The Development of British Democracy

We decided, a few years back, to have a go at teaching this to year 9. We like to have a couple of chronological units in each year, but year 9 was lacking and I think we’d all got a bit tired of teaching a cut down version of Medicine Through Time. So, we had a go at this. Typically, it didn’t work terribly well to begin with, but I tried it again at the end of last year with my amazing (and very pliant) year 9 class, who were able to give me some great feedback, and then again this year, when it required further tweaks to take into account the new setting imposed on our groups – I now teach one enormous top set and two tiny bottom sets, after 10 years of more or less mixed ability, which is a whole blog post in itself.

I’ve now reached a stage where I thoroughly enjoy teaching it, and am sorry I now have to wait until September to have another go. I was concerned that some of the lower ability students might struggle, and I think it is fair to say that they didn’t all develop a good understanding of the development of democracy over time, but there are so many excellent stories in this study that they were all able to make some of that all-important progress by explaining various events in detail. Meanwhile, the brightest of my top set were able to select key events based on a variety of interpretations, which is a good win.

Here are the topics we cover:

Lesson 1: Our current system of government; what is left-wing/right-wing?

Lesson 2: Stage a mock election – this is an excellent ice breaker for the start of the year, allowing for meaningful group work and there are probably great citizenship links in there too that I neglected to focus on directly

Lesson 3: King John and the Magna Carta – after a quick consideration of people’s rights and responsibilities in the feudal system, we compared two old textbooks to help us work out why it was signed; then Schama’s History of Britain with Tony Robinson’s Crime and Punishment to help us consider the impact.

Lesson 4: Simon de Montfort and the Provisions of Oxford – I have a card sort for this that involved ordering chronologically and then (with more or less scaffolding, as necessary) pulling it together to explain why the Model Parliament was launched.

Lesson 5: The Peasants’ Revolt – we start by comparing this to the poll tax riots of the last century; then there’s a role play, with a part for Johanna Ferrour after last year’s SHP.

Lesson 6: The Civil War – students study the Civil War as a depth unit in year 8, so they already have some background knowledge of the intricacies of the power struggle. This lesson puts it into the context of Magna Carta.

Lesson 7: The Glorious Revolution – this fills in the gap between the curbing of royal power with the Civil War and the important changes of the 19th century.

Lesson 8: Peterloo and the Great Reform Act – as part of their study of the Industrial Revolution in year 8, my students will have covered the three reform acts and the growing number of people able to vote; this lesson therefore is about some of the agitation that took place to provoke a change in government in the first place. There’s also a great opportunity for looking back here, because through their actions before and after Peterloo, the government were breaking some of the key points laid down in the Magna Carta. That got some students a bit riled up.

Lesson 9: The Ballot Act – here’s an excellent opportunity for a local aspect, because we have a close of houses that was built by a parliamentary hopeful as accommodation for workers who had been thrown out of their homes for not voting for their boss. Therefore, the secret ballot was clearly very important for the people of Westbury, and the lesson is all about national changes in a local context.

Lesson 10: The Suffragettes – the last piece of the puzzle: how women got the vote. I used an old GCSE sources paper to cover this, which formed part of the assessment for the top set.

Lesson 11: Assessment – I set my question, in the style of a GCSE or A-level essay question, as “‘The Magna Carta was the most important event in the development of British democracy.’ How far do you agree?” With hindsight, this needs a bit more consideration, at least for the lower sets, who struggled to make the connection between Magna Carta and our current parliamentary system.

I think the study hangs together very coherently. It sets up some important things for GCSE – notably Peterloo and the Suffragettes which are both part of the Crime and Punishment unit; it ties together some key events we study lower down the school; and it has inspired me to plan a new unit on Medieval power which I am currently teaching to Y7. My working title is, “What was the biggest threat the the Medieval Monarchy?” which I feel is going to be broad enough to bring in all the things I want, from the Crusades to the 100 years war to the Black Death. The inspiration for this can also be laid at the door of the White Queen and World Without End, the dramatisations of which have encouraged me to learn more about the monarchs of the Middle Ages and their problems. But, that’s a post for another day.

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