What is The National Archives History Toolkit for Primary Schools?

Clare Horrie and Rachel Hillman

Authors of 100 Ideas for Primary Teachers: History, published by Bloomsbury, 2019. The National Archives History Toolkit for Primary Schools, published by Bloomsbury, 2020.

Teaching history in primary school should always be inspirational, engaging, and fun. Our thinking behind The National Archives History Toolkit for Primary Schools was essentially to capture children’s interest, and to get them and their teachers confident with using original sources and to understand the importance of historical enquiry. We also wanted to show teachers and their pupils’ material buried here in our collections at Kew which they would not find in standard history textbooks used for their lessons as part of the National Curriculum.

Teaching history using archival sources is crucial to developing a child’s critical thinking skills and understanding of what history is all about. With a source-based approach, their learning can be transformed, and their historical skills honed through the method of historical enquiry, a key aim of the National Curriculum. This can make history real, captivating and exciting.

History Toolkit spans the whole National Curriculum for Key Stage 1 & 2, from events of national importance, the lives of significant individuals and the changing power of monarchs and different aspects of social history. It consists of 56 lessons based on original sources like a Roman gladiator’s vase or Florence Nightingale’s birth certificate, sources from the British Museum and The National Archives.

Each lesson presents an enquiry question explored through a starter activity, a main activity and a creative activity. We thought it was really important to include a creative activity for this age group. Archival sources and museum objects are wonderful for creative inspiration! For example, children, having looked at Plea Roll from the reign of Elizabeth I or at her Second Great Seal could paint their own portrait of the Queen or write a poem or story based on a photograph from the Victorian period. Why not make a historical birthday card based on original document or their own facsimile of the document?  Primary school children could make their own ‘archive box’ containing sources about their lives: a toy, birthday card, photograph, and so on. The possibilities are endless! 

The National Archives Catalogue ref: KB 27/1309 Coram Rege Rolls. Initial detail, Elizabeth I, Easter 1589.    

In general terms, History Toolkit very much reflects an approach to primary and secondary history teaching developed over many years in our working environment in the Education department at The National Archives.  

The National Archives Education website offers a window to our whole education and Outreach service https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/. Here, teachers can book our onsite taught and virtual sessions and find digital resources, themed collections, lessons and topic websites using material from our collections supporting students from Key stage 1 to 5 for the history National Curriculum. Visitors to the site can find out about our Family and Young People’s events and community activities with our Outreach Service as well.

Specifically, for primary schools in terms of archival education we offer free workshops (either onsite at Kew or online via videoconference/ virtual classroom technology). These cover a range of topics covered in the History National Curriculum, including The Great Fire of London, Propaganda and Spies during the Second World War, Victorian Child Criminals and the Tudors (to name a few!).

In these workshops, pupils are given the opportunity to work with original documents. Having the chance to access and engage with the ‘real’ and not just short sanitised extracts, makes the study of History and the process by which historians draw their own interpretations about the past based on evidence, all the more real for pupils!

For example, one of our extremely popular onsite sessions looks at the story of a Second World War spy called Karel Richter. At The National Archives we have Richter’s security service file, documents that were kept secret until their release in January 1999! Exploring documents taken from Richter’s file, including photographs of his possessions and a map of the area where he was discovered, pupils piece together his story and what happened to him.

The National Archives Catalogue ref: KV 2/32. Photographs of Karel Richter showing security services where his parachute landed and where he hid.

For those schools who cannot make the journey to Kew, we offer a wide range of Virtual Classroom and Videoconference sessions. These workshops are run by Education Officers and focus around an enquiry question in the same way that the onsite workshops do. Pupils engage with high resolution document images and make their own interpretations about the past based on these records. In videoconference sessions we are also able to show an original document via the document camera, bringing the ‘real’ straight into the pupils’ classroom!

During the recent lockdown, when The National Archives was temporarily unable to welcome schools onsite, the Education Team launched ‘Time Travel TV’. Designed for family audiences and those home-schooling their children, it provides short, snappy and engaging hooks into mystery documents! Each session focuses on a specific theme and there are follow-up activities as well as a crafts inspired by the documents. For example, ‘Census Detectives’ looks at what the census can tell us about families in the past. A famous household is explored with guidance from the Education Officer, and families can then go on to conduct their very own census!

For the past couple of years, The National Archives has also taken part in the Kids in Museums Take-Over Day initiative. In October 2019, around sixty Year 5 pupils from a primary school in Feltham, applied for ‘jobs’ at the archives and took over many roles including helping Marketing and Press with their work, directing readers in the reading rooms and organising displays in the book-shop! In the afternoon, all of the pupils decorated archive boxes and put their very own precious ‘treasure’ inside. This was displayed as a temporary installation at the archives, and helped to show the pupils the significance of the ‘treasure’ or documents that TNA looks after, and why archives play such an important role in helping us to find out about the past.

In terms of schools website, we offer some history lessons for Key stage 1& 2 and topic websites. In order for primary school teachers to quickly and easily access a breath of historical sources (with transcripts) we have added three substantial themed collections of original documents on Significant People, Significant Places and Significant Events to help them build their own enquiry questions and activities. We have also recently launched a creative writing competition based on letters written to the Poor Commission by inmates of the Victorian workhouse which also welcomes primary school entrants.

Clare Horrie, Education Web Manager, The National Archives.

Rachel Hillman. Onsite Education Manager, The National Archives.

Education website https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/

Examples of primary school digital resources:

Significant People:


Significant Places:


Significant Events:


Time Travel TV ‘Census Detectives’ episode:


Creative Writing Competition Workhouse Voices:




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