Exam reforms have prompted a Northampton school to construct a new extended enrichment curriculum for year 12 students

The rushed reform of A-levels in England has presented school leaders and governors with real headaches. At the most basic, these pains are about what courses to offer and what advice to give year 11 students about their post-GCSE choices, but beyond that they raise bigger questions about what a sixth-form curriculum should look like at a time when funding is getting tighter.

The school in which I am a governor has a big sixth form, offering an exclusively academic curriculum, and gets very good results. There was no massive thirst for change and the government’s reforms were seen as a largely unwelcome distraction. Last autumn, my sense was that the task would be to manage the changes with as little disruption as possible.

Most of our students will simply take three A-levels from year 12

Since most of the school’s students go on to higher education, the University of Cambridge’s support of AS qualifications examined at the end of year 12 carried some weight. Other Russell Group institutions were more equivocal, so the school had to weigh-up whether sticking with AS would help or hinder students’ progress towards their ambitions in education or employment.

The arguments are finely balanced. Although the exam boards have said that new standalone linear AS-levels would be “co-teachable”, in that they have broadly the same subject content as the first year of the linear A2, senior staff were concerned that the skills and knowledge assessed in relation to this content would be significantly different and harder at A2. The risk here is that, by continuing with AS, our students might have got overloaded, leading to a drop in their performance

Unlike many locally, the school decided to drop AS entirely for the September 2015 intake for those subjects where the new linear model was available. What this means is that in September most of our students will simply take three A-levels from year 12, rather than four at AS and three at A2, in year 13.

This throws up its own questions about how best to staff and timetable the year 12 curriculum, given that most students will be following fewer subjects.

Clearly, just giving the students more private study periods would not be acceptable. Year 12 students do not come “oven-ready” for independent study and, in addition, the school admits well over 60 new, external, students to its sixth form each year who have to learn about its structures, customs and ethos. At the same time, it would not be possible, even if it were desirable, for the school to simply expand subject teaching time in the three subjects leading to examination.

This is where things get interesting: the challenge that governors have set the school leadership is to construct, for September, a new extended enrichment curriculum for year 12 students that actually delivers a balanced education beyond the narrow, treadmill of A-levels.

It will be interesting to see what they come up with! Like most strong schools, there are elements already in place. The school already has an active Duke of Edinburgh award scheme and residential education programme, offers opportunities for sports leadership and coaching, encourages students to take the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) and mentor younger students. Plus, the introduction of the new core maths qualification is a certainty and employment internships and enterprise education will almost certainly feature somewhere.

As the staff develop the offer I shall be hoping they draw inspiration from beyond the school sector and consider the ideas for a “citizens’ curriculum” that have motivated educators of adults. As set out by the late Sir David Watson (principal of Green Templeton College, Oxford), this includes a framework based on four “capabilities” – digital, financial, health and civic. There are a lot worse starting points and, if successful, it may yet be possible to fashion a silk purse from the sow’s ear of a largely unwanted reform.

Alastair Thomson writes in
a personal capacity