Pupils cannot answer the “big questions” of history because the curriculum focuses on a limited range of topics such as Henry VIII or Hitler, schools inspector Ofsted said on Friday.
“They lack an overview of history, are not good at establishing a sense of chronology and cannot make connections between areas they have established,” it said.
An Ofsted spokeswoman said the big questions included themes such as how democracy evolved in Britain, the relationship between church and state or the influence of successive waves of immigration.
One secondary school’s curriculum for 11-14 year olds was “an unconnected journey as they move from the Middle Ages to Martin Luther King and then the Second World War”, the inspector said in a critical report on history teaching.
In primary schools it said history had been “relatively neglected” as teachers focused on literacy and numeracy.
Ofsted said the subject faced a twofold problem of being squeezed in a crowded curriculum and being regarded by many senior teachers, pupils and parents as irrelevant and unimportant.