Are we neglecting our nearest neighbours? Teaching the Whole of the UK at Key Stage 3

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When planning a KS3 curriculum we really should look at the whole of the UK, rather than just English history. History teacher Emmy Quinn gives some ideas on how to rectify the problem of an English-focused history curriculum.

The lie of the land

In the past few years, history teachers have made amazing strides in diversifying and ensuring that students study history beyond their own.

We have seen a huge increase in the teaching of histories from across the globe, and projects such as Meanwhile Elsewhere have encouraged us to look far beyond our own shores.

But, perhaps it’s time that we also looked inward, and reflected on how far our curriculum covers the history of the British and Irish Isles.

We can start by asking ourselves: how often will students encounter the other parts of the British Isles?

I am sure that Wales, Scotland and Ireland feature in parts of our curriculum. But do our students understand that each part of the British Isles has its own unique history – separate from England’s – and that this history can explain a lot about the country they currently live in?

How can we explain calls for Scottish independence to our students without the understanding that before 1707 Scotland was an independent country?

How can students understand the recent violence in Northern Ireland and the Irish Sea border without having learned about the complex and long relationship between England and Ireland?

The National Curriculum for History at Key Stage 3 makes reference throughout to British History.

However, the vast majority of the example content provided relates to England, with very few references to the rest of the British and Irish Isles.

When this is the case it is – in the majority of cases – specifically linked to England.

I conducted an informal survey of history teachers in England with 191 respondents. The findings were interesting: the vast majority do not have lessons addressing the history of the other nations in their curriculum.

31.9% said there were occasional lessons.

5% said it was something they actively did.

40% of those surveyed said they make reference to the history of other nations.

12% responding that it was not something included either in schemes of work or teaching.

Where the history of another nation is taught either as a stand-alone unit or within lessons, Irish history is most popular.

It was clear from most respondents that teachers would like to include more of these areas but when stating why it wasn’t the case the most popular reason was lack of time and lack of subject knowledge.

How to weave other narratives

My advice is that to start including the history of another part of the British we should aim to blend it into our topics on British and English history before taking the leap to creating entire units.

In a world of ever-changing school priorities, this feels like the most realistic approach.

Example 1: England before 1066
For my Year 7 classes their study of England pre-1066 revolves around the local study Who are the Northumbrians?

Their lesson on Roman Britain examines the relationship between Celts and Romans in Northumbria, and how the Romans became dominant.

This challenges the misconception that Scottish people terrorised the north of England throughout time.

Focusing on Hadrian’s Wall allowed students to see it from a different point of view, looking at the initial building of the wall with forts facing south rather than north.

Showing students the vastness of Roman occupation and the different areas it impacted allows greater representation of the history of Britain.

The same approach is important looking at Britain and Ireland after the decline of the Roman Empire.

Focusing on St Aidan and the establishment of Lindisfarne gave the students a positive look at the influence of Ireland on England, introducing the Irish, not as rebellious people intent on challenging English rule, but as “saints and scholars” responsible for bringing Christianity to Scotland and Northumbria.

It also gave students the understanding that there was travel between the different parts of the isles, also challenging the perception of a dark age where movement of ideas and people were limited.

While none of these were whole lessons focusing on Scotland or Ireland, it introduced the idea of separate places with separate identity and links to each other and the other nations that weren’t limited to one exerting power of the other.

Example 2: Medieval monarchs
One way to ensure that we are still acknowledging the autonomy of the rest of the British Isles at this time is to study one of their monarchs.

In the Year 7 unit “Who was the most successful medieval monarch?” I started with Brian Boru, High King of Ireland from 1002 to 1014, and used a set of criteria to assess his success.

Using a guided reading task and a clip from the brilliant BBC Series The Story of Ireland, students were given a glimpse into medieval Ireland – a place with historic connections to Wales rather than England, a land where Vikings had settled for two generations, unconcerned with any power struggles in England and much more focused on their own.

There are many parallels between Brian Boru and other monarchs of the time, including his own self belief in being an emperor.

This lesson could be easily replicated with one of the many Scottish kings of the period for a wider look at the British Isles.

Example 3: Medieval life
Studies of medieval life often focus on towns and cities, religion and the impact of the Black Death.

While it is easy for studies such as this to use London as a prime example, it’s important to remember that the British Isles had other large towns and cities that were also affected by the major events of the period.

