The curriculum reforms of the current government are based on the idea that academic qualifications are a prerequisite for success. Ed Cadwallader argues that this places middle-class students at an advantage, proposing curriculum diversification to help fix the class divide.
Whether or not you agree that the vote to leave the European Union was a revolt of the underprivileged against an out-of-touch elite, the fact remains that our nation’s prosperity is inequitably shared. While we should not blame education alone for this class divide, we cannot ignore the fact that, much as we strive for it to be otherwise, schools are places where parental wealth is a strong predictor of success or failure. Having had the privilege to work for many schools over the past eight years, I do not believe this to be down to a lack of talent or dedication in the teaching profession, rather, I think the fault lies with the way we have structured school itself.
breaking the link between class and attainment requires that more failures come from middle-class homes
The theory behind the curriculum reforms of the current government is that academic qualifications are a prerequisite for success and if we become better at teaching poor children academic subjects, they will share in that success. The problem with this theory is that we define academic achievement as outperforming other children, yet in order for exams to have rigour, a certain percentage have to fail.
Keeping this curriculum in place but breaking the link between class and attainment requires that many of more of those failures come from middle-class homes. These families, though, have the financial and cultural resources, over and above what’s provided at school, to ensure that this doesn’t happen. An all-academic curriculum can raise the bar that richer children have to clear to be deemed successful, it cannot alter the fact they are likely to go on clearing it.
To expand the number of successful school leavers and reduce the stark divide between passes and failures, we need a broader curriculum, though in crafting this we should reject the stale, binary choice between academic and vocational. Every child deserves to have their life enriched by studying humanities and languages but it is just as true that every child would benefit from a practical education, working as part of a team to achieve something tangible. I would like to see students setting up and running small businesses or social enterprises. This would be a vocational learning experience worthy of its academic counterpart, imparting knowledge of how the world works applicable to whatever path the student follows in the future.
we should reject the stale, binary choice between academic and vocational
The benefits of curriculum diversification are not confined to those of practical learning but extend to schools’ core mission of raising academic attainment. Every term children in bottom sets receive a report saying (I paraphrase) ‘you’re rubbish and your target is to be a bit less rubbish’. It should not be surprising that many of these children are disengaged, for we give them every reason to be. If on the other hand schools were able to say ‘you’re doing really well at x, if you work to get your English and Maths up to an acceptable standard, you have a really bright future’ then they would stand a greater chance of motivating these students.
There are also benefits to freeing arts subjects from the notion that they must contain a large academic component in order to be worthy of study. Drama GCSE, for example, used to be sixty percent performance, forty exam, now that ratio has been reversed, precluding those students who are talented performers, but struggle to write and analyse, from being successful. The focus on assessment generally in the arts is a huge missed opportunity. If lessons, especially at KS3, were more geared to performances and exhibitions, those events would be a wonderful opportunity for teachers to build relationships with parents premised on something other than how well or badly their children are doing academically.
Schools did not create class divisions in Britain and neither can they close them by themselves. But they can and should do more to increase the opportunities for children to be successful, to motivate the disengaged and to build relationships with families who experience education as an indictment of their life, not a pathway to a better one.