Whenever this debate comes up, I often find myself thinking about my own KS4 experiences. GCSEs were relatively new, the term KS4 was not around. People were still discussing the audacity of a government to ditch the old O-levels. Yet still I consider myself and my high school friends to be quite well educated. Our comprehensive school did good work with all of us in my opinion.
But what about breadth? We went to a school that organised it’s day into 5 lots of 35 minute lessons, with a break in the morning and a good long (sometimes it felt too long) lunchtime. We also had a huge range of after school activities to get involved in, if we wanted. At the time it was compulsory for all students to do maths, English and Science. That was it. If I remember correctly, our year was the first year made to do Double Award Science, a crazy scheme by which you study chemistry, physics and biology as if they were studied separately to the depth of a single subject and you were assessed by just two combined exams at the very end. Stressful.
To make matters worse, those of us considered to be in the top ability range had to do both English Language and English Literature GCSES, separate subjects taught in the same time every one else just did one. So that makes 5 of my GCSES. But what about GCSE options?
I made my choices in 1990. My school had the good fortune to offer us 4 option blocks with subjects arranged in such a way as that even if you were a science geek like me you had to do a humanties subject (RE, history, geography, Latin and economics were available). We also had to pick a modern foreign language (French or German) and an arts subject (from art, music or drama and I think thinks like sewing and home ec were in this block too). Then there was a random block to choose whatever you wanted (as well as many of the other subjects already mentioned it was this block that enabled me to do IT).
So in the end I managed to get maths, music, double science, English Lit, English Lang, German, Economics, and IT. I have one other GCSE that I did as an extra subject in 6th form (Sociology, which I found not only interesting but rigorous and a welcome break to my science heavy A-level choices).
In short, I think my school was able to offer me a broad education that I feel set me up wonderfully for my path in life, and managed to instill in me a love of learning and reading to boot. Why is it so hard for modern schools to do this? I went to an average comprehensive, grew up in poverty on a council estate. I know many of my former classmates who have managed to become productive and happy adults who look fondly back on our time and I consider them all as well educated. What is it that is stopping schools managing to do today what my school did with me all those years ago? I certainly don’t believe it is because of lack of trained or committed staff. But it is something we need to take a long hard look at.
This week, School’s Minister, Nick Gibb, gave this speech setting out the social justice case for an academic curriculum – aka making the Ebacc a compulsory entitlement for all students. When this kicks in it will have a significant effect for a lot of schools where the study of a language and/or either History or Geography are not currently compulsory at KS4.
It’s important to stress that I do agree with a lot of what is said in the speech. In general, I agree that up to KS4, a broad curriculum with a strong academic weighting is important and should be an entitlement for all young people, regardless of their circumstances. There’s plenty of scope to specialise and to pursue technical learning routes from 16 onwards. I agree that too many students have been sold short by self-fulfilling low expectations…
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