What makes good primary history?

Transition Training Session 5

By Tim Lomas, published 15th March 2011

This is the 5th in a series of 5 sessions arising from the 2005 KS2-KS3 History Transitions Project:

Please note: these resources pre-date the 2014 National Curriculum.

What makes good primary history?

Dr. Lomas stressed the popularity of history in primary schools - many children are passionate about the subject. He said that one of the most important roles of good primary history was to address and correct pupils misconceptions about the past. For example, some children seem to believe that the Roman occupation lasted about a week; and the same for the Saxon and Viking periods. One way of starting to plan for tackling these misconceptions is to try to understand where the children's thoughts are coming from. We also need to remember that there is no fundamental difference between what appeals to a five or six year old and to a sixteen or eighteen year old. Dr. Lomas addressed the issue of the amount of time devoted to history in primary schools. The original working parties who developed the National Curriculum for History in the early 1990s recommended between seven and ten percent of curriculum time. At present, history occupies less than five percent of curriculum time, sometimes as low as three point seven percent of time. It is the second or third most declined subject in the primary curriculum. Dr. Lomas spoke with passion about what motivates pupils about history and he identified as two negatives, dull sourcework and over-rigid use of the QCA schemes of work. He gave out and discussed the following pointers for approaches that would motivate, engage and challenge Key Stage 2 children in history: 

What motivates Key Stage 2 Children in History? 

Discussions with a large number of primary pupils seem to indicate the following conclusions about the likes and dislikes. The more popular include:

Stories - including those told by the teacher.

Looking at people and what they did - a focus on people rather than things is a key feature of motivating history.

Sensational but human content - blood, dirt and gore always score well, eg. Egyptian mummies, Tudor filth but so do uplifting issues and dilemmas, ones they can relate to as human beings even though the content may be exotic.

Fascination with artefacts from the past - sometimes even mundane ones.

Active and challenging work with sources such as historical pictures, videos and television programmes, but definitely not mechanistic source evaluation exercises. Children frequently comment on the importance of attractive resources.

Links with their own life and experiences.

Engaging in the historical process particularly practical activities such as fieldwork.

Engagement in depth work.

Local history work
especially where associated with a visit, such as to a museum.

Family history.


Making models
(although the quality of the history sometimes left something to be desired).

Creative writing especially diaries, letters, stories, role play.

Information technology.

Plenty of variety.

Pupils especially enjoy history which is a mix of the human soap opera and the detective story. However, the elements that pupils complained about most frequently characterise a fair bit of what is covered in some places. The danger signals include:

extracting information to answer questions
contrived source work
simple comprehension
filling in worksheets
unstructured investigations - ie. Go and find out all you know about.
Simplistic questions - often closed.
covering too much.
excessive content.

Another major issue stressed by Dr. Lomas was the need for teachers of primary history to define the characteristics of ‘getting better at history'. He suggested the following pointers as a way of doing this:

 What are the characteristics of getting better at history?

Assessing general progression in history might include addressing the following questions:

  1. Are the pupils being more selective when answering historical questions, eg. can they choose relevant and significant information from the sources?
  2. Can they use concepts more confidently, eg. general ones such as change and cause as well as specific terms?
  3. Can they use their imagination and common sense in an increasingly mature way when doing history tasks, eg. imagining what people must have felt at the time; making deductions about what happened; sorting out disparate information; extracting maximum potential from sources?
  4. Can pupils show greater skill at making connections, comparisons and contrasts when carrying out history tasks, eg. weaving together different and seemingly disconnected aspects; comparing and contrasting information across time, geographical area, perspectives and dimensions? Also can they show better skills at showing how typical something was?
  5. Can they just describe or are they improving their competence at explaining things such as why events turned out as they did?
  6. Can they summarise the key features about historical people, events and situations whilst also showing a greater database of historical information?
  7. Are they becoming better at planning, organising and communicating history, eg. showing more independence and initiative with aspects such as order, balance, accuracy, logic, objectivity, knowing what to omit, using and evaluating sources, providing clear and uncluttered information, posing good questions and then working out how to answer them, making sensible inferences, producing logical, relevant and accurate communication?
  8. Do they show an increasing awareness of the uncertainty of history eg. avoiding sweeping assertions and becoming more tentative and sceptical?


The better teachers become aware of what to look for, the better will become the practice of assessment. As for assessment itself, one thing that teachers need to become more experienced at is knowing what makes a good piece of work in the subject. Dr. Lomas gave out examples of pupil work and asked the meeting to guess the age group from which they came. One very fluent account of Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot was actually written by a Year 2 child. Dr. Lomas wondered whether the child might be set the same piece of work in Year 8 at secondary school. What would be the implications for planning for such an exceptionally able child?