Too young to choose

11th February 2005 at 00:00
Narrowing the curriculum at 14 does nothing to nurture pupils' talent, writes Sean Lang

It's options time again. Across the country, 14-year-olds are weighing up the relative merits of music or art, history, geography or religious education, one language or two. Or, of course, none.

Schools and education authorities are busy offering guidance, with pamphlets and magazines and parents' evenings to help you choose the right courses for the career of your dreams.

That, at any rate, is the theory. The reality is a little less edifying.

The entitlement curriculum means nothing if the options blocks work against you. I know of one school where the blocks are so wide you can drop all the humanities and all languages if you want to. That's if the system isn't already rigged to keep the lower attainers out and the league table scores up.

A group of Year 12 students told me recently that they all went for the subjects that looked easiest, and who can blame them? I can only speak for my own subject here, but I know that history teachers regularly roll out all the goriest topics in time for options. My own daughter's Year 9 history course recently took a most interesting detour from the Industrial Revolution into an in-depth study of Jack the Ripper.

Don't tell me other subjects don't do something similar. I even knew one head of history who grumbled that her geography colleague got a higher take-up by wearing shorter skirts.

Curriculum managers can be so taken up with models and structures that they regard subjects as an irritating distraction, like librarians who complain about borrowers spoiling their shelves. Yet, read the accounts of "My Best Teacher" in the TES and you won't find people fondly recalling the six-module structure or the key skills assessment of their schooldays; it's the teacher with an infectious love of the subject who inspires and leaves a lasting mark. Always has been and always will be.

Two recent developments make this an opportune time to reconsider this whole options process. First, the Conservative party recently declared its support for history to be compulsory for all pupils up to the age of 16. At the Historical Association we were naturally gratified, even if the Tories'

version of history is not necessarily our own.

But why should we be singled out in this way? What logic is there in suddenly cutting off children's education in, say, geography just as they are gaining the maturity to understand the important issues of the environment? Why should children have to make invidious choices between different branches of the arts, possibly discarding a talent they never knew they had just because they don't like the teacher?

Anyone who has been through the education system knows that the precise grades you gain at each stage - GCSE, AS, A-level, degree - matter very little once you have passed to the next stage, but options decisions stay with you throughout your life.

I had to choose, bizarrely, between music and geography, and while I have never regretted doing music, I am still acutely aware of my lack of geographical knowledge. Fourteen is simply too young to be making this sort of decision.

The main reason for options, of course, is the timetable time needed to prepare for GCSE, which brings me to the second reason for reconsidering.

Is GCSE really worth it? The Historical Association's Curriculum Project recently looked in some detail at the quality of examinations in GCSE and A-level history, and the verdict is pretty dismal.

There is some very good work going on in GCSE classrooms, but the exams are narrow, formulaic and ill-suited to show what pupils can really achieve.

When the Tomlinson committee reported, there was a widespread hope that the proposed diploma would mean the end of GCSE, at least as we know it. We now know that, for political reasons, something called GCSE has to be kept, but if so, let it be a genuine baccalaureate, with genuine breadth.

Every attempt in recent years to broaden the 16-19 curriculum has been frustrated, and it's not difficult to see why: there is little point in seeking to broaden the curriculum at 16 when you have already narrowed it at 14.

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has recently launched its Futures programme of consultations to consider the future shape of the curriculum. Let's seize this opportunity to put an end to all the periodic crises in music or languages or history: put subjects at the heart of the curriculum and keep them there. To 16.

Se n Lang is honorary secretary of the Historical Association and director of the Historical Association Curriculum Project

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