While my Year 7 medieval life unit is titled Was medieval England a ‘stagnant and declining civilization’?, the thematic lessons bring in Wales and Ireland especially, as they were part of England’s territory.


The lesson about health in the medieval era uses evidence about the Black Death not just from London and case studies in England, but from Wales, Scotland and Ireland.

This has allowed students to understand how far reaching the impact of the Black Death was and understand how connected the British Isles was, in a time where it is easy for students to assume that people don’t travel very far.

Example 4: Tudors and Stuarts
Most teachers will find this an easier starting point to weave in the rest of the British Isles.

In this period we get the Union of the Crowns of England and Scotland, and the extension of control in Ireland.

One lesson that I have repeated several years in a row is entitled Why was Ireland difficult for the English to Control?

I have found that dedicating a lesson to the history of the English in Ireland allows students to have a much greater understanding of Tudor and Stuart history.

Students sort the events into the two options “England in control” and “England losing control” to show that it wasn’t as simple as Henry II gaining lordship of Ireland and that was that.

It also shows that Ireland was Anglo-Irish and Gaelic Irish and at times both resented and rebelled against English control.

Once this is established it becomes much easier to incorporate more lessons on Ireland. For example, Cromwell in Ireland and Ireland today becomes much easier to understand.

The role of the individual can also help to build context of the British Isles. William of Orange for example, is a great figure for exploring the origin of modern day divisions and symbolism in Northern Ireland and Scotland.

William of Orange

With the Stuarts being Scottish we naturally include more references to Scotland, but if we only frame the civil war as an English conflict then students don’t get a true understanding of the conflict.

Rather than jumping into the Parliament vs. King narrative, we should explore why the political, economic and religious decisions made by Charles in Scotland led to the country rebelling against him years before Parliament did the same.

Example 5: Revolution and industry
The final area that I have increased the representation of all nations is in the Year 8 unit How did revolutions change Britain and the world between 1750 and 1900?.

Alongside studying the American, French and Haitian Revolution, students look at rebellions and protests in the British and Irish Isles starting with the 1798 rebellion in Ireland.

As Year 8 already have the knowledge of Ireland during the Stuarts, in particular the differing interpretations of William of Orange, they understand the underlying issues leading to the rebellion in 1798.

As well as studying Peterloo, students look at the Newport Rising of 1839 using primary evidence from the People’s Collection Wales.

Students are able not only to see the devastating consequences that the rising had for those involved but also the way in which the Chartists were treated by the newspapers and magistrates.

The lesson includes the consequences to the wider Chartist movement and suppression of further Chartist attempts including the Chartist trials in Edinburgh in 1848.

Newport Rising

Increasing your subject knowledge

To start weaving more history of the British Isles into the curriculum it is necessary to increase subject knowledge in the area.

However, if you don’t create standalone units, knowledge doesn’t need to be extensive.

As my initial focus was increasing Irish history in the curriculum I read The Story of Ireland by Neil Hegarty and watched the accompanying BBC series, chosen due to its focus on Ireland long before English involvement.

Similarly, the BBC series A History of Scotland and The Story of Wales both give a brilliant overview of the nations from the pre-history to the present day.

History Extra has also produced articles on brief histories of Wales and Ireland.

The other incredibly helpful aspect of teaching the history of any other part of the British Isles, is that history teachers in these places are already doing it.

The resources and the knowledge are out there- and reaching out to people has been a huge part of this.

Another great starting point is the 4th edition of KS3 History Invasion, Plague and Murder (OUP) which includes the three nations in the medieval era.

Why bother?

There are many places that we could take the idea of incorporating more history of the British Isles into our teaching.

While I have presented the argument for weaving in the history, there is definitely scope for standalone units on each nation.

For my own practice, I want to take my ideas forward to more modern units, looking at the roles of Scotland, Ireland and Wales in empire.

I’m also planning a small unit examining the national heroes of each nation and the myths, legends and symbolism surrounding them.

As Britain has become increasingly polarised and divided, and people debate the place of Britain in the world and the actions of Britain in the past, it’s important for our students to understand that British Isles is a diverse place, where people have their own and sometimes conflicted national identities.

Increasing their understanding of the history of all our nations will allow our students to understand the nation we live in today.

If we believe that one of the key purposes of teaching history is to allow students to understand themselves and the world around them, we owe it them to teach the history of these islands, not just the part that they live in.

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