Sports History and the School Curriculum: What's Changed?

When The Football History Boys started in 2013, we had two taglines, 'Football - more than just scorelines', and 'Like football? Love its history!'. Both of these lines motivated us to share the history of the beautiful game far and wide, something we hope to have achieved since with our website, our podcast and our book (published in April 2020). As teachers though, TFHB has an extra desire, to continue to strive to see sports history included in the school curriculum in the UK.

Ten months ago we wrote about how the history of sport had an important role to play on the school curriculum, at both primary and secondary schools. We looked at how the majority of young people in education love a sport of some sorts, be it football, rugby, cricket, athletics, cycling, trampolining or even fencing! In the months following we have continued to include sport in our lessons where possible and so today we will catch up with where TFHB are with their quest for wider sporting inclusion in classrooms.

Education in Wales

Both members of The Football History Boys now teach in Wales, one of us at a primary school, the other at a secondary school. Wales is currently undergoing a curriculum review, with a new one due to be implemented in 2022. As part of that the Humanities faculty, of which History is of course a part, will work together as an AOLE (Area of Learning Experience).

These subjects will operate using the some five aims in Humanites teaching. One of which is to 'inspire curiosity about the world, its past, present and future', another stating that 'Human societies are complex and diverse, and shaped by human actions and beliefs', whilst a third comments 'Events and human experiences are complex, and are perceived, interpreted and represented in different ways' [1]. The broad aim of this new curriculum is to provide relevant and authentic contexts for learning for all students.

TFHB continue to believe sport plays a vital role in this new curriculum, as our original motto said, it is 'more than just scorelines'. Sport does meet those 'what matters statements' provided by the Welsh goverment above. Sport inspires curiosity about the world around our young people, the history of sport does help explain the complex and diverse 'human societies' we live in, and it also can be used to investigate 'human experiences' looking at the way they are 'perceived, interpreted and represented'.

Secondary Schools

At the secondary school Gareth teaches at, teachers in the Humanites AOLE have been given the opportunity to plan and suggest lesson topics that will engage and enthuse their learners. He seized upon this to include sport history lessons were possible.

Looking at the Humanities topic 'How can we learn from the past', students spent time studying the First World War. This provided a chance to consider the sportmen's battalions, how the government used propaganda and attitudes at the time, notably as sportsmen who did not 'join up' were seen as unpatriotic and cowardly. Additionally the classic WWI 'Munitionettes' featured but I ensured sport played a key role in this, considering the factory sports teams, most famously the 'Dick, Kerr Ladies'.

The 'Dick, Kerr Ladies' and other female sports starts gripped many students who simply had no idea about this element of women's history. This particularly inspired some of the talented females footballers in some of my classes who had new heroes to research and talk about. The success of these lessons then saw students approaching the department asking for sport to play even more of a role in their Humanities lessons. The opportunity again arose for sport to feature in the next unit, 'Days that shook the world'.

I was amazed but pleased to have a Year 7 (11-year-old), ask for a Hillsborough lesson, having been told of its importantance and impact on Britain in 1989. However, having written extensively about the 1980s in the past, it was clear that a set-up lesson would first be needed - the Heysel Disaster.

Students were asked to interpret what was going on in the first picture above, many suggesting a war, a fight or a riot. They were shocked to hear this was a European Cup Final in 1985, staggered it saw over 600 injuries and 39 deaths. Students were perhaps even more shocked by the sources that followed it, how in the 1980s football was considered a 'slum sport' and how it was 'sick, it may be terminal'.

When you consider the strength and health (pre-coronavirus!) of the British game in 2020, it is hard to imagine football on the potential verge of collapse. Learners research the 1980s and attitudes towards sport, the government and society to begin to explain why 'hooliganism' had become a problem. Students were then asked, without prompting, to suggest methods for dealing with this. Some said further investment in the game (which didn't happen), others said ban violent clubs from football (UEFA took the decision to implement a European ban in the Heysel aftermath) and still more would say tougher policing and cages to stop fans rioting (the cages of course became commonplace in the hooligan era).

With the 1980s context provided, the Hillsborough lesson was able to work with greater learner interaction. They recalled how they wanted to see harder, more intimidating caging set up at football groups, how police needed to be tough. We then saw through the story of the Hillsborough Disaster 1989 how tradegy came to strike Britian so thoroughly.

This lesson was posed through the moral/ethical question of 'Is there always someone to blame?'. Bringing Hillsborough right up to the modern day and the ongoing court struggle the familes of the 96 face for justice after supporters were initially and incorrectly blamed. Learners considered whether they would keep fighting for justice for 30+ plus, whether there comes a time things can be forgotten and how the tragedy eventually helped British football to move on from the dark days with the introduction of the Taylor Report. The lesson was presented to colleagues to support their teaching of the topic and feedback from the students was excellent, those who loved sport and those who didn't.

TFHB firmly believe sport has a role to play in historical teaching. Be it the GCSE America 1910-29 paper, looking at the rise of celebrity baseballer Babe Ruth, or the growth of the radio and how sport was broadcast widely (bringing it back to Britain too where Cardiff City winning the 1927 FA Cup was the first live radio cup final). The 2020 Tokyo Olympics were also due to provide a chance to look at the history of that international, collaborative, competition - stopping at the 1948 London 'Austerity' Olympics too. However, whilst coronavirus and the school closures prevented that for now, there is no doubt in my mind sport and its history improve and enhance a curriculum for secondary school learners.

