Skip to main content

The old curriculum marches on, leaving unemployable pupils in its wake

One academy head asks why the education system isn't doing more to ensure pupils are engaged and equipped with skills employers are telling us they need

News article image

Is it not clear to us all that the existing curriculum doesn’t work? For years children have asked teachers: “Why are we doing this, Miss? I’ll never use it in real life.” And still we soldier on.

I began my teaching career in 1982 and am now executive headteacher of three academies in Nottingham. I spent five years in the government’s Secondary Headteachers Reference Group and currently operate under the title of National Leader of Education. I’m at the heart of the system and remain amazed that the traditional subjects survive.

Over 34 years, I’ve seen a lot of changes. When I started lesson observations were rare, work scrutiny unheard of and analysis of examination results flimsy at best. The support staff consisted of a school secretary, a typist, a resources manager, a lab technician, two caretakers and a matron. We were expected to cover for absent staff and ran sports teams on Saturday mornings.

We now live in a world of Ofsted (which has undeniably made a positive impact upon standards), league tables (which initially focussed minds and now just create anxiety), subject reviews, cover supervisors, teaching assistants, consultants and ICT technicians. The world has changed and yet…

And yet we still teach the same subjects – despite our ever-changing world.

Computer studies has made an appearance, and health and social care is on the scene, but essentially it’s business as usual. Kings and queens from the 1500s, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, longshore drift, photosynthesis and Pythagoras’s theorem all make regular appearances in classrooms across the country. Pupils still ask: “Why are we doing this? When will this be needed at work?” I remember thinking the same when I was at school.

Of course, academics will say that a rounded education is crucial. I agree. But do we provide one? Employers say that young people lack the skills and qualities that matter in the world of work: they aren’t resilient enough, they can’t work in teams, don’t show enough initiative, lack discipline, tenacity and the ability to critically analyse. The criticisms never cease, despite changes to structures, working conditions, examination systems and ever-more thorough marking.

The CBI regularly tell anyone listening – including, presumably, the government – that these qualities such as resilience, enterprise and ICT skills, are regarded as crucial by employers – yet still we test and sift young people according to a completely different set of criteria. Many pupils don’t get it, employers appear not to, and many teachers scratch their heads.

Would a better world involve GCSEs in teamwork and “getting on with people”? Perhaps an award for leaving your comfort zone and A levels in “bouncing back from setbacks”? Schools can argue that they are helping youngsters to do all this anyway but they won’t be judged on how successful they are. The old favourites will still be the things that will make or break educational careers – and arguably the lives of thousands of young people.

At our three academies, besides looking for ways to ensure examination statistics keep us out of trouble and give children the chance to jump the hurdles in their way, we are doing everything we can within the confines of the current system to equip our pupils for the workplace.

We’re engaging with as many businesses as possible to bring to life parts of the curriculum requiring extra stimulation. Modern linguists are producing leaflets in German about Nottingham for visitors and practising Spanish conversation at a local tapas bar. Technology classes are advising a housing company how they should landscape a derelict area, computing students have worked with an IT firm to create mobile phone apps, an actress has worked with a drama class, and so it goes on.

Our aim is to get every faculty pairing up with a different local company and make the curriculum relevant and stimulating.

Why is it that the vast majority of leaders in key areas emerge from private schools? Is this 10 per cent of the population cleverer than the rest of us? No. Are they better connected? Yes. Does their experience in education allow them more time and space to develop the confidence, awareness and independence which enables them to acquire the best jobs? Probably. If the existing curriculum works for the 10 per cent, why would it ever change?  

Can the state system afford to sit back and do nothing? I believe now is the time for a different approach. To commit to helping pupils become informed, confident, articulate and ambitious people who can access the most influential jobs, and to do that we need to make clear what the point of school is. We’ll work with employers and make no apologies for doing so.

Phil Crompton is executive head of The Trent Academies Group

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you