The national curriculum has been called many things but "inspirational" is rarely one of them. Now, secondary schools are being encouraged to break out of their straitjacket in a bid to inspire pupils and prepare them for a very different future.
The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's (QCA) recent proposals stress a more flexible framework for teaching at key stage 3. That means schools will have the option of teaching subjects together in lessons of differing lengths or as part of week-long projects, both in and out of the classroom.
For Sue Horner, head of curriculum development at QCA, the curriculum needs to become more personalised and relevant to pupils. "We need to get to the heart of subjects," she told The TES Magazine. "That means looking at underlying concepts and processes rather than being fixated on the large amount of content."
Many schools, however, are already one step ahead of the game. Aware that any national curriculum approaching its 20th anniversary may not be relevant to today's young people, they have radically altered their timetables and their approach to teaching.
Chafford Hundred Campus in Essex was built in 2001 and so had a unique opportunity to design a thoroughly modern curriculum. The result is an innovative approach which revolves around personalisation and competencies rather than traditional subjects.
Based on the Royal Society of Arts' (RSA) Opening Minds programme (see box on page 52), it delivers the curriculum through termly topics and focuses on useful skills such as "learning how to learn" and how to "manage situations".
In Year 7, there are 14 two-hour lessons a week, nine of which are topic based and taught by just one or two teachers each, while the remainder are subjects which are harder to fit into a cross-curricular model, such as PE and design and technology. Interwoven within each topic are all the skills required by the national curriculum, including numeracy and literacy.
"Employers want people who are adaptable, resourceful and have transferable skills. That's what this curriculum helps to deliver," says Chris Tomlinson, head. "Pupils might not know all the facts, but if they know how to learn and where to find information, they can turn their hand to anything."
The school also has day-long enrichment activities called Highlights and posts all homework, lesson plans, assessments and targets online.
In Year 8, pupils take an activity such as cooking or karate every Wednesday afternoon, while in Year 9, they can choose from a wide range of subjects as diverse as Russian, astronomy, dance and psychology, or choose to work on a fast-track GCSE. Each Friday, the entire Year 10 cohort goes on a personalised internship placement, which changes each term.
"All the new courses we have introduced were initially suggested by the pupils," says Chris. "It's individual learning in practice because they are free to choose whatever they want to do. It has massive benefits in terms of motivation, attendance and ownership."
Certainly pupils in Gary Bates' history lessons appreciate his innovative approach. Instead of sitting with textbooks, they are re-enacting the Battle of Hastings, and because it's fun, they are more likely to remember what they have learnt.
Bishops Park College in Clacton, Essex, also had the advantage of being a new-build. Starting from a blank canvas in 2002, it has created a "tartan"
curriculum, which involves running half-termly themes, such as "what makes us human", as opposed to studying individual subjects. Up to 70 per cent of class time is spent on theme work, which may involve research, workshops led by external experts, school trips and presentations. And every Friday there's a masterclass devoted to a subject or project, such as engineering a clock.
The three days leading up to each half-term are known as "faculty" and are spent working on a curriculum-related project. A popular faculty involves students preparing to open a restaurant - everything from the menu to the budget and the design. As well as enthusing pupils, this approach sidetracks the familiar pre-break slump.
"Our model allows for a variety of different learning styles," says Mike Davies, head. "It gives the pupils a sense of purpose, involves the community and equips children with the skills to become lifelong learners - which is important because young people are unlikely to have careers for life."
Despite serving three of the most deprived wards in Essex and having the highest number of looked-after pupils in the county, Bishops Park has experienced high post-16 staying-on rates. Ofsted recognised in 2003 that the visionary curriculum results in "students wanting to come to college to learn", while below average Year 7 pupils make marked progress over the course of the year.
An entirely different approach has been adopted by the Admiral Lord Nelson College in Portsmouth. It was among the first schools to implement the two-year key stage 3 in 2000 so pupils complete their key stage 3 core subjects in Year 8, while most begin GCSE work in Year 9.
Fundamental to its structure is an emphasis on key skills, creativity and fun in Years 7 and 8. "Entitlement to study" periods include activities such as outward-bound problem solving, leadership and work-related learning. And a cross-section of subject teachers collaborates on longer, more in-depth homework projects which encompass science, maths and technology.
Through working on their skills base at key stage 3, pupils can identify their strengths and weaknesses and are better placed to make the right decisions at key stage 4.
"A lot of pupils used to be too dependent on teacher direction," says headteacher Steven Labedz. "This gives us the flexibility to personalise the curriculum so they can find out for themselves what they want to do and how they want to do it."
How it works
The Royal Society of Arts (RSA) Opening Minds programme was piloted by six secondary schools in 2001. Today, about 100 have adopted the project, which replaces traditional subjects with cross-curricular topics that include learning how to learn, citizenship and managing situations and information.
Topics are delivered by a small team of teachers, making for a more primary-like setting that avoids repetition across subjects. In 2003, the pilot schools said all the pupils who took part were more confident, motivated, better behaved, worked better together and took more responsibility for themselves.
Lesley James, head of education at RSA, says: "The emphasis on skills has to be a long-term commitment taking up at least a third of the week. It's important the focus shifts from what pupils learn to how they learn and that can take a while for teachers to get used to."