Primary Schools

In terms of primary schools we have seen how sport can be used positively inside and outside of the classroom. In the two schools Ben has taught in since we last posted on the curriculum, it has been clear that using football as a context for learning is incredibly powerful. So many children at that young age have genuine obsessions with sport and any chance to discover more is greeted positively. Last year, my year 3 class (7-8) used the story of the Dick, Kerr's Ladies as a stimulus for letter writing on International Women's Day. 

The start of the lesson simply posed a question, 'How would you feel if you were told you can't play or do the thing you anymore?'. A circle time discussion brings out an abundance of cross-curricular skills - oracy, justification, reasoning and so many more. It is fanstastic to see the class become so passionate about their interest as they recognise that football, gymnastics, rugby etc are so important to them. Even at 8 years old, they are already identifying with sport. 

Then we can introduce the historical context and show them that this has happened in the past and could happen again. They really engaged with the lesson and through newspaper articles (edited to suit their age) they were able to understand the emotions of the writer. Using this and assuming the role of a women's footballer after WWI, they could create their own powerful letters. Women's football in the modern day was then used in my assembly as a way of encouragin the girls to sign up for football club and challenging the stereotypes already engrained in so many, even at a young age. A simple 'Guess Who?' at the start surprised many! Can you guess?

At times the curriculum and indeed even teachers who use it can have a snobbery towards sport, seeing it as a hobby children do and not something which needs studying. Although disappointing as often schools will prefer to teach learners about Henry VIII, we are seeing practioners, in increasing numbers, use sport to enthuse and engage their classes. A year 6 class in my previous school used the Rugby World Cup as their topic for the winter term. An engaging opening lesson - watching the first game of the tournament was used in an incredible way.

As well as watching and enjoying the game the children would take notes of interesting events, times in which they occured and their own opinions on the game. Fuelled by their merticulous note taking, the next day the children began to draft match reports of the game. Young boys in particular are often the hardest to engage in extended writing, but by using something which was 'theirs' they began to take ownership over the task and look to themselves and their sport justice.

What have we seen change?

This is of course just two examples of many more lessons taught by myself and other professionals. On a wider scale it has been amazing to see organistations like the Premier League begin to use sport in such a powerful way. The brilliant website, PL Primary Stars has an abundance of free resources for children and teachers, 'To support those looking for ways to educate and entertain children aged 5-11 and keep them active, we are making school curriculum-linked resources available for home learning' [2].

As well as fanstastic P.E resources (I went on a PL course last June to see these in action), there are schemes of work designed at helping to improve literacy, numeracy and PSHE skills. Using football 'as a way in' has been vital to the improvement of so many children in these areas.

It was even more appreciated when we received a direct message from Rob Smith in February. Rob is the founder of the influential site 'The Literacy Shed' and well respected in the edcuation community. I can remember him coming in to deliver CPD training to my PGCE Primary course at UWE in 2016. Showing incredible enthusiasm for all things educational, particularly literacy, he demostrated how so many things can be used to inflame the imaginations of children. Music videos, images and short films all instantly prompted numerous ideas for us to use in our future classrooms.

Rob messaged asked us if we could create for his site a number of resources on footbal history. This gave us an opportunity to help develop children's literacy around the whole country and not just in our own classes. Using the themes of the women's football, the 1966 World Cup, the origins of the game and so much more we intended to help children learn more about the sociology of sport as well improving literacy skills.

A final note goes to something we discovered yesterday. Again through a direct message on twitter, were introduced to the EU scheme - 'Football Makes History'. Although a relatively new organisation it has received the backing of a number of big sponsors and hopefully some sort of working relationship with ourselves. Aiming to promote a more tolerant and equal society, sport is seen as key influencer in achieving these outcomes.

Project aims of Football Makes History

There are so many more remarkable companies, charities and sites which our promoting the use of sport in national curriculums. It is incredibly positive to see how the sport we love is being used to encourage wider thinking on societal issues and helped to improve literacy and numeracy skills around the country. We hope that by the next blog we write on the topic, we can see even more children improving their understadning of the world aroud them and enriching their lives through sport.


[1] The Welsh government Humanities 'What Matters Statements'.
[2]Premier League:

By Gareth Thomas (@GJ_Thomas) and Ben Jones (@Benny_J), founders of The Football History Boys (@TFHBs).

©The Football History Boys, 2020


@gedboy58 said…
I have been teaching a History unit to my Seniors as part of the Scottish Studies course since 2016 - 'How Glasgow Invented World Football' (Nat 4, Nat 5 and Higher). I agree that Football is a crucial part of modern education - if it were given even 1% of the respect it deserves.

It is a very useful way of teaching scepticism. The history of Scottish football has been totally subsumed into England's - for those viewing from outside Scotland. Within Scotland, few are aware of their own extraordinary history, given the dominance of the English media. Showing pupils how most people outside of the UK just do not see Scots as a separate country or separate culture is an interesting lesson. The Spanish newspapers reporting the 'English' team Motherwell v Real Madrid in 1927 - showing them how to play the game Scotland invented. It's an eye-opener for the pupils.

We have a long way to go, but it will be worth it. I will be long dead before England accepts that Scotland invented the modern world game, but we have to start somewhere.

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