Sports' History and the School Curriculum - An Important Relationship




Both The Football History Boys, Ben and I, are in education. Ben teaches in a primary school whilst I teach History in secondary school. We both love education and sharing our passion for sport with the young people we teach. However, the curriculum in England and Wales (where we have both taught) of course restricts the interests of teachers at times. If I could teach purely to my interests, my History lessons would be full of sports' history, but it goes without saying that is neither practical, nor good for all my students! So let TFHB delve into History education and the situation as it stands...

As a bit of context for their piece, it was sparked as I listened to a Jeremy Vine BBC Radio Two debate this year. He invited callers to discuss the school curriculum after he informed listeners that in 2018 schools were 'publicly recommended' by the media, celebrities or campaigners to 'teach' over 350 topics or subjects that were not currently taught; these included 'safe trampolining', 'mortgage lessons' and 'safe knife usage'. Callers in varying degrees of 'ranting' argued that 'boring' subjects such as History and Geography should be ditched in favour of some of these more important life skills. Even Maths took a beating, 'what is the point of algebra?!' (even as a self-confessed Maths struggler, do not get me started on that one!).

One of the regular beating schools get - Yet I couldn't teach it all because I don't know it all myself!

However, when opening the debate to the public, like so often happens, issues are always going to arise. Some easy rebuttals include that fact that schools with trampolines (like my old one) did teach safe trampolining, schools also get visits from banks to give money advice to learners (the reason I bank with my current bank!) and regular citizenship/PSHE lessons also cover many of the other 'suggested' topics (from social media pitfalls, extremism/terrorism and knife crime). You could also argue that schools do try and highlight many of the issues going on in the world today and parents simply do not realise they go on with their children at school. Likewise, as Jeremy Vine noted himself, some things parents must take the responsibility for too, providing good parenting for their children. I do acknowledge though, that the curriculum in both England and Wales is going to eternally be up for debate and at times, criticism.

What those outside of education do not realise is the deeper learning that Humanities subjects such as History, Geography and Religious Studies provide. All encourage 'life-long learning', the attitude that all schools wish to impart upon their students. As someone who has just completed his PGCE in History teaching I am always going to jump to the defence of the subject's importance. History has set many journalists, politicians, businessmen/women, academics, lawyers and yes, teachers, on their future career path. History provides learners with the skills of justification, analysing situations, deep-thinking, extended-writing and a clear understanding of the things that have past to help shape the things yet to come.

In History lessons students are not just taught names, dates and facts, far from it. As much as myself, a massive pub-quiz fan, would love it to just be facts at times, History is much more than that. The majority of exam boards teaching the unit Medicine Through Time (from around roughly 1200AD-Present). This topic is an example of the deeper learning that History provides, a broad look at the Europe through four chunks of time (Medieval, Renaissance, Early Modern and Present day). Students do not just investigate medicine and its development but the reasons behind it, understanding the context of the periods, understanding what caused CHANGE and what led to CONTINUITY (Two of the key skills). Students therefore get a broad understanding of Europe's changing powers over the centuries (monarchy, the church etc) but also focus on a number of key moments and individuals who shaped something as important as the medicine we have today.

Another 'conceptual' skills Historians in schools study will be 'Significance', Rob Phillips (1) providing a framework for students to judge significance with... GREAT: 'Ground-breaking, Remembered, Effects that are far-reaching, Affecting the future & Terrifying'. This structure is a way for students to judge and justify the significance of an event and the reasons behind this. For example I have used it with Year 9 to judge 'significant turning points in World War Two', The Battle of Britain, Operation Barbarossa, Pearl Harbor and D-Day. It was also used with Year 7 to compare the significance of the Great Plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of London of 1666, which event was 'Greater'.

Rob Phillips' framework of GREAT - For judging the 'Significance' of an event.

