I think that there is currently a poverty of curriculum theory in the overwhelming majority of secondary schools in England. I say this not to offend, though offend I no doubt shall, but rather to point towards a problem that I think we, as a profession, are more than capable of resolving ourselves. Recent government curriculum reforms – particularly the idea that the English Baccalaureate should be compulsory – have faced numerous criticisms from school leaders (see here for a good example). It is not my intention here to argue for or against the EBacc: suffice it to say that I think it is flawed as a model, but, for some schools, a step in the right direction. What I want to focus on is the way in which discussions surrounding this policy have emerged and, in particular, I wish to highlight three ideas that I think are holding us back in developing strong curriculum leadership in schools.
Criticism 1: treating curriculum as a list of qualifications
For quite understandable reasons, the upper years of secondary school are tied to examination specifications. It has reached the point now where we just about treat the qualifications that a pupil takes as being synonymous with the curriculum they follow. There are some exceptions: schools are required, for example, to teach religious education and physical education to all pupils up to the age of 16, even if those pupils are not going to take an examination in the subject. Does everything that we teach need to be assessed for a public qualification? I would suggest that the moment we treat the curriculum as a list of qualifications (and this is an error of the EBacc) we begin to breed the kinds of monsters that have become pervasive in our education system. Something is valuable not just as a consequence of someone getting a qualification at the end of it.
There is a common response to this argument, which is that pupils will not value a subject that does not lead to a qualification. I do take the point that pupils might begin to think that, if they are not going to take an exam in a subject, then it is not worth studying, but I think this says more about how we present our curriculum to pupils than anything else. If we have to justify our subject by telling pupils that they are going to be examined on its content, then we are poor advocates for our specialisms. There are alternative approaches. Imagine, for example, that we had schools where Key Stage 3 lasted from Year 7 to the Christmas of Year 11, with over four years of time to focus on a broad range of subjects. Imagine, then, that the school allowed pupils to choose a smaller range of subjects on which to be examined.
The result of an over-emphasis on qualification has encouraged schools to make Key Stage 3 shorter when in fact there is a good case for making Key Stage 3 longer. This would be a step in the direction of breaking the strangle-hold that qualifications currently have over the curriculum.
Criticism 2: the idea of ‘choice’
Choice is often advocated as a reason for allowing pupils to drop subjects at the age of 12, or 13, or 14. One argument is that pupils should be able to study those subjects they most enjoy, with the corollary argument that pupils will learn to hate things they are forced to do. A second argument is that pupils should be able to study those subjects that are most relevant to their future careers. I have written before about both of these problems, but shall restate the counter-arguments here briefly.
On employment, children simply cannot have much idea at the age of 12, or 13, or 14, how their career is going to work out. Counter-intuitively, giving them more choice at a younger age actually limits their choices later on as one has already chosen a particular ‘pathway’. Children at school today are going to work into their late 60s and early 70s: the least we can do is claim back a few years of their childhood from the inevitable yet undetermined pull of their career trajectory.
The enjoyment argument is arguably weaker. If we were to follow the logic of this argument, then we should be allowing children to drop maths if they dislike maths, or biology if they dislike biology. More concerning still is the message we send out to pupils with this approach to curriculum: if you do not enjoy something, or you are finding it hard, then it is acceptable to give it up and to do something else. As teachers and school leaders, we need to have the conviction in ourselves to be able to say to children ‘this subject matters, and this is why it matters’. Allowing children at quite a young age to opt out of things that we think are worthwhile is an abdication of our responsibilities.
Criticism 3: the lingering pull of the tripartite system
Compulsory secondary education is a relatively recent phenomenon in England, having been introduced by the 1944 Education Act. This created the ‘tripartite system’ in which children at the age of 11 were streamed into three types of school: grammar schools, technical schools and secondary modern schools. These schools in practice (and at times in rhetoric) mirrored the class distinctions of the mid-twentieth century. Middle-class children who could be expected to go on to university and the professions would go to grammar schools; children of the skilled working class would go to technical schools; children destined for unskilled labour would go to the secondary modern schools. Leaving aside for the moment the fact that this system was never realised due to the lack of technical schools, it should be noted nonetheless that, as has often been the case throughout history, the kind of education one received was closely tied to one’s social class.
The tripartite system came to an end in the 1970s as comprehensive schools became the norm across most of England. The idea behind the comprehensive movement was that one’s social background ought not to determine the kind of education one received. This ideal has, however, rarely found realisation in schools. Children from lower socio-economic backgrounds are still, in the twenty-first century, more likely to be moved into technical ‘pathways’. If a child comes up to secondary school with low prior attainment, there is still a lingering pull to think that an academic curriculum ‘is not for this child’. 44.7% of teachers who responded to the Historical Association survey said that pupils not expected to get a Grade C at GCSE were likely to be discouraged from taking history at GCSE: it is perceived as a ‘hard’ subject. Although we like to talk the comprehensive talk in the present, in reality there are plenty of schools out there which, in practice, maintain the kind of curriculum thinking that underpinned the tripartite system: some subjects are suitable for ‘bright’ children, and others are more suitable for the ‘less able’.
What are secondary schools for?
The root of this problem, of course, is that no one has yet to decide what secondary schools are for. Normally, people will say that secondary schools have multiple aims, and this on one level is true. The problem is that secondary schools cannot do everything: if we try to design a curriculum that meets every possible demand placed on us, then that curriculum will collapse into the kind of incoherency which characterises many school curricula, an incoherence in which the mantra of ‘choice’ can have its most malicious effect (incidentally, in a curriculum with a very narrow set of aims, ‘choice’ becomes more benign, but that is not something about which I have time to write today).
My case here, as ever, would be to let the academic disciplines and the arts thrive in secondary schools, for this is the one time in a child’s life when they can work with subject specialists in these fields. Vocational education can wait for the future, as indeed can specialisation in a particular more academic field such as languages or sciences. It should be our duty to the future to ensure that all children – regardless of their prior academic attainment or socio-economic background – have time to engage in the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.