It only takes a slight tweak in an Ofsted framework and suddenly there’s a new buzzword on everyone’s lips. This time it’s ‘curriculum’ and in my opinion, not before time. Over the past few years, whilst schools have been under pressure to continually increase their headline performance data in a landscape dominated by league tables and Ofsted judgements, one thing that seems to have decreased is the size and depth of the curriculum that lots of our children are able to experience. Whether it’s the pressure to perform in only a certain amount of subjects, or a blueprint for rapid school improvement from a multi academy trust takeover, one thing that seems to have suffered in many schools up and down the country is the curriculum.
Where once children had the freedom to pick options, study the subjects that they were passionate about and have a broad and balanced opportunity to experience all of the subjects that our British education system has to offer, this is now the exception rather than the norm. Stories of schools narrowing their curriculum offer to the bare minimum core/Ebacc subjects are all too common. Subjects like PE, Art, Music, Drama and Technology are getting squeezed for their curriculum time and hours handed over to Maths and English with the aim of boosting exam performance in these ‘top tier’ subjects.
On one hand, you can understand why some schools have resorted to a ‘narrowing’ of the curriculum. If the school improvement game is all about headline figures, percentages and decimal places, then when jobs are at stake you can maybe understand why strategic game playing in curriculum design is happening. Why give your students the chance to divide their time and effort over 10 or 12 subjects when only 8 are going to count in the main headline school measure? Surely getting students to focus their time on less subjects is a smart move when it comes to rapid improvement on the measures that matter most, right?
But there’s far more to life than just learning equations and quotations. Broad and balanced are frequently overused words when it comes to the curriculum. Everyone will say they have it, but in reality many schools’ curriculum diet feels sugar free, rather than full fat. By narrowing the curriculum offer to our students we are depriving children of their ability to find and follow their true passion in life. Take for example the seemingly ‘fashionable’ three year Key Stage 4, giving more time to examination success in a shorter number of subjects, but limiting the depth and length of diverse subject experience in only a two year Key Stage 3. If we don’t give our students enough time and opportunities to experience a rich and diverse curriculum with a range of different subjects at key stage 3, then how are they ever going to be in a strong and intellectual position to pick their options for Key Stage 4. If you are picking your options midway through Year 8 and you’ve only been studying a subject once per fortnight since Year 7, then you may have only had around 25 experiences of this subject before you are asked as a 12 year old if you want to go on and study this at GCSE. Broad and balanced does not exist in this context.
As both a parent to two secondary school children and a senior leader myself, I can see both sides of the coin. Yes, school performance is important, but this should not be prioritised over the happiness, creativity and inquisitive development of our children. I can fondly remember 4 and a half years ago when my son first started secondary school. The one thing that created the most excitement with him was his first food technology lesson - the opportunity to get in the kitchen and actually make his own pizza. Once you’ve hooked students into a subject that they are passionate about, it’s hard to turn off that passion even when in other subjects. The passion that they have for their favourite subject becomes contagious and begins to rub off in other subjects subconsciously. School suddenly becomes more than just about collecting examination certificates and more about the first path on a journey into a subject discipline that they can see themselves living in a later life. Out of this passion and exploration comes aspirations and goals, something that will drive them on as they strive to achieve their dreams.
The irony of it all is that some of the same people who are implementing these strategic plans of narrowing the curriculum in their own schools or multi academy trust takeover blueprints, are no doubt the exact same people who after a long week at work, would probably like nothing more than to curl up on the couch with a glass of wine and watch a Hollywood film or binge on a TV boxset series. However, without a rich and diverse curriculum supporting the arts, where are we going to find our next actors and leading ladies from? If we truly want to support our children to be whatever they want to be, then when it comes down to curriculum, size really does matter.
AUTHOR | JON TAIT