Now this is all well and good, but where does sports' history come into this? Well, as a sports historian, I believe it absolutely has a place in the curriculum today. Schools by law must teach two topics before students leave compulsory historical education at the end of Key Stage 3 (or when they can 'drop' History). Students must be taught slavery: the story of the horrific slave trade and the battle to abolish it, and students must also be taught the Holocaust that took place during the Second World War. These two vital topics are rightly priorities of History teaching but other than these, schools do have a freedom to dabble with topics or time periods that the department decides suits their pupils.

This freedom is of course utilised by some Heads of Department, varying from the standard topics. However, typically speaking most schools in England following an example format of: 1066-Middle ages/Tudors for Year 7, 1700-World War One for Year 8 and Post-World War One-Post-World War Two for Year 9 (if working chronologically). Some may look at some Asian/African/American/more ancient history should the schools have expertise/interest in this area. Very often though, sport and its role in history is totally neglected. I imagine some decision makers would argue that sports' history is unimportant and unnecessary, others would simply not include it through their own lack on interest.


During my lessons I have sought to include sport wherever possible, looking at Elizabethan sport and leisure with my Year 7 class (below), the interpretations and sources surrounding the Christmas Day 1914 Truce (above) with Year 8 or the Sportsman's Battalions of First World War recruitment. I have enjoyed 'shoehorning' sports into my lessons where possible but we Football History Boys believe that sports and education have a much closer relationship than they are given credit for. Ben's superbly researched piece for the 2018 Football Collective conference found here and highly recommended details the importance of sport to education.


The Football History Boys began at Swansea University, inspired by Dr Martin Johnes who has written about and researched the relationship between sport and society. The module was eye-opening and allowed us to see the strength of sport and its connection to the history of not just Britain but Europe too. Richard Holt has also written extensively about Victorian sport, amateurism and the development of professionalism, sport in working-class communities and the relationship of sport and the British Empire (2). Over the years TFHB have written plenty of articles that not just inform readers from a sporting or football point of view, but also teaches about the context of the world at the time.

Schools are urged to teach an equality in their History lessons. Allowing for women's and minority's histories to be included in not just token ways but in regular lesson teaching. As Football History Boys we believe sports' history can do that, such as Britain's first black army officer in the First World War, Walter Tull, a professional footballer and a member of the sportsmen's battalions (read here). Alongside that, the 1910s and 1920s saw a rapid rise of women's football. It helped their campaign for voting rights. The example of factory women and the Dick, Kerr Ladies football team are undoubtedly worthy histories to share with pupils (read here).

For the Post-WW2 period, sport and history have a bountiful relationship. The 1948 London Olympics for example, known as the Austerity Olympics, provides a fantastic insight to a world getting back on its feet after the horrors of the Second World War (read here). Whilst the changing world in the 1950s, as many countries re-invented themselves, saw football play its part as it became football's 'finest decade' (read here).

We can even look at the 1974 World Cup to investigate Cold War tensions in Europe, where East Germany met West Germany for the first time in competitive football on West German soil (read here). The British football hooliganism of the 1970s and 1980s that mirrored the political and social upheaval and unhappiness in society during these decades, is also an excellent example to study when teaching about this period. Even the 19th century campaign for sufferage (and the somewhat boring, yet important reform acts) can be livened up by including the role that sport played in this era (read here).

Sport has its place in the hearts and minds of our young people today, spoken about in their conversations all-day, every-day. As teachers a role of ours is to engage and enthuse our learners by making lessons and topics relevant. The likes of Russel Tarr (3) are teeming with ideas to liven up History lessons and the Football History Boys firmly believe that adding in sporting history to the curriculum, be it football, cricket, tennis, boxing, rugby, athletics or netball etc, can help change the interest, engagement and learning of students across the country.

As one of our earliest mottos at TFHB stated - We are more than just scorelines!





By Gareth Thomas - History Teacher and TFHBer (@GJ_Thomas & @TFHBs)



References: 
(1) - Rob Phillips - https://www.history.org.uk/secondary/resource/35.
(2) - Richard Holt - Sport and the British (1989).
(3) - Russel Tarr - A History Teaching Toolbox Volume Two (2018).

The Football History Boys, 2019

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