Sweet success of a ‘pick and mix’ curriculum

1st April 2016 at 00:00
Year 9 pupils select from a smorgasbord of options on one school’s subject ‘taster menu’

You could describe my school’s approach to the Year 9 curriculum as “doing a Heston Blumenthal”. However, that does not mean we charge each student £250 and serve them deconstructed subjects in a small building in West Berkshire.

What we do try to achieve, however, is some of Heston’s skill for creating a taster menu: our Year 9 students consume a series of 12 sample courses over the year, which they have selected out of a menu of 26 possible “dishes” – these include standard academic options such as geography, history and psychology, but also more vocational choices such as hospitality and catering, vehicle technology and horticulture.

If you think that this sounds like a lot of work for both students and teachers, you’d be right. But students now make educated choices for their study in Year 10 and beyond and, owing to the project learning-based approach of Year 9, they are more engaged in those subjects than they might otherwise have been. Here’s how we did it.

Why did we change things?

“What’s the point in learning this?” and “When will I ever use this again?” are the two most common phrases that I hear students say when they are discussing with their peers – and indeed their parents – learning that they have not connected with or do not see the value of.

It can be argued that so many of the topics taught in schools do not allow students to see the relevance of them, nor do they prepare students for the world around them that is changing so rapidly. This leads to a lack of engagement, which then impacts attainment.

Another problem is that students sometimes pick GCSE options almost automatically, without considering subjects outside their comfort zone or whether they actually enjoy the subject. This means that they can miss out on a subject they could have really engaged with, and that they may end up studying something they dislike.

How do we do it?

We offer 26 options subjects from Year 9. Students undertake “taster options”, choosing four subjects each term to “try out” and completing 12 out of 26 over the course of the year. At the end of Year 9, students choose the four that they have enjoyed and connected with the most to take forward to key stage 4, along with their core subjects.

Did I just say 26 option subjects? Yes, you read that correctly: 26. Our school prides itself on the extensive academic and vocational offering for students, from business studies to hairdressing services.

Each of the subjects runs a termly project based on the principles of project-based learning (PBL). Each project has a name and an overview; they also have driving questions (open-ended questions that students understand and find intriguing, which capture their task and frame their exploration) and a meaningful final product/outcome.

The projects develop significant KS4 knowledge and skills to prepare students for the next stage of their studies, with explicit opportunities to develop numeracy and literacy embedded throughout.

Students start the term with a launch event that introduces the project, provides the “hook” and all of the “need to know” information through a project sheet that can be continually referred to.

Cross-curricular links are also developed, along with the all-important external links with businesses, organisations and charities to make the projects “real”. Students and teachers also undertake a cross-curricular “gallery walk” during the second half-term to share good practice and critique one another.

What are the challenges with the approach?

Offering a distinctive variety of subjects such as horticulture, construction, vehicle technology and hospitality and catering does not come without its challenges.

Sometimes, finding specialist staff in these areas who are also qualified to teach can be difficult. Finding staff who buy into the style of curriculum that we offer our students can also be challenging. Ensuring that staff know the benefits for themselves as well as their students, and that they feel valued for the hard work and effort that they put in is key to our high retention rates, which negates any issues of staff recruitment.

Timetabling this type of curriculum might sound like an absolute nightmare. In fact, it is very easy. Students study their core subjects (English, maths, science, religious studies and PE) throughout the year, which leaves 12 empty lessons on their timetable to fill.

Options subjects take up three lessons each per week, meaning that four can be studied. Students opt for the four subjects that they would like to study in the first term before they break up for the summer, also selecting second choices just in case they don’t get their first (we still have to impose class sizes and limits for each option so subjects are not always guaranteed).

Just before Christmas, students choose the next four they that would like to test out, dropping the four from the first term. The process is repeated at Easter. It is highly unlikely that students do not get to try out their first choices during one term or another.

Can you give a practical example?

Let’s look at a textiles project. Students study the theme of “pattern” and explore a variety of textiles processes and techniques supported by contextual research.

At this year’s launch event, students received a masterclass from the charity ActionAid, which provided a brief for students to design and produce a bespoke tote bag based on specifications from ActionAid and inspired by students’ research.

Students manufactured a final product that was judged at the end of the project by the charity, with the winning design chosen to be mass-produced and used as part of their next fundraising campaign.

We enjoyed so many successes across the whole curriculum last term with geography students designing a new sustainable school for the local borough, which is facing a secondary school place crisis; history students producing a promotional documentary for a Jack the Ripper tour company in London; hospitality and catering students producing a new three-course meal for sale in the school canteen based on stringent nutritional and costing criteria; design engineer students designing a new eco-classroom for the local community; and ICT students designing a new area for an extension at a theme park in Hampshire in spring 2017.

What has the impact been?

The benefits are numerous:

Students see the “real-world” relevance of what they are studying.

They have increased engagement and a real motivation to work hard and achieve, with improved responsibility for their own work and for others.

Teachers feel reinvigorated about their teaching, which facilitates a number of meaningful experiences.

Students have improved their subject-specific knowledge, their understanding and skills, along with decision-making abilities and personal attributes.

They have benefited from improved retention of theoretical knowledge and understanding along with case study information for their exams.

Teachers have benefited from considerably reduced workload in terms of planning and marking. We encourage our students to undertake independent learning (either individually or in groups) along with self-, peer- and expert-assessment using the pre-defined success criteria.

Teachers gain time to work with individual students to check their understanding and provide support to those who need it most during independent work.

As the students try out so many of the options on offer before choosing their final four to take forward to key stage 4, and owing to the fact that the projects give students a true representation of what the course will be about in Years 10 and 11, we find that we have a minimal number of changes part way through GCSE courses and that all students are engaged and motivated because they fully connect with the subjects they have chosen.

In addition, a good number of higher-ability students go on to take up vocational courses owing to personal interests or links with possible career opportunities in the future, rather than automatically opting for academic options because it seems like the thing that they should be doing.

Are you going to expand the project?

We would like to take the project-based approach and expand it to other year groups. We are going to work with subject staff to embed PBL within exam specifications for Years 10-13 so that students can appreciate how the material they are being tested on relates to the “real world” and how it will go on to benefit them in the future. It would also allow students to continue to develop a variety of skills, including initiative, the confidence to take risks and resilience.

How can I do this in my school?

Now is the right time to take the plunge to overhaul your curriculum – you won’t regret it. You will need a good term or so to get everything set up and organised. September tends to be the best time to roll it out across the curriculum. You will also need a dedicated member of staff to oversee the programme, to develop teaching staff and their projects, and to build all-important links with external businesses, organisations and charities.

The most important thing to remember is that this style of curriculum could be adapted to suit any school, and could just be undertaken by individual subjects.

Matt Childs is lead practitioner (options curriculum) at Stanley Park High in Carshalton, Surrey

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