The Key Stage 4 Curriculum
Dumbing Down: the admission
I was never comfortable with qualifications that were prevalent in schools with low achievement. I remember sometime early in my career, schools were introducing BTEC courses and flying from 17% to 97% 5A*-C (17% wasn’t as shocking then as now) and it felt wrong, but I didn’t care that much. I didn’t work in any of those schools, but I heard my Head moan about them as they flew past us in the tables.
I don’t remember any school I taught in doing that, but I taught Maths and hence I didn’t really notice. There wasn’t a BTEC Maths, or at least not one I knew about where you could do a few units of coursework repeatedly and achieve 4 GCSEs in Maths.
Then I became a senior leader. It was a few years into senior leadership that I started to wonder why some of our subjects were getting 100% A*-C despite other areas (History being one) having the best teaching I’d ever witnessed. The reason was largely the courses.
About five years ago, a student came to me aghast. They suggested that despite being predicted As and A* grades in their GCSE courses, they were told they could not do any Science A-Levels at the local 6th form college (the truth was a little more complicated than that- they could but they would have to bridge between their GCSE course and A-Levels). I didn’t really do anything about this other than investigate how to get them onto A-Level Science courses. One way would have been to encourage them to go to a 6th form or college with less demanding entrance requirements.
Then I had a conversation with her parents:
“How come we’ve been told that even if our child gets an A* grade, she will be behind everyone else on the A-Level Physics course”
My response was that I didn’t believe she would. I was under the impression that the local high performing school was basically discriminating against this student because they came from our school – and hence not catering to her needs or accounting for the Science course she was doing. I contacted the exam board to support us, which they did. Well why wouldn’t they?
But this conversation had sown a seed.
We were doing the 21st Century Science course. It was a GCSE, not a BTEC. It has additional science options, which our most able students were doing. It sounds great in principle. You teach Science, but in a way that is applicable to the modern world. You investigate Science. You apply it to the modern world.
Over the next couple of years, several colleges reported that our Science course was not rigorous enough for our students. In 2009, I employed a physics teacher to teach (after school) a proper physics course to the three students who wanted to do physics A-Level the next year. They didn’t sit science, as you can’t combine an integrated science course and physics. So I had accepted what I was being told by the colleges. I hadn’t yet really done anything about it though. The reason was: science were getting good results; I reasonably didn’t want fewer students leaving with good results damaging their life chances. So I managed the situation rather than challenge it.
21st Century Science to me tries to get young people to think like junior scientists. This in itself isn’t a bad thing, but it is not a suitable replacement for the reams of knowledge required (and possessed by scientists) to be able to operate effectively in such a way. This may be a contentious point – and I admit I am not a scientist and don’t teach the course – but the lack of rigour seems to me to be due to removing a lot of scientific content (ie knowledge) from the traditional science course in the process of making it “relevant” to students’ lives.
I used Science because it came to mind. Our Music course, Drama course, Dance course, PE course could all have the same arguments levelled at them (with varying degrees of justification – and many staff disagreed). We did BTEC Business (I taught it for a year) and it was the worst course I’ve ever taught (and I’ve taught a lot of PSD and RS, both of which I rate highly). The teacher leading BTEC Business agreed with my view that it had no rigour or credibility.
Our curriculum was capping the ambition of our students.
Given the freedom to explore our curriculum under my new role (outlined in my previous blog post) including being responsible for curriculum for the first time in my career, I used John Tomsett’s post and wrote a curriculum document. Making the content of the curriculum more challenging was a scary thought. Was I signing the death warrant for my school? Was I playing into Michael Gove’s hands by shoving kids through an ill-thought out EBACC route?
My curriculum document:
I credited John, and said I’d used it on twitter, so I presume he doesn’t mind. I’ve edited it a bit, but it’s here:
“Here’s where we should start with our design of the curriculum:
what you want students to know and understand and the skills you want the students to develop.
These are not my words; they are the words of Sir Mike Tomlinson.
Hence, we just started shaping our own curriculum regardless of the leaks about KS3 or what we think the DFE suggest. But we do have to live in the world of the DFE and their pronouncements, so I am not saying ignore them.
And that world is a world that our students have to live in with the qualifications and skills that we develop in them.
We need a curriculum that:
- Has a broad core intellectual foundation
And provides students with sufficient
- Content knowledge
- Key skills
- Wide experiences
- Competitive qualities, attributes and qualifications
- Personal motivation to discover innate passions.
