Hung in the balance

29th March 1996 at 00:00
As pupils consider their GCSE options, Andy Schofield ponders the future of key stage 4

As Year 9 pupils all over the country start choosing courses and options for next September, what does the future hold for geography at key stage 4?

The Dearing review of the national curriculum has supposedly given schools stability 11-14, and flexibility 14-16. In reality, most schools have faced very difficult choices when putting together their key stage 4 plans for next September. Course choices at 14-plus are likely to be more constrained than ever. Schools have faced quite serious problems trying to retain a broad, balanced curriculum, while working within the statutory framework. Caught in the middle of all this are the pupils, many of whom succeed and enjoy the very subjects that, like geography, are being squeezed.

A compulsory minimum core of full course English, maths and science, alongside short courses in modern languages and technology, taking up some 40 per cent of curriculum time, seems reasonable on paper. The reality is very different. Most schools, quite reasonably, interpret science as double or balanced science for all. This can immediately take up 20 per cent of the timetable. Short courses are a completely unknown quantity and many schools have been left with little alternative but to timetable full courses in languages and design technology instead. When religious education, physical education and information technology are added, you have a compulsory core which unbalances rational attempts at curriculum planning. In many schools it will be the humanities and the arts that are the casualties, even in schools with a tradition of a broad, balanced curriculum up to the age of 16. In reality, many schools have been hard pushed to retain even two additional subjects as choices within option systems for next September.

Pupils may well find themselves studying more of what they do not want to, and less of what they find enjoyable. Geography has always been near the top of the list of entries for non-compulsory subjects at GCSE. Subjects such as art and drama also bring immense pleasure and a sense of achievement to a very wide spectrum of the school population.

Add to this restriction on coursework and other more flexible ways of teaching and assessing 14-16, and you have a recipe for increased disaffection among young people.

Ten years ago, modular structures were proving that you could retain elements of choice and negotiation, without necessarily having to choose between courses or major areas of study. All the interesting curriculum structures which modules were producing have been largely, and quite deliberately, wiped out. With them went the best method we have ever had for ensuring flexibility, interest and a balanced curriculum 14-16.

A further unknown ingredient in the key stage 4 debate is the expansion of GNVQ courses, which are generally considered to need the equivalent of two GCSE slots, or 20 per cent of curriculum time. Geographers in schools may find themselves, either by accident or design, teaching on courses that do not have the title "geography". This may be no bad thing in itself and is common practice where humanities courses are taught. It will be very demoralising, however, if geography teachers are not contributing to courses that are at least as popular and successful as the ones they have been used to.

The Dearing review of the whole 14-19 curriculum could throw us all into more years of confusion, restructured curriculum planning and syllabus revisions. Perhaps we should no longer even be thinking of a balanced curriculum up to 16, but make do with 14 instead. If this is the case, then we need a much wider, national debate about what should be taught, how and when, than we have had since 1988.

The removal of a principle originally enshrined in the 1988 Education Act to retain a balanced curriculum up to the age of 16 seems to have occurred almost by accident. The decision-making process under a succession of ministers and civil servants has been at times deliberately non-educational. How was it ever decided that science would be compulsory for all? Does the appearance of design and technology in the core have more to do with the UK's decline in manufacturing than with educational reasoning? Why is RE compulsory?

There is no real educational justification for the structure of the key stage 4 curriculum as is stands. It reflects the political expediency of the decision-making process and is a recipe for further disaffection. Schools know this already. As option choice procedures begin to bite it will soon start to dawn on pupils and parents too.

Andy Schofield is deputy headteacher of Varndean School, Brighton, and a member of the GA

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