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'Our entire school system is the result of an accidental curriculum, an unintended product of tinkering and drift'

The secondary curriculum in England feels like it's been designed by someone with a Masters in reverse-engineering, writes Kevin Stannard

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The secondary curriculum in England feels like it's been designed by someone with a Masters in reverse-engineering, writes Kevin Stannard

Our secondary school curriculum appears to be characterised by choice. From the age of 14, pupils can already make some decisions on which subjects to study and which to drop. The problem is that there is no thought-through educational basis to any of this, and what looks like liberality can easily boil down to Hobson’s choice and premature specialisation.

A levels rest on the foundation of "free" choice. Once a pupil has achieved competence across the curriculum at the age of 16, they have earned the right to specialise in just three or four disciplines. This narrowing is all the starker given that students often choose a cognate set of subjects to stick with, simply jettisoning the rest.

This arrangement reflects not what is best for pupils or society, but what is best for higher education as constituted in England. Degrees are awarded after three years’ intensive study of, typically, a single discipline. This works because undergraduates arrive at university already pretty advanced in the study of their subject; they can get off to a flying start, getting further, faster than their American cousins who have embarked on four-year liberal arts programs.

The English school curriculum might have been designed by someone with a Masters in reverse engineering. In fact, it wasn’t designed so much as developed through a nexus of absent-minded influences. These influences have bent the school curriculum out of shape, and have imposed false "choices" on pupils.

The subject 'market'

Curriculum choices post-16 make some sense, at least, if you plan to go to university to pursue further academic study. A more invidious imposition of "choice" comes at age 14, or whenever sheep and goats first get separated for sacrifice at the altar of GCSE. The operation of "choice" (actually the enforced, premature termination of some studies) has always been felt unevenly, and the EBacc has simply brought age-old inequities into sharper relief. 

Teachers of subjects other than English, maths, and science operate in a "market" in key stage 4, and Darwinian selection pressures impel them to persuade as many pupils as possible to continue beyond the choice-point. A happy consequence is that some of the most innovative, creative and frankly fun learning takes place among the more endangered subjects in the curriculum jungle.

The loss of pupils from these subjects is a loss to society, too. I don't know, which bright spark came up with the idea that future citizens will have imbibed sufficient historical understanding and imagination to cease all study at 14? The point is that it was no one’s decision. It’s part of the accidental curriculum, an unintended product of tinkering and drift. 

The National Curriculum Review didn’t address it because it grasped the wrong end of the stick, taking GCSEs as the starting point and reverse-engineering the curriculum to fit. Given the pre-determined size of GCSEs, only a certain number will squeeze into the curriculum space, and that number is smaller than the total of subjects with, which every young person should remain familiar until at least the age of 16. Quarts and pint pots come to mind.

But why go to the bother of downsizing GCSEs when we can demote history, geography, languages et al to the netherworld of nice-to-haves?

Dr Kevin Stannard is the director of innovation and learning at the Girls' Day School Trust. He tweets as @KevinStannard1

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