It’s a truism that we should make the content of the curriculum more challenging if we want to raise standards. We are a school in challenging circumstances, but given the political trajectory any attempt we have to ‘dumb down’ our qualifications (often this is in code – “this is the right course for our learners” can mean “we don’t think they can take a real exam, so we’re giving them qualifications we can manipulate/ that are easier”) should be resisted. Our curriculum does need to be more challenging.
There is a leak from the DFE that suggests that the aim is that 90% of students will have the English Baccalaureate Certificate (but by 18), so our current Year 9 students will have to compete in a world where the vast majority of students have these qualifications.
Our curriculum cannot continue to disadvantage our students and make them uncompetitive.
Bob Compton, American businessman has some very positive things to say about curriculum that we should consider. We need a challenging curriculum if we are going to put our students in a position to compete globally. For example, the Maths curriculum has been dumbed down no matter which way we look at it. However, Compton also understands that we have to enrich our curriculum with explicit opportunities for students to develop their creative skills. His presentation, The 21st Century Curriculum is provocative. I have no time for pseudo-scientific notions of what the left and right side of the brains do, but what we have to learn from Bob Compton is that we cannot look backwards.
The EBACC proposals are controversial. Let’s fill in our returns to the DFE (re: the consultancy), but understand that our curriculum needs to be developed in the arena of this political direction.
I’ve been polemical at Rushcroft about developing Skills rather than Knowledge, but I’ve also been wrong (if you read Hirsch, the man Gove bangs on about, he makes a better case than Gove for this!)
I also want us to remember this, and apply it to our students:
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Samuel Beckett
And hence our challenge with our curriculum is to marry our values with those of the political trajectory; to navigate that path for the benefit of our students. To have a curriculum that enables our staff to develop students who know what to do when they don’t know what to do.
So what does this mean at Rushcroft?
In no particular order:
1) Continue to strengthen and prioritise the core:
Maths, Science, English – particularly Science needs looking at. 21st Century Science has had its day as a qualification. If we are going to strengthen cognitive ability, theory is important. And I think we have dumbed down our curriculum by having 21st Century Science.
For Maths and Science, whole year block in all years – especially the smaller ones if computer says no. Stream if necessary (within Maths and Science).
All of the above would be strengthened by a 3 year Key Stage 4 in the core. Middle School students should start GCSE courses in these subjects in Year 9. Maths and English have obvious further stretching possibilities.
2) Invest in Spanish; look to develop a further competitive language. Mandarin seems an obvious choice here – except for the challenges in staffing it. Arabic is another preference.
3) Ensure our Key Stage 3 curriculum is rigorous, academic and embraces the arts. PSD should be taught within this curriculum but not discretely due to time.
- History and Geography should be separate and for at least two hours a week
- PSD to be delivered as part of Drama and English where possible
- Separate days for relationships and sex education, careers.
- Learn to Learn is an across the curriculum responsibility now – and should raise its profile. Developing discipline (or a better word) could be the key here
- Art, Music and Drama for one hour a week minimum
- Dance to be taught within PE.
4) In Key Stage 4, ensure depth of learning experience preparing students for the competitive world of young adulthood
- Abandon Citizenship as a qualification.
- RS to be a full qualification. 2 lessons per week
- Open the dark room and Kiln room and prioritise the Arts via investment (Music/ Art/ Drama – though very hard with only 3 options)
- We could maintain current structure of 3 options; with few exceptions promote broad balanced curriculum to include Arts, Humanities, and a language.
- Have a computer science option.
- Maintain structure of 2 hours PE. Review options within PE and review the offered PE Option.
- Rigorously analyse our possible Vocational options (BTECs out unless compelling case made).
- Somehow reinvent Geography; visit? Week long trip? Staffing?
- Traditional Sciences available to all – double for all; triple for most able.
Key Question for consideration:
Should our KS4 curriculum be 4 “Options” or 3? 4 would allow some balance, but may sacrifice depth (see attached curriculum model from KS)?
Stuart Lock on behalf of the Leadership Group, December 2012 (I have borrowed liberally from Bob Compton and John Tomsett throughout)”
We didn’t carry out all of my recommendations, though some are still on the table.
