Why Ofsted is (very nearly) right about the three-year KS4

26 Jan 2020, 5:00

Despite criticism, the case for ensuring schools deliver a broad and balanced curriculum is unarguable and Ofsted are right to take a dim view of those that don’t, writes Jon Coles

In its approach to curriculum breadth, the UK (and England in particular) is an absolute outlier. No similar country specialises as early or as fully as we do. No similar country allows young people to opt out as early as we do from learning about the nature of our planet, how human, social and political structures came to be as they are, or how to communicate in another language.

This matters for society as well as individuals. When well-meaning parents harm their children by credulously believing scare stories about vaccinations; or nationalists win support by telling fairy stories about the past; or climate-change deniers with no relevant expertise argue science is biased, what price a better- and more broadly-educated population?

Across the developed world, virtually all young people stay in some form of education until age 18. Education systems have adapted to the fact that youth labour markets have collapsed in every developed country and, partly as a result, young people specialise later.

Almost everywhere – including in ‘dual system’ countries with strong employer-linked vocational routes and in countries with early academic selection – young people are essentially required to study the full range of (academic) subjects until age 16. Many countries expect or require a wide range of subjects post-16 as well.

What we can do is avoid making the problem worse

This picture of extended general (academic) education and delayed specialisation reflects parental and student demand as well as labour market changes: it keeps options open and gives more opportunities to change track and to progress. It also reflects a consistent societal view about what it is to be educated and the scientific evidence about the persistent cognitive benefits of mastering a range of different subject domains.

In this context, the lack of breadth in our system is easy to deplore, but it is tougher to fix. Our whole education system, including our model of three-year (rather than longer) degrees, is predicated on a narrow post-16 curriculum with a small number of subjects studied to a high level, which in turn assumes the reduced curriculum of the GCSE years.

What we can do, however, is avoid making the problem worse.

In countries where most would be concerned about young people ceasing to study history, geography, music, art or a foreign language at 14, the idea that schools might choose to bring that age forward to 13 would be horrifying. If you told them that some schools stretch the content of a two year exam syllabus over three years – so that in five years of secondary education, children study only four years’ worth of history and literature – their horror would turn to incredulity.

Let’s be clear: it isn’t the advantaged who suffer this. We who have cultural capital in abundance will not see our children dropping these subjects at 13. It is the children who most need schools to inject cultural wealth into their lives, whose parents don’t know that dropping subjects may suit schools but won’t serve their children’s interests who are at risk of finding their classroom experience narrowed and emptied by an all-consuming focus on grades.

Everyone accepts that exam results matter for children. But the government of the day’s preferred measure of exam results can become an unhealthy obsession. And, particularly because exam results are a zero-sum game, educationally dubious practices which appear to increase results on government measures have become contagious diseases. Once one school adopts one, others feel under pressure to do so too, to avoid losing out.

So the case for regulation is overwhelming, and Ofsted – having exhausted all other possibilities – is now finally doing the right thing in challenging the three-year key stage four. It should do so more full-throatedly.

Good schools teach the full range of subjects up to age 14, keep their curriculum broad, and protect children’s access to learning against exam pressures. They do so not in the interests of the middle classes, but most importantly for the poor and the dispossessed.

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  1. Pupils should be studying a broad range of subjects up to 16. It’s not necessary for all these to be examined. Our excessive emphasis on exams at 16 means we’re out-of-step with most of the rest of the developed world. We should be moving towards graduation at 18 via multiple routes.