Are we squeezing the life out of the curriculum?

31st August 2018 at 00:00
In an era of high-stakes accountability, schools are dedicating more and more time to the ‘core’ subjects – maths and English – robbing other subjects of precious classroom time. Critics fear that the decline of the arts will leave pupils culturally impoverished. Meanwhile, despite concerns about obesity and mental health, children are spending less time in PE and PSHE. Helen Ward investigates

It’s that time again. The start of another school year is just days away. Exercise books are still pristine, yet to be filled with scribbled quadratic equations, poetry, essays on the environmental impact of cotton and Matisse-style collages.

Pupils can look forward to an autumn term of academic study punctuated by sport, performing plays and creating music.

Or can they? A Tes analysis provides worrying new evidence that the expansive and inspiring curriculum that we would want and expect our pupils to have is under increasing threat. Last week, we revealed how exam preparation was beginning to swallow up the whole of secondary school, with exam boards marketing GCSE-style tests for Year 7 pupils (see for more). Meanwhile, exam entry figures renewed fears about the decline of subjects like music.

Now, Tes has analysed Department for Education data on the hours spent on every subject and found significant changes to the balance of the curriculum in our secondary schools in the past eight years. This is not the national curriculum that ministers say should be taught, this is the real curriculum that is actually being taught.

The latest figures, for 2017, show that:

* Maths, English and the sciences now make up more than half (51 per cent) of the teaching time at key stage 4, up from 44.5 per cent in 2011;

* At key stage 3, less time is being spent teaching music (down by 11 per cent), art (down by 9 per cent) and drama (down by 7 per cent), compared with 2011. While at key stage 4, music is down 12 per cent, art is down 20 per cent and drama is down 26 per cent;

* Languages, despite being in the English Baccalaureate, remain in trouble. There has been a rise in Spanish, with 32 per cent more time at key stage 4. But French is down 11 per cent and German down 22 per cent;

* Design and technology has fallen precipitously, with 19 per cent fewer hours devoted in KS3 and 40 per cent less in KS4;

* ICT has fallen by 51 per cent in KS3. While computer science teaching has now taken up some of that, ICT used to account for 4.2 per cent of KS3 curriculum time in 2011 – now ICT and computing together take up 3 per cent of KS3 curriculum time.


But perhaps some of the most worrying changes are in PE and personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) education – subjects linked with a school’s role in nurturing pupils as more than a collection of exam results and developing them as people.

Obesity levels may be worryingly high but schools spend 21 per cent less time teaching PE to 14- to 16-year-olds than they did in 2011. Despite fears about children’s mental health, the time spent on PSHE has dropped by a third in KS3 and by 47 per cent in KS4.

“We believe schools should be making their own curriculum decisions that are in the best interests of the young people in their school,” Malcolm Trobe, deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, says. “However, the reality is that performance measures are what schools are judged on, so this puts an undue amount of pressure on leaders, governors and trusts.”

The performance measures for secondary schools are based on GCSE grades and this summer saw the first results for the bulk of the new “tougher” GCSEs. “The new mathematics GCSE will be more demanding and we anticipate that schools will want to increase the time spent teaching mathematics,” Michael Gove, then education secretary, said when revealing the new English and maths GCSE content in 2013.

The impact of exam reforms

These were also the first subjects to be reformed. So it is perhaps not surprising that English and maths have seen the biggest rise in the number of hours taught.

But the exam reforms are just one aspect of a tsunami of changes to hit schools over the past decade. There has also been the introduction of the EBacc measure, which rewards schools for pupils’ GCSE performance in five academic subjects.

And now there is Progress 8, which incorporates the EBacc alongside three “other” subjects and a new national curriculum. Both measures will influence the time that schools spend on particular subjects.

“I don’t think it is a coincidence that this significant decline [in some subjects] has happened since the EBacc was introduced,” says Darren Northcott, head of education at the NASUWT teaching union.

“The statistics emphasise that very strongly in terms of the distribution of curriculum time. We are seeing a greater proportion of time given to EBacc subjects and the marginalisation of non-EBacc subjects.”

He points out that some schools may be trying to make up some of the hours lost in art, music or drama in extracurricular time, but questions what message this sends to pupils.

“The only implication students can draw from this is that these subjects are more peripheral in nature,” he says.

