) history units include:

Primary school teachers have been encouraged both by the fact that curriculum coverage in history has remained remarkably stable during the past decade and that opportunities for meaningful and exciting local history investigations are a key component in children’s historical education.

Nevertheless, criticisms of the national history curriculum have surfaced. In particular, teachers have complained about the difficulty of covering one thousand years of history comprising the Roman, Anglo-Saxon, and Viking settlements in Britain within one unit of study. Other educators additionally have complained that too much attention is given to English history at the expense of more global and multicultural understandings. Echoing debates over the National History Standards in the United States, controversy over what history and whose history should be mandated have proved furious since the introduction of the national curriculum.6


Developing Historical Skills,
Understandings, and Concepts

On a more positive note, national curriculum history stresses the importance of interpretation, children’s involvement in constructing and reconstructing the past, and the knowledge that historians’ stories of the past can differ and change. On a practical level, these concepts have been approached in different ways. For example, in many English primary schools, young children are asked to listen to and then recount a story that they have heard. They are then asked to compare the different versions that they have subsequently constructed. Furthermore, in an attempt to appreciate the concepts of historical significance and interpretation, pupils are often required to select the most important parts of a story and evaluate different descriptions of the same event. Alternatively, children might be asked to investigate the contents of a family’s dustbin, or a child’s school bag, and be required to piece together different clues to create a picture of the owner. As children compare their different conclusions, they begin to develop an understanding of the tentative nature of historical evidence.

The national history curriculum also expects children to work with a range of sources. These include artifacts, pictures, photographs, documents, maps, buildings, sites, music, and oral testimony. The 1990s have seen the increasing availability of such resources for schools, and teachers have organized collections for their classrooms. The emphasis on artifacts and handling materials has also led to an increase in the number of historical replicas. Similarly, an excellent range of historical photographs and pictures useful for teaching history now exists.


Teaching and Curriculum:
Approaches and Challenges

Unquestionably, fitting in history and geography with the other required national curriculum subjects has proved challenging for primary schools. The original national curriculum allocated one tenth of curriculum time for history and a similar tenth for geography. However, teachers legitimately argued that this was insufficient time to teach all the content prescribed in the programs of study for the subjects. The revised national curriculum documents have considerably reduced the content of the programs of study, which permits greater flexibility and increased opportunities for teachers to cover some areas in more depth.

Allocating sufficient time to teach history and geography satisfactorily has once again emerged as a burning issue in primary schools. This is chiefly because, since winning the election in 1997, the Labour government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Tony Blair, has identified raising standards in children’s literacy and numeracy as a key educational priority in primary schools. This policy has had several effects on the teaching of history and geography.

First, primary schools have become obsessed with meeting government targets for literacy and numeracy. Resources, including time as well as teaching aids and personnel, typically are devoted to ensuring that children aged 7 and 11 will achieve appropriate levels of learning, as indicated by test scores. Second, the Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED) monitors school and individual teachers’ performances (currently, every four years). Understandably, given these increased levels of accountability, schools have shifted emphasis away from such subjects as history and geography and toward the basic skills of literacy and numeracy.

Thus, since September 1998, the “literacy hour” and since September 1999, the “numeracy hour” have dominated the timetable of many primary schools. Effectively, however, these “hours” tend to take over the whole morning timetable, leaving the afternoons for teaching science, history, geography, art, music, physical education, design and technology, and religious education. Science generally is accorded more time because, as a core subject, children’s attainment in science is tested when pupils are 7 and 11 years of age.

Although focused attention to literacy and numeracy has in some respects diverted attention away from such foundation subjects as history and geography, some residual benefits have arisen. Most notably, a great deal of work in the literacy hour is very relevant to the social studies. For example, children become familiar with a variety of writing genres. They also consider purposes for writing and audience as they analyze texts during literacy hour. Biography, myths and legends, diaries, instructions, factual books, and guides are literary sources that are central to history and geography. Furthermore, reading materials in the literacy hour often contain important historical and geographical knowledge. For example, A Day in the Life of a Victorian Child has been enlarged into a big book for the literacy hour. It is often used to teach children about capital letters, past tenses, story sequences, and other literary terms through its historical content.

To offset the perennial concern that children copy out whole paragraphs from reference books, CD-ROMs, and websites without understanding them, the English national curriculum expects children to experience, understand, and utilize a range of forms of writing including, narratives, poems, play scripts, reports, explanations, opinions, instructions, reviews, and commentaries. Obviously, these expectations provide many opportunities for work in history and geography. In particular, positive developments in helping children structure their research and writing through writing frames have been realized. Writing frames provide mechanisms for children to reflect on what they already know and identify questions for future research. Simple grids such as the following often are used to help children structure their research:

Writing frames with opening sentences also provide models for young children to use when communicating their own findings. As children become accustomed to using writing frames, they learn to develop their own opening sentences. An example illustrates this progression.7 Students fill the blank spaces with examples from the material being studied:

“Although ___ and ___ are different, they are alike in some interesting ways. For example, they both show ___. They are also similar in that ___. They also resemble each other in ___.”

