What_should_be_in_the_school_curriculum_? (Sam Curran)

Formal or informal? Academic or life skills? Linear or modular? These are some of the questions that we have been asking ourselves recently about the curriculum as its whole structure has been questioned. Michael Gove brought out a new ‘skill-based, slimmed-down’ curriculum after being forced to scale down the wholesale changes he had promised to GCSEs. These reforms were criticised as being to prescriptive and that it would promote rote learning and that it was just a list of facts that children had to learn and memorise. I would argue however that the more important question is not about the structure of the national curriculum but how it is organised in schools and how much time is devoted to each subject.

Is there a role for new ideas in the curriculum?

On average, most schools have 3-4 lessons a week dedicated to maths which is a perfectly acceptable amount. However, given the concern by employers over school leavers (and adults) maths skills and the general importance of it in daily life, should there be more maths lessons in a timetabled week? Admittedly I am quite biased, being from a maths background! My thoughts are perhaps backed up by a study carried out by The American association for the advancement of Science.

Comparing the amount of time American, Chinese and Japanese children spent in school on mathematics, they found that American pupils in grade 1 and 5 spent less than a fifth of their time on maths and double that amount on language. In contrast, Asian children spent 30-40% of their time on maths with a similar proportion on language. Interestingly, owing to Asian pupils spending Saturday mornings in schools and the academic culture, they spent more than 2 hours a day extra in school than American children. Chinese pupils spent an average of 77 minutes a day on homework compared with the rather paltry 14 minutes a day American pupils did work. Homework should not always have to be prescriptive; it could take the form of investigations or open-ended projects. Or maybe the challenge could be to create some homework questions and an answer booklet for their partner. There is of course, no substitute however for exam paper practice and questions.

To me, all of this seems to explain the difference in academic achievement between Asia and the rest of the world. Asian pupils also have shorter holidays and longer school days than the UK. If we adopted a similar approach here in the UK, we might close the gap: at 10 year olds the brightest pupils are equal to their Chinese peers, yet at 16 they are 2 years behind.

Of course it is not only maths that is important, arguably English is just as key, if not more so than maths. In my opinion, schools should have 5 lessons a week for each subject and run additional classes (possibly before or after school) which could either be enrichment or intervention. Many schools do this already but just think of the possible impact if every single school had this approach. Schools I have worked in have had enrichment activities such as maths challenges/clubs and intervention schemes like homework help, one-one tuition and revision sessions. Often schools designate a so-called “sixth period” (either before or after school but normally at the end of the school day) to accommodate this. This sort of approach works well and complements the more serious lessons with more relaxed informal support sessions. I have seen the benefit it can have to pupils, both academically and socially. It could work well on a weekend to particularly for GCSE students in terms of revision sessions. They could wear their own clothes, have a mature attitude to revision and perhaps experience what it might be like at college. In times of intense revision schedules, one school I worked with stayed till 6 for maths revision and then got pizzas in for the kids! That was a really nice touch and fitting reward for their efforts. If you like all of this, it is a sort of extra-curricular academic, rather than sporting activity.

Although these are perhaps the main changes needed to the curriculum, the other possible need is for a subject to specifically dedicate to careers education/employability skills. The closest thing to that in schools currently is PSHE/Citizenship although these subjects concentrate on a whole range of things not just careers. When I went to school the first time that I properly learnt about CVs were at college. This was also the first time I came across UCAS and personal statements. Introducing pupils to these things earlier will allow them to make more informed choices about their careers and options of further study. It might even allow them to mature earlier as well.

I have worked on and seen mentoring projects run by University students to encourage pupils to come to University. This has worked well with as the pupils can perhaps relate to those that are closer in age to them. Of course all of this doesn’t just apply only to pupils that want to go to University, it is equally important to those that go down the vocational route. They will be required to stay in education or some form of training until they are 18 further reducing the number of NEETs. It is worth also considering the use of outside agencies in this program such as Barclays’ “life skills” program which delivers career sessions in schools. Organisations like Prince’s Trust and NCS (National Citizen Service) that do admirable work with young people also have an important role to play.

There is so much scope for the change with the curriculum but will it happen?


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