Curriculum Shorts (Some short musings about curriculum)
A broad and balanced curriculum for every pupil is a necessary part of a rich education, what should it mean in practice?
The most obvious places where the aims of ‘broad and balanced’ take second place to ‘pragmatic narrowing’ are during the stress times of education provision – when exams are taken. Around the ages of ten to eleven and thirteen to eighteen, many pupils find their overall curriculum experience is narrowed. Firstly pupils might find the timetable is restricted and/or their extra-curricular provision is reduced by the need for revision classes in subjects they are deemed to need ‘catch-up’ sessions or have their learning ‘reinforced’. This ‘narrowing’ can take place after school, at weekends and/or in the holidays.
The timetable reduction can see pupils spending most of their time studying Maths and English in years 5/6, studying the Ebacc in years 9/10/11 and studying 3 A levels in years 12 and 13. This means a number of pupils spend seven years of their schooling studying a ‘narrowed’ curriculum.
Added to this, in a number of primary schools, many subjects are blocked together in ‘topic’ or ‘project-work’ which means, in practice, the subjects aren’t studied in particular depth, especially if there is a paucity of subject expertise in the school. This can continue, in some schools, into key stage three, though most, I suspect, teach subjects. But some subjects are only studied fleetingly. Can a ‘broad and balanced’ curriculum be achieved by grouping some subjects on a carousel? Half a term studying a subject, followed by another, then another? Often the fate of design and technology, this can also effect the ‘expressive arts’ and ‘humanities’ and other subjects. Instead of being broad and balanced this is little more than tick-box ‘taster’ provision which can affect take up at GCSE.
The Ebacc at GCSE is a narrowing from broad and balanced. It skews a pupil’s experience of education away from the arts as ways of seeing the world into a narrower view of what an ‘important’ education looks like. Schools can resist this by ignoring it, schools that believe in a broad and balanced approach should encourage children to take a wider approach to choosing their options which might mean enabling children to take one or more arts option, technology, languages and humanities… the thought of having to choose between, say, music and drama, geography and history, German and Latin, for some children at the age of twelve or thirteen is an extraordinary choice. Some are not encouraged to choose even one art. Sometimes subjects such as RE and PE find themselves making very different choices as to how to provide input at KS4. For some children Btecs also narrow their focus into mainly vocational routes. But ‘don’t worry,’ the refrain might go, ‘we have a large extra-curricular offer’ but this offer, as I pointed out above, can be narrowed by competing ‘revision classes’.
And A levels… just three… this is as narrowed as we get. Some are considered to be ‘facilitating subjects’ and are therefore more important than others. And which combination are you taking, is that right for your future career?
A school that wishes to offer a ‘broad and balanced curriculum’ needs to take a lot on board. What is the balance between the timetabled curriculum and extra-curricular? What is the offer during ‘stress-times’ when exam provision threatens to absorb too much of a pupil’s, and their school’s, focus? Should schools ignore the Ebacc ( a gentle revolt against the government aim of 90% of pupils taking ‘it’)? How could schools ensure that key stage five is broader and more balanced? And should primary schools move further away from topic and project-based learning?