Children in many English primary schools are also encouraged to express their own points of view. Pupils are asked to consider questions such as: Do you think Alfred should be called “The Great?” Which were the most important reasons for the Roman invasion of Britain? As another teaching strategy, students can be asked to write on postcards, sort them in order of priority, and use their content as a foundation for their writing.

The following case study exemplifies how historical thinking was developed by eleven year-old children in a typical English primary school.


A Case Study: Victorian Times

A sixth year class posed the question: What was life like for children living in Victorian times? They began to think about different aspects of children’s life that they would like to find out about. They compiled a list that included homes, toys, schools, clothes, food and leisure activities. Beside their list, the children also noted what sources of information might help them to find out about these different aspects of everyday life. Sources of information such as pictures and photographs, advertisements, buildings, scenes from TV and films, books, objects in a museum, and stories were identified.

Groups of children then began to research the different aspects of Victorian children’s lives. As they pursued their research, the class discovered contrasting information about Victorian children. They realized that a great deal of difference existed between the lives of children from poor backgrounds, working in factories or on the streets, and the lives of children of wealthier Victorians in their large houses with servants. A second question was added to the children’s initial investigation; did all children enjoy the same way of life? As they returned to their investigations, the class was divided into different groups researching ways of life of either poor or wealthy children.

The investigations resulted in the children acquiring enormous amounts of information about the Victorian era. Pupils then shared this information with each other as different groups reported back on the various life experiences they had read about. The investigation might have stopped there, but the teachers wanted the class to look critically at what they had discovered and then draw some conclusions. A final question was included: ‘Did Victorian children have a good time?’ This question offered the class the opportunity to organize some of the information that they had researched to make their own judgment about Victorian childhood. It also enabled the class to make some personal response to their investigations and to make some connections between themselves, living in the twentieth century, and Victorian children. Children wrote down on separate cards information that would enable them to answer questions. Separate cards were used so that students could arrange the cards in order of importance.

The class was then asked to write down their views using the cards to help them. The teacher supported children’s writing by providing a writing frame8 that gave them starting points for justifying their points of view:

“I think children living in Victorian times had a good time because ___. They also ___. Finally, they also ___. However, not all Victorian children had a good time, because ___.

They also ___. Finally, they also ___. Thus, there are some good and bad points about Victorian children’s lives. I would have liked/not liked to have lived in Victorian times because ___ .”

This case study exemplifies teaching and learning approaches common in many effective primary schools. Rather than approach history as a subject in which facts and events are unconditionally accepted, young children are instead asked to question historical evidence, critically analyze interpretations, and often to construct their own version of past events.



The teaching of history and geography in English primary schools is at an interesting point of development. On the one hand, serious concerns have been raised about the lack of teacher autonomy, the restricted nature of the curriculum, the lack of time and resources allocated to history and geography, and the high levels of accountability and scrutiny to which students and teachers are held. Most primary school teachers who share responsibilities for teaching history and geography are also troubled that “social studies” subjects are being squeezed out in preference to disciplines seen to be more important by the government (for example, mathematics, science, English, and information and communication technology). On the other hand, however, notable improvements have been made. Resources for teaching the national curriculum are plentiful and varied, teachers have a structured curriculum on which to build, and exciting opportunities are being developed that link social studies subjects with other discipline areas (for example, literacy, information and communication technology). Moreover, the fact that children are not formally tested in national testing arrangements for history and geography at ages 7, 11, and 13, provides teachers with more freedom to experiment in their teaching and assessment methods. In summary, despite the pressure of conforming to a national curriculum, many teachers continue to be creative and dynamic in their approaches to teaching and learning.



1. Each country in Great Britain (England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales) broadly determines its own curriculum. This article refers only to the curriculum mandated in England.

2. Typically, English compulsory education is divided into primary (ages 5 to 11) and secondary (ages 11 to 16) classes.

3. Although many primary schools offer foreign language classes, the subject is not mandated until secondary school.

4. Primary school teachers must report annually to parents the results of assessments in history and geography. The criteria are established nationally, but teachers construct their own test and select a description that best describes a child’s progress. In this way, parents are able theoretically to compare and contrast their child’s performance with those of other children and with national targets.

5. Penelope Harnett, A Day in the Life of a Victorian Child (Oxford, UK: Heinemann, 1997).

6. Stuart J. Foster, “Politics, Parallels, and Perennial Curriculum Questions: The Battle of School History in England and the United States,” Curriculum Journal 9 (Summer, 1998): 153-164.

7. M. Lewis and D. Wray, Developing Children’s Nonfiction Writing: Writing with Writing Frames (Leamington Spa, UK: Scholastic, 1995).

8. Penelope Harnett, “Looking Afresh at History,” in M. Ashley, ed., Improving teaching and Learning in the Humanities (London: Farmer, 1999): 48-49.


Websites A website sponsored by the British government for parents. It has links to other government websites, such as the Department of Education, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, and the Office for Standards in Education. The Times Educational Supplement is a weekly newspaper that deals with educational issues in England.


Stuart J. Foster is an associate professor at the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia, and Penelope Harnett is a principal lecturer at the University of the West of England in Bristol, United Kingdom.