This caused some consternation amongst staff. Some really didn’t believe our students could cope with more challenging courses (and with single digit figures of students, they’re right). Some thought their subject would disappear (it did with Citizenship and PSD). Some thought we would make people redundant (we didn’t, because we have good teachers and want to keep them, though matching up subject knowledge has been challenging). We had a whole staff meeting with the Leadership Group sat at the front facing the staff and just took questions on what our intentions were. Some things were amended, but it’s fair to say that we travelled some distance in the curriculum discussions. We won at least some hearts and minds. I know some colleagues, including one on the Leadership Group (who has followed the maxim of “absolute freedom of discussion, absolute unity in action” and argued his position but maintained our position when voted down) disagree still, but that opposition is dwindling as I think the decision to make our curriculum more challenging is borne out.
We reinvented our options evening and I spoke to students and parents about preparing for university. Schools have to aim for getting students into university, don’t they? I mean, we’re supposed to be places of education. At this evening, we were honest about our previous curriculum capping ambition, and told students we wanted academic excellence.
We’ve also created a more able group. So far on Saturdays this group of 22 students have attended three hour sessions and completed homework on (you can tell I was a Philosophy graduate here):
- Descartes: proving God and I exist
- Speed Reading
- Utilitarianism v Kantianism
- Public Speaking
- What is university really like?
Sessions remaining this term include Neuroscience, Politics, Sociology, History of Art (at the National Gallery with our support assistant who has been displayed in the Portrait Gallery), Appreciating Classical music.
The point being: our students deserve the opportunity to go to the best universities, so we want them to aspire higher (despite their prior data).
They’ve all attended. Every week. Actually, I lie, we cancelled one week because 11 of them had Spanish exchange students.
Our current Year 10 group have weaker prior data than current Year 11, which is the weakest we’ve had since I’ve been at school. 50% were told they have to do the core plus a Spanish, plus a humanities plus 1. If they do triple science they have no other options. We have squeezed the Arts, and this is regrettable.
We have had one PSD day so far on relationships. It was better than a term of PSD lessons (I’ve taught them!), with excellent attendance, and really positive evaluations. We have 5 more and I don’t think anyone fears them yet.
We haven’t moved to a 3 year Key Stage 4 yet. I think we will, though I will consult (and we try to only consult when we haven’t actually made up our minds). I want to give students another option so that they are encouraged to broaden their curriculum with Art, Music, Dance, Drama or Technology – particularly the more able. I considered proposing an additional option and reducing the time for each option, but I recognise that I often see Art, Music, Dance, Drama and Technology teachers with Key Stage 4 students at 6pm, or on Saturdays. So squeezing those subjects curriculum time is not really a viable option in my view. So a 3 year Key Stage 4 will enable us to broaden the Key Stage 4 curriculum. We’ll see how the consultation goes.
We have Mandarin in Key Stage 3. Loads of schools want Mandarin. I really hope we can make it a qualification in Key Stage 4, though this really does depend on staffing.
In Key Stage 3, colleagues are preparing for more rigorous qualifications at Key Stage 4. “Learn to Learn” and “SMART Learning” were never abandoned formally, but our students books are content rich (and challenging to mark).
I can’t prove this, but it feels like we’ve stopped feeling sorry for ourselves. Our results this year helped, but it feels like we expect our students to be more successful. We recognise the barriers, and try to do something about them. Literacy is a key issue for us lower down the school, as one might expect given the low attainment on entry that we deal with.. It’s the cause of our ceiling at Key Stage 4. At the same time, we really do believe that this ceiling isn’t anything like as low as we used to, when we used to do courses that were appropriate for “our learners”. We’re an outward looking school.
Science teachers are delighted. There is a threat to their results, but they can teach their subject.
Our students and parents believe they can achieve more. Our Year 10s were asked “who wants to go to university” and 90% put their hand up. Though some are being unrealistic, I’m not confident about saying exactly who anymore because as I said in my previous blogpost, we don’t know the potential of the school. When they were in Year 8, this year group were feared. Now they’re embraced.
This has been the most significant shift in our school over the last year and it can be summed up as follows:
The students, parents, staff and hence the school have significantly increased ambition.
A tribute to the change:
Our Deputy Headteacher, who like me lives in Havering and has two secondary age children, said to me the other day:
I would send my children here.
Now my kids are 3 years and 10 months, but that’s exactly how I want to feel about the school I work in. Hand on heart, I think it’d be a tough decision if my daughter was in Year 6, but I would certainly seriously consider it seriously. I’ve said before “if it’s not good enough for my kids, it’s not good enough”.
We’re moving in the right direction, but as I’ve said before, we have a way to go. I wish I’d been a bit more radical when we did this, but I’m pleased we’ve started.
I will say this though: The curriculum we have now is good enough for my kids.