'Unexamined subjects deserve a place on the curriculum'

Pupils must be given the time to explore subjects they won't be tested on such as PSHE and political engagement

Teenagers need to decide for themselves whether they want to do volunteering, says Bernard Trafford

“My kid loves all this cricket/netball/acting. But it’ll have to stop in Year 11 when GCSE work clicks in.”

How many times as a head did I hear that sentiment from parents, while preaching the opposite? I’d insist: “Youngsters learn more about resilience, and about themselves, when cold, wet and lost in the hills on an expedition than they will in a lifetime of maths lessons.” Any subject could replace maths in the example, but you get my point.

In the last of this mini-series of blogs about designing a 21st-century curriculum, first of the “must-haves” is the imperative of leaving room, not only for pupils to make valid choices and pursue their own interests and passions, but also for all those other opportunities for learning that may not be strictly termed “subjects”. 

Moreover, the curriculum must no longer be dictated by rafts of qualifications (see last week’s piece). Indeed, without the tyranny GCSE, key stage 3 could revert (as Ofsted boss Amanda Spielman constantly urges) to being a broad, generalist phase instead of a pre-GCSE push.

If the accountability regime were rendered sane (try to imagine it), the curriculum really could purposefully create the best opportunities and lead to the best individual outcomes for young people. It would be broad until at least age 14, if not longer, truly educating pupils instead of driving towards and through exams.

Some independent schools bravely exploit their independence to enrich the curriculum. Bedales School’s minimal core of iGCSEs leaves space for its own suite of BACs (Bedales Assessed Courses). Wimbledon High School recently announced that its girls will take fewer GCSEs in order to follow its home-grown PPE (politics, philosophy, economics) course. Such plans work for individual schools because they’re driven by the distinctive pedagogical inspirations and strengths of their staff. Maintained schools must be given the same creative freedom to ensure their pupils gain a suitable level of understanding in a wide range of unexamined subjects.

At secondary level, discrete specialist subjects retain a place: we need the expert passion of their teachers to take pupils as far as they can go, deep into the subjects that inspire them, to become the next generation of experts. Where they want to specialise, they must be permitted to.

A 21st-century curriculum shouldn’t seek to do away with discrete subjects, but it should demonstrate and exploit better than hitherto the links between them, allowing pupils to comprehend its overall coherence.

That’s not easy. So often I’ve heard dedicated, enthusiastic teachers at training days vow to work more closely with other departments in future. But, when the daily grind reasserts itself, little changes.

That’s the challenge for schools and policy-makers: give teachers the time to make it happen, the outcome differing from school to school. We don’t need “mandatory” teaching of climate change or relationships. Committed, professional teachers appreciate and will meet those shifting (and constantly growing) needs: just give them the space and opportunity to work together.

Similarly syllabuses, rather than being set in stone by rigid exam specifications, must more readily allow students to pursue their interests. A potential artist/designer should be able experience paintbrush, pencil, photography, textiles, sharp-end digital design, 3D, engineering and all the other potential elements of that subject that I’ve overlooked. Then be encouraged to explore in depth the area that most stimulates them, with no false divide between “academic” and “vocational” labels. Schools already employ the subject experts to teach all those areas, but the current regime rarely offers the flexibility to make it work.

Finally come PSHE, creative and sporting opportunities, out-of-school learning, community/civic/political engagement, work experience, all the activities that develop the “soft skills” employers demand (generally in frustration). Forming the glue that holds together all the formal, traditional elements, they require still more space, flexibility and teacher-time: yet the draconian testing and accountability regime squeezes all, inexorably narrowing and ossifying the education offered to pupils instead of broadening it.

There is a better way, then, which I can only sketch here. Is there the collective courage in Westminster – and more widely – to seek it?

Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist, musician and former independent school headteacher. He tweets at @bernardtrafford

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