Why should I include local History in my curriculum?

Thanks to Sally Burnham (@salburnham), SHP fellow, HA Secondary Committee member, history teacher in Lincolnshire and PGCE tutor at Nottingham University, for this blogpost. Sally reminds us of the importance of teaching local history and gives lots of top tips for including it across the key stages. 


When their eyes light up and they exclaim; ‘What? That really happened here, Miss?’ I smile to myself! My love of local history spans back to when I was a child growing up in Northumberland (finding out about Sulpicia Lepidina’s birthday party invitation at Roman Vindolanda is but one example I could talk about for hours) and over the last few years I have made a conscious effort in my planning across Key Stage 3 and 4 to ensure that students are aware that the history they are studying had an impact on people in our area. There are of course more reasons than just my love of local history to teach it. Local history can provide curiosity, give opportunities to study something in depth, help students see the big picture by looking at the local first and vice versa, help students to challenge generalisations and of course it is a key element in the 2014 National Curriculum and perhaps even more pertinent to many of us, is in some of the new GCSE specs (and historic environment work requires similar approaches). We can’t expect students to sail through KS3 without reference to local history and then suddenly spring on them the Historic Environment element of GCSE and say, ‘Oh by the way there is this thing called local history and we are now going to study it’.

So how did I go about incorporating local history at KS3?

The key is that I did it in stages – I started with the Year 7 introductory enquiry and then began adding local history as hooks as we went through the year. The following year I developed what we were doing further and incorporated local history within our enquiries and then I began to introduce it at GCSE. Here is what I did…

With my eye on the 2014 National Curriculum I was aware that our students weren’t looking at much local history nor were we really studying a period pre 1066 so I decided to replace the Year 7 ‘What is History?’ unit with a local history enquiry ‘What is Sleaford’s story?’ All the work that had previously been done for example BC/AD, timelines, introduction to using sources could now be done whilst investigating Sleaford’s history from the Middle Ages  back through the Anglo-Saxons, the Romans and the Iron Age. We are even lucky enough to be able to borrow artefact boxes from a local museum so that when we are first tackling sources, students are actually using artefacts from the local area. This brings a whole new level of sophistication to their thinking about sources and what can be inferred as well as the confident use of the terms BC and AD. At the end of the enquiry students compared Neil Oliver’s findings about the Iron Age and Roman Britain with their findings from Sleaford to decide how typical Sleaford’s story is. As well as students who were excited about what they had discovered about their town and who realise that ‘history happened here’ we also had numerous parents at the settling in evening commenting about the work students were doing in History and saying that they had learned so much about the local area through the work their children are doing. A super start to the study of History at secondary school!

We were so pleased with the way the Year 7 enquiry went that we looked at adding more local history to the curriculum. Bit by bit we added hooks, activities feeding into the national picture and sometimes whole enquiries throughout the rest of Key Stage 3. Here are a few examples from our scheme of work:

Enquiry Local History
How far did the Norman Conquest change England? Domesday Book to look at the change in land ownership in Sleaford and local villages.
Why could no-one ignore the Church in the Middle Ages? Haverholme Priory – 1137 Double Monastery we look at what we think the monastery may have looked like comparing to Fountains Abbey and the role of the monastery in the community.
Who was more powerful in the Middle Ages; the monarch or the Church? Hook – Becket hiding at Haverholme Priory

Hook – King John stayed at Sleaford castle just before his death at Newark Castle in 1217

How can we find out about Medieval castles? Sleaford castle – site visit, geophysics, archaeology, written sources
What type of change was the Reformation? Impact of the closure of Haverholme Priory as a role play

Changes to St Deny’s Church

Pilgrimage of Grace and Lincolnshire Uprising (local Lord Hussey executed by Henry VIII)

