Preparing the new primary curriculum – geography, history & languages

Written by: HTU | Published:

The new primary curriculum has been published and the process of implementation has begun. In the coming months, we will be examining different subjects and looking at how schools are preparing. Suzanne O’Connell begins with geography, history & languages

What should be included in a country’s national curriculum is a crucial discussion and one that has been going on in England since 1988 and the Education Reform Act. With its 10 documents, the first national curriculum needed a shelf to itself. The one currently displayed on the government’s official website is a pocket-sized version in comparison.

Although academy and free schools do not have to implement the new curriculum it is likely, for primary schools at least, that the majority will. 

Wroxham Primary School in Hertfordshire is an academy but they are preparing to teach the new curriculum: “We are keen to collaborate with and support our alliance schools,” headteacher Alison Peacock told Headteacher Update. 

There is a substantial amount of freedom in the way that schools can deliver the very sketchy curriculum content. For the foundation subjects there is little indication of how a subject should be taught or the sequence it should be taught in. Level descriptors have been removed and the attainment target is to master the content of the programme of study itself.

In this series of articles we will be considering each subject in turn, hearing from subject associations and finding out what Wroxham Primary has been doing to prepare. 

Ms Peacock approaches the national curriculum according to the Cambridge Primary Review aims of equity, empowerment and expertise. As a Teaching School they will also be offering regional professional learning opportunities. 


In key stage 1, the focus is mostly on the UK and the locality. Children will be expected to be able to name and locate the world’s seven continents and five oceans and the four countries and capital cities of the UK. 

In key stage 2, the study extends to Europe, North and South America and pupils will need to identify geographical similarities and differences between different regions. 

In both key stages, there is a focus on some basic locational and place knowledge and geographical skills, such as using maps, atlases and globes, compass directions and aerial photographs. 

There is no mention of “enquiry” in the programmes of study for geography, although it is likely that schools will build this in for themselves. Ms Peacock explained: “We will be approaching the teaching of geography through enquiry even though the concept is not made explicit.”

The Geographical Association (GA) points out that although concepts may not be referred to explicitly they remain essential to learning geography and are implied: “As students deepen their knowledge and broaden their understanding of these matters, they will gradually gain understanding of the bigger ideas or concepts of the subject.” 

The GA is keen to emphasise that having a “core” knowledge-based curriculum does not mean rote-learning. It points out that geography teaching has not changed as a result of the new curriculum and a good geography lesson should still contain:

  • Geographical data, ideas and locational contexts.
  • A means to connect these elements with students’ prior knowledge and understanding. 
  • Opportunities for students to make sense of new information. 

Geography at Wroxham 

Ms Peacock explained: “We are in the process of reviewing our existing curriculum and feel inspired by national curriculum aims of building ‘curiosity’ and ‘fascination about the world and its people’. This fits with our recent status as a Global Learning Hub school. We have joined the Geographical Association to support our subject knowledge. 

“We have not previously taught about North and South America in key stage 2 so this is a new area for us. We have ordered an outdoor map of the world for one of the playground walls and intend to refresh our compass points on the playground. 

“We aim to use our school grounds and local area to learn more geographical skills and will work with secondary students to establish an orienteering course in the grounds. We are fortunate to be located on the edge of an urban area with access to farmland and a river. This supports our study of local geography. However, we shall need to have a greater focus on the UK than we currently do.”

Foreign languages

The curriculum for languages only applies to key stage 2. Either a modern or ancient foreign language can be taught and it should lay the foundations for language teaching at key stage 3. Schools can choose which language they study but their provision should enable “substantial progress in one language” rather than offering a carousel. 

The programmes of study emphasise spoken language and conversation, although grammar is also included. There is no reference to developing cultural understanding in the subject objectives. 

Therese Comfort, a member of the Association for Language Learning and a researcher into modern languages, considers the new national curriculum to be a good introduction to language learning and the brevity to be a bonus for schools. 

She explained: “There is enough scope in the new curriculum to develop and design programmes of learning more or less to fit in with what schools are currently doing or see as appropriate to do.” 

At the same time the lack of detail means that some teachers will struggle if they are not provided with more guidance. Although Ms Comfort recognises the challenges it poses for secondary schools, she is pleased that there is opportunity for primary schools to select their own language. 

She notes how important it is that the language chosen is sustainable: “Supporting and improving teachers’ language skills to enable them to have confidence to introduce and develop languages in key stage 2 is key and really needs to be provided for more than one teacher in a school to help make the subject sustainable.”

Languages at Wroxham

Ms Peacock continued: “We began teaching languages over five years ago and will build on our developing expertise. We were part of the CfBT Languages Project last year and have strong links with local schools and our alliance has access to a languages specialist leader of education.

“We have chosen to teach French at Wroxham although we also celebrate home languages throughout the community. Our focus will continue to be on practical communication embedded across the curriculum. One recent example of this was when children in year 3 designed and made pop-up books with French text that they subsequently read to our year 1 children in French.

“We have a local languages group that meets regularly to develop subject knowledge and share access to authentic resources and assessment methodology.”


The history national curriculum has seen one of the most tumultuous set of changes from draft to final version. Fortunately, some of the most hideous parts of the original draft were removed and more acceptable content included. 

For example, the programmes of study now refer to inspiring children’s curiosity, requiring them to ask perceptive questions and methods of historical enquiry. 

In key stage 1, children no longer have to be taught about key dates or the concepts of civilisation, monarchy and Parliament. Instead they must be taught about changes within living memory, and significant national events beyond living memory. They should learn about significant individuals from the past and some significant historical events. 

In key stage 2 children are required to learn about:

  • Changes in Britain from the Stone Age to the Iron Age.
  • The Roman Empire and its impact on Britain.
  • Britain’s settlement by Anglo-Saxons and Scots.
  • The Viking and Anglo-Saxon struggle for the Kingdom of England to the time of Edward the Confessor.
  • A study of an aspect or theme in British history that extends pupils’ chronological knowledge beyond 1066.
  • A local history study.
  • The achievements of the earliest civilisations.
  • Ancient Greece.
  • A non-European society that provides contrasts with British history. 

The Historical Association was pleased to see that significant changes were made between the first draft and final curriculum. In particular the inclusion of world history and local history at all key stages: “The revised curriculum removes much of the prescription giving greater scope for choice and respect for teachers’ expertise.”

History at Wroxham 

Ms Peacock explained: “The new history curriculum presents a challenge as we have not previously studied the Stone Age or a non-European civilisation. However, we are keen to embrace this and have started to think carefully about ways in which we can bring this aspect of the new curriculum to life. We aim to link study of the Stone Age with our ethos of forest school and outdoor learning. 

“We have built an authentic Celtic Roundhouse in the school grounds and aim to invite colleagues from our alliance to learn more about this period of history in the context of first-hand experience. We are fortunate that our school is in Hertfordshire where there are many examples of Roman remains and excellent museums.

“Developing understanding of concepts such as chronology and historical enquiry will underpin all aspects of our history teaching and also link with our increased emphasis on dialogic pedagogy. Debate, discussion and questioning are also key parts of our approach to the teaching of English.”

  • Suzanne O’Connell is an education writer and former primary school headteacher.

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