But amid all the upheaval around assessment, there have been other reforms: most notably the promise of unprecedented autonomy to schools that opted to become academies. Today, 72 per cent of secondary schools are academies and, therefore, able to set their own curriculum, or at least the trusts that run them can. And if heads, or academy trusts, have this power, shouldn’t they be held responsible for curriculum changes rather than the government?

“The key thing is for headteachers to value the arts and music as important,” says Bridget Whyte, chief executive of Music Mark, a music education association. “It is an important subject in a broad and balanced curriculum. There are schools doing amazing things. How is it that some schools are able to afford a music department of three people while others are closing their music department?”

Trobe points out that deciding how much of each subject to offer is not simply a question of a headteacher’s values, or even the impact of performance measures. It also comes down to cash. “You may have once offered eight subjects at GCSE,” he says. “But if you haven’t got the money to pay that eighth teacher any more, you offer seven subjects – and the one that goes is the subject with the smallest uptake.

“That may put pressure on minority subjects, like music. But if you can’t afford to run a group of 10 or 12 pupils doing GCSE music, you can’t run it.”

Music entries slump

The government says that the number of arts GCSE entries has remained broadly stable. But this year music GCSE entries in England were down by 7 per cent. And an Education Policy Institute study looking at all arts qualifications at KS4 found that if in 2016 the same proportion of pupils had taken at least one arts entry as in 2014 then 19,000 more pupils would have accessed an arts subject.

Gove justified his education reforms in 2014 by saying that he wanted every child to go to a state school that “introduces them to the best that has been thought and written, which prepares them for the world of work and adult responsibility, which imbues them with the strength of character to withstand life’s adversities and treat other humans with courtesy and dignity, which gives them the chance to appreciate art and culture, to enjoy music and drama, to participate in sport and games, which nurtures intellectual curiosity and which provides a secure grounding in the practical skills the modern world requires.”

But critics may look at the change in the balance of subjects and argue that Gove’s laudable goal seems to be becoming more distant, precisely because of his reforms.

In PE, for example, the increased weight given to exam assessment in the subject‘s new GCSE has apparently led to less participation in sport. Emma Mort, a local NEU teaching union secretary, has revealed that at one school in Warwickshire, from Year 9, the majority of PE lessons now take place in the classroom because of the change.

“They don’t do practical PE any more,” she says. “It’s just in-the-classroom learning about PE because the GCSE is knowledge based.”

Another of Gove’s key reforms was a new national curriculum that insists that schools do teach art, music and sport. Of course, as academies, nearly three-quarters of England’s secondaries do not have to follow it. But it will often still be used as a blueprint by them. So could this “broad and balanced” curriculum be a counterweight to the pressures on schools from the performance measures?

The answer to that depends on the definition of “broad and balanced”. Tim Oates, the research director at Cambridge Assessment, chaired the expert panel overseeing the 2011 national curriculum review that set out to slim down the curriculum. He says the reforms were also about rebalancing.

“There was a focus on shifting the balance. It was recognised that ... by 2007, there had been an effective downgrading of the content of the really core subjects and we sought to reassert the importance of science, mathematics, history, English and so on,” Oates says. This was, he explains, because the evidence showed that those core subjects were vital for children to do well in later life, although he insists that this did not mean the arts had been downgraded.

It seems, then, that the increased focus on maths, English and science subjects in both accountability measures and the national curriculum is both aligned and deliberate.

But there is a third pressure on schools – Ofsted. And Ofsted’s intervention in this debate could be crucial. How Ofsted decides to inspect the curriculum in its forthcoming new inspection framework will be an important factor in whether the current trends continue, or start to reverse.

Chief inspector Amanda Spielman has already spoken of her concern that “testing has come inadvertently to mean the curriculum in its entirety”, and raised fears about an increasingly restrictive curriculum in KS3, particularly for low-attaining pupils.

The question of who is affected most is an important one. “It is a social justice issue,” says Sam Cairns, co-director of the Cultural Learning Alliance, which represents 10,000 arts organisations campaigning for children to have access to culture and the arts. The arts subjects allow children to take risks, they teach resilience, they enhance soft skills.

“The middle classes continue to provide their children with access to arts, if they are no longer provided in school. So they continue to enjoy the benefits while the kids whose parents can’t pay don’t get the same boost.”


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