Is the term industrial revolution a misnomer? Enclosure, industrial changes, political activists
What was the impact of the British Empire? Hook – Cecil Rhodes stayed for summer holidays in a house 200m from school – Rhodes House
How has migration affected Boston over time? Thematic study Boston (15 miles away) Hanseatic League, The Guildhall, the Pilgrim Fathers and Cotton Congregation, 20th century migration
Who fought in World War One? Local war memorial, men from the school, family stories
Why did the Allies win World War Two? Role of the Battle of Britain and Dambusters.
Why did Dr Seuss publish the Butter Battle Book? Interview members of the community at a ‘Granny’s tea party’ about memories of the Cold War in Sleaford

Incorporating local history into our curriculum was relatively easy once we started and I have to say that the local history section in our local library was invaluable, not just for the books but also the people who asked what I was looking for and shared their research and knowledge with me. You may think that with all these examples I live and teach in the most extraordinary town in Britain; I can assure you I don’t! Sleaford is a small market town in Lincolnshire but as I explain to the students – the history we are studying happened all over our country – where we live was part of what was happening. As Michael Jones says, ‘All history is local History.’(1) and as Katharine Burn and Jason Todd have shown, you can design a local history enquiry using your local main street. Local history can be used not only to support students using sources as evidence but also other disciplinary conceptual understanding. For an example of this have a read of Geraint Brown and James Woodcock’s work with local memorials and historical significance.

Once I had started teaching the new GCSE Spec in 2016, I realised really quickly that I would be missing a trick if I didn’t incorporate local history into the Crime and Punishment unit. I returned to the library looking through the books and the micro fiche of the local newspapers and soon had a plethora of examples that I could use to help students remember the stories they needed to make sense of the thematic paper. There were plenty of crimes and criminals recorded, highlights include Swift Nick the highway robber and the Belvoir Witches. Then there was Folkingham Bridewell and the transportation records from the area. Students were soon confident when describing the separate prison system after looking at Lincoln prison with its chapel and cells. They were also able to discuss with authority William Marwood and his long drop introduced in 1872 in Lincoln. Students are intrigued by the local aspect of the course, they remember the stories (see Daniel Willingham – 2) and are able to use the examples in their exam answers. Even more importantly they are reminded that we aren’t just studying an exam spec, but we were learning about history and that history happened here in Sleaford as well as elsewhere in the country.

My next stage was to incorporate local history into the Norman Conquest unit. When looking at Anglo-Saxon England we studied the findings from the two Anglo-Saxon graveyards in Sleaford which had amber beads from the Baltic as well as decorative cloak pins and buckles, swords and skeletons which showed evidence of hard physical labour. Then looking at the impact of the Norman Conquest we were able to use the Domesday Book again and this time students could pick out which of William’s men were given land in this area and also how land was distributed so no one could become too powerful in a certain area. Being able to use these specific examples gave their exam answers the level of sophistication that I was looking for.

By the time it came to teaching the History Around Us unit, students were very clear on the benefits of studying local history (and the pitfalls) and launched into their enquiry about Roman Lincoln with real enthusiasm.

Student interest in local history has also led to projects outside the classroom for example Year 7 have presented their ideas about how Sleaford Castle should be presented to the public (there are a few earthworks and a tiny corner of wall remaining) to the mayor and members of the local council. Students from Year 9-12 had the opportunity to carry out a geophysics survey on the castle site with the help of Heritage Lincolnshire and Heritage England and Year 9 have presented their work on the soldiers from Sleaford in the First World War in displays for the Heritage Weekend events. We have even been awarded Heritage School Status due to the involvement students have with our local history.

So incorporating local history into our curriculum at both KS3 and GCSE has proved to be a success in more ways than one and I hope that you too will be inspired to incorporate more local history as you redesign your KS3 curriculum. Remember it can be one step at a time.

(1) Jones, M.J. Roman Lincoln: Conquest, Colony & Capital: Fortress, Colony and Capital (2002)

(2) Willingham, D. Why Don’t Students Like School?: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom (2010)

Please do share your good practice via #OBHD and meanwhile find the latest news and support via history.org.uk

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