If geography and modern languages are too difficult for the pupils, should we just drop them? Fran Abrams on the GCSE subjects that are disappearing.
The smell of new paint hangs in the air around the plate-glass front of The Marlowe Academy in Kent. A couple of hundred yards away, bulldozers are ceremoniously - even symbolically - piling the rubble from its unloved predecessor school into a neat, flat-topped mound.
Inside, the pound;25 million building is all wide open spaces, bright colours and curving walkways. Yet visitors might be surprised to learn that the curriculum at Ramsgate's new academy is not quite such a Rolls Royce affair. The school offers GCSEs in just half the national curriculum. All its pupils take English, maths and double science, plus a vocational course equivalent to four GCSEs.
At present there is no history, no geography, no modern languages, no ICT, no design and technology. Yet Ian Johnson, the principal of the 650-pupil academy, is to a large extent unrepentant. "I think our curriculum is entirely appropriate for the pupils we have. It's meeting their needs, helping them to learn and helping them to achieve. That's what any school should do," he says.
There are plans to expand the curriculum, he adds - a minority of pupils will take French and ICT in Year 10 from September. In future he hopes to add other subjects such as design and technology and humanities.
And there were compelling reasons for making tough choices here: the school is a secondary modern in an area of high social deprivation. In 2003, its predecessor, The Ramsgate School, had the worst results in England, with just 4 per cent of pupils gaining five good GCSEs.
The academy opened in the old school's building in 2005 and in 2006 it managed 27 per cent, though only 5 per cent included English and maths.
"Some of our pupils would find it difficult to have all separate subjects, each with its own coursework demands, each with its own teacher," Ian says.
"They are doing better because they are following courses they really enjoy. It's about relationships, and extra time with the staff. I would argue these courses are as academic as GCSEs."
Yet The Marlowe Academy is not alone - there is a wider phenomenon at work here. Jim Knight, the schools minister, revealed in answer to Parliamentary questions that there were 25 schools in England in which no pupil took a GCSE in a modern language last year. There were 68 where no one took history, 85 where no one took geography, and 40 where no one took either.
There were four schools listed which, like Marlowe, did not have one pupil taking any of the three subjects.
And as vocational subjects play an ever-greater role, especially in poorer areas, the trend looks likely to continue. At The Marlowe Academy, pupils are given 10 hours a week to study their chosen vocational courses and staff speak enthusiastically about the results.
Over lunch, the health and social care team - all qualified as nurses or social workers rather than as teachers - are full of energy as they describe their plans to take pupils on a trip to Africa and the Middle East to look at HIV care. It's clear the school has been able to engage many pupils who, in earlier days, would have had little interest in learning.
Liz Habbershaw, the school's team leader for IT and vocational courses, worked as a network manager and in business before becoming a teacher. She believes this prior experience plays a positive role. "In art and design, there are people who are artists. The dance teacher attends dance classes outside school," she says. "We've got expertise in the fields we're teaching. We all work together, we're strong, we know what we're doing. The best example is by demonstration."
On the first floor, just off one of the school's curvy open-plan walkways, a Year 10 set is starting its preparations for a fashion show. Jatin Patel, a fashion designer and owner of a local boutique, has brought in some intricately carved and decorated leather jackets for them to look at.
Luke Humphrys, 15, is impressed. He's always wanted to be a carpenter, but if his teachers are right he's shaping up rather well for a future in tailoring. He opens his coursework book to reveal two tiny blouses he ran up in a few moments to demonstrate his ideas. Would he like to be a fashion designer? He shrugs, looking a bit as if he's worried fashion sounds a bit girly. "My dad makes stuff. And I think this is fun," he says. "So I'm definitely glad I chose to do it."
Others are less sure. Sophy Weaver, a Year 11 pupil, is doing a BTEC art and design course and plans to continue the subject at college next year.
"I think this is easier than just GCSEs," she says. "But if I could have taken the GCSE route, I would have. I enjoyed history and geography and I would have liked to have carried on with them. I think it would have given me a better range of knowledge."
There are many who would agree with her. Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham, says the trend to drop some non-compulsory academic subjects after key stage 3 is a matter of concern. "History, geography and immersion in the culture of another country are important ways of making sense of the world, and they ought to be available to all pupils up to the age of 16 if they want to do them," he says. "It would be very surprising if in a whole school there was not a single person who thought history or geography was important to them."
In languages, which were made non-compulsory in 2004, the decline in numbers taking GCSE has reached crisis level. A recent review by Lord Dearing concluded that schools should be set targets for increasing their uptake.
Linda Parker, the director of the Association for Language Learning, says the decline in language teaching is a matter of real concern - the problem is most acute in the poorest areas.
"I guess it's caused by a mixture of pupil choice, headteacher preference and concern about league tables. It's getting harder and harder to find schools that are keeping up numbers in these subjects that are seen to be more difficult."
She believes targets will help: "I think that will be a message to headteachers that you can't just opt out of a whole area of the curriculum.
There does need to be some sort of positive discrimination and incentive for schools to continue to teach and to continue to encourage pupils to take these subjects. It's a question of equal opportunities."
Not all schools in this position are as enthusiastic about guiding pupils into vocational courses as The Marlowe Academy. Rob Martlew is head of the Da Vinci Community College in Derby, which like the Kent academy had no entrants for GCSE history, geography or languages last year.
The school spent time in special measures and was "restarted" in 2004. Now 20 pupils are studying GCSE humanities and a group is doing French in Year 9. A quarter of key stage 4 pupils take extra lessons after school so they can do triple science.
Rob says: "If someone has a passion for geography or history, and at 14 you say to them, 'I'm sorry, you can't study that at A-level or degree level,'
is it doing them a good service? We are trying to offer the widest curriculum we can."
But many commentators are convinced the basic problem - a declining interest in traditional academic subjects, coupled with pressure on schools to score highly in league tables - will not go away soon. Some are now suggesting radical solutions. The Association of Teachers and Lecturers will publish a new book next month called Subject to Change, in which it will argue the national curriculum and GCSEs should be swept away altogether.
Martin Johnson, the union's deputy general secretary, believes the curriculum should be based on skills, rather than on subjects such as foreign languages or geography. "We would assume academic skills would still have a major place at key stage 4," he says. "But I would say provided you guarantee breadth of experience, it doesn't matter too much which subjects you teach it through."
Under the 1988 Education Reform Act, which introduced the national curriculum, history and geography were to be compulsory for all pupils up to the age of 16.
That was never implemented and since 1995 the subjects have been compulsory from five to 14. The numbers of pupils taking GCSEs in geography dropped from 290,000 in 1997 to 213,000 last year.
At the same time the number of schools where no pupils took GCSE geography rose, from 74 in 1997 to 85 last year.
Despite not being offered in some schools, history remains popular nationally.
In 1997, 227,000 pupils took GCSE history, and by 2006 the figure had risen slightly to 232,000. The number of schools where no pupils at all took history GCSE dropped from 94 in 1997 to 68 in 2006.
Until 2004 pupils had to study a foreign language until they were 16. Now languages are optional, though they are an "entitlement" area that all schools are meant to offer.
The numbers taking GCSE have plummeted, from 549,000 in 2003 to 418,000 last year. The number of schools where no pupils took a language GCSE rose from two in 1997 to 25 last year.
A review of languages by Lord Dearing, published last month, stopped short of saying they should become compulsory again and instead suggested targets for increased take-up.