2.1 Introduction: Teaching Emotive and Controversial History at Key Stage 2



At Key Stage 2, the opportunities to engage in teaching interesting history are many and some of the reasons that children of this age enjoy history spring from the emotive and controversial nature of the subject. As children develop an increasing awareness of themselves as members of their school and the wider community. In the later primary phase, opportunities to engage with moral and social issues are increasingly appealing. Even very young children have a sense of morality in the sense of right and wrong, but as they mature they begin to be able to express a sense of morality as well as empathise with others more readily. In addition children in this age range continue to enjoy stories that are the stuff of interesting History. If children have a good experience of history in this phase, they are much more likely to continue to be enthusiastic about the subject, and the issues it raises, in the future.

The Curriculum

The Key Stage 2 programme of study has several aspects which are pertinent in the context of the TEACH project. Aspects of knowledge, skills and understanding which would be particularly relevant include:

  • understanding historical concepts such as continuity and change, cause and consequence, similarity, difference and significance, and use them to make connections, draw contrasts, analyse trends, frame historically-valid questions and create their own structured accounts, including written narratives and analyses
  • understand the methods of historical enquiry, including how evidence is used rigorously to make historical claims, and discern how and why contrasting arguments and interpretations of the past have been constructed
  • gain historical perspective by placing their growing knowledge into different contexts, understanding the connections between local, regional, national and international history; between cultural, economic, military, political, religious and social history; and between short- and long-term timescales.

These elements are significant because they ask pupils to begin to develop skills in weighing and considering evidence, raising the issues of interpretation of history.  In learning about topics in the history curriculum that are emotive and controversial, understanding how history can be interpreted in different ways is crucial. This developing sense that individuals have differences that are expressed in many ways is important. In addition the programme of study makes direct reference to diversity:

This element of the programme of study makes explicit the need to study history content that reflects diversity, not only in the units on British history but beyond.

Considering these elements of the knowledge skills and understanding, we can see that the curriculum is intended to promote an ‘open-minded' approach to history where different interpretations are considered and tokenistic views of history are avoided.

There is potential for emotive and controversial topics to be drawn out in all aspects of the Key Stage 2 National Curriculum. Areas that most readily lend themselves to it are:

  • World War II -  where the issue of human conflict is illuminated by the difficulties of identifying rights and wrongs during conflicts and where the contribution of different social groupings in explored, including the role of women and allied soldiers from outside the warring countries. In addition the evacuation of children during the blitz has substantial possibilities.
  • 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.
  • Britain in Tudor times - although this period is seen in traditional unreconstructed histories as a ‘golden age' of Britishness, the influence of the wider world on Britain was substantial at this time, and when these units are well taught, it will provide pupils with ideas about how British development happened as a result of what happened in other countries.


There is a huge range of resources for teaching History at KS2. However teachers need to be aware that some of these do not raise controversial issues effectively. The best policy is to find resources which avoid stereotyping and prejudice and use a range of sources whenever possible to encourage children to look at different perspectives. The following is a short list of suggestions:

Teacher Guide:

Pat Hoodless - 100 History Lessons published by Scholastic. This book provides resources and teaching ideas that make good use of multiple sources, many of which are original. For teachers who are not history specialists it may be a helpful planning tool.

Primary History from Issue 66 has provided ideas for teaching each of the topics in the new curriculum at both Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2. Some of our schemes of work can also be downloaded from here...


For World War II

World War II - BBC History website

This is the World War II section of the BBC History website. It contains comprehensive information in a variety of ways, including text, images and video. Original sources such as moving images, posters and accounts of the time are available. There is also an interactive timeline. However these materials are not specifically designed for Key Stage 2 pupils and often rely on text to communicate. One particularly useful resource in terms of emotive and controversial topics includes an interactive timeline showing the many aspects of genocide and persecution in Germany between 1933 and 1945.

Genocide - BBC History website

For The Tudors

Tudor Britain website

This website is run by the National Archives and the Victoria and Albert Museum. It contains games and information gathering activities that are ‘ready made' for teachers to deliver in the classroom. There is an interesting section on religion, which, while providing some useful information and activities about attitudes to religion in Tudor times, provides only weak links to issues around religion today.

The main National Archive Website, the learning curve, also offers teachers ready-made activities using original sources. There is a wide range of topics

For Invaders and Settlers

Good websites for recent history make the most of original available resources such as still and moving images and recorded testimony. Websites for periods in history where we have less evidence need to be more creative about their design in order not to fall into the trap of relying too heavily on text. One such website is the Battlefields Trust, which uses photos and maps as well as text.

The BBC History website contains a wide range of resources for teaching issues of invasion and settlement. However, while presenting a range of views on the impact of changes in Britain's make up and society, some of the activities (including a Viking Invasion game Vikings - BBC History website) trivialise the issues.

Children's Historical fiction and biography

There is a wide and interesting range of Historically based fiction available for children in the Key Stage 2 age range, including picture books, biography, stories that relate to many Key Stage 2 topics. The following is not an exhaustive list of the books, but intended to illustrate how children's historical fiction can be applied to the curriculum.

World War II

Rose Blanche by Ian McEwan

Erika's Story by Ruth Vander Zee

War Boy by Michael Foreman

Victorian Britain

The Lottie Project by Jacqueline Wilson

Victoria's Room in Britannia by Geraldine McCaurghrean

Tudor Britain

The Pirate Meets the Queen by Matt Faulkner

Some issues raised in teaching Emotive and Controversial History at Key Stage 2  

Teachers of KS2 children may come across the following controversial issues when teaching some of the topics listed above

  • Diversity in the classroom and beyond - it is important for teachers to recognise the limitations of the idea of a ‘shared British heritage' and therefore avoid teaching about the past in a  ‘them and us' way. Diversity in the classroom means that teachers should be aware of stereotyping not only different ethnic groups, but also different nationalities and those with disabilities.
  • Social stereotyping - the History of Britain is difficult to teach without coming across issues of class. Ideas that the poor were unhappy and the rich were happy can be perpetuated by over simplifying aspects of history covered in studying topics like Tudor life.
  • Historical myths of empire - myths of Empire are common in older readings of History. Teachers need to make sure that representations they use emphasise the idea of a two sided cultural and economic exchange as a positive outcome of Empire, while also giving a balanced view of Empire which resulted in the North Atlantic slave trade.

Local and global conflict - children are aware of both local and global conflicts and History provides medium though which children can explore both who humans come into conflict with one another and how peace is achieved. Therefore it is important to avoid over sanitizing the history of conflicts. Its also important to try to encourage children to develop ideas of morality in the context of conflict without falling back on ‘goodies and baddies' stereotyping.

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