“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.” J. F. Kennedy 1961

A summary of notes for a contribution to the Latymer Upper School Symposium on Secondary Education Reform, April 2020

Who am I?

You most likely will not have heard of me. I am not a head, not a university academic, not an education blogger nor ‘influencer’ and not a writer of books on education (though I have written a couple of history books). However, I am a passionate educator with nearly 40 years experience in schools, as a teacher (11 years), middle leader (11 years), Academic Deputy Head (16 years) and for the last 16 months  or so as the Schools Support Director for Europe and the Mediterranean for  the educational charity Round Square, a community of around 220 schools from 50 countries across the world, all very different but all sharing common values inspired by the German educator Kurt Hahn who promoted experiential and character education and what we may now call global citizenship. I am not writing as the representative of that organisation but as an individual educator, although, as will become clear, what I have to say is not inconsistent with the values and philosophy that Round Square enshrines. Most relevant perhaps to what I have to say is what I learned from my experiences in teaching and leading in schools, visiting and inspecting schools, both here and abroad  and in particular from my role as the Deputy Head (academic) for 11and a half years here at Latymer Upper School. No doubt my perspective will be affected by my most recent experiences which have largely been in or with independent schools which are not so bound by constraints as state schools, but I hope my perspective may still be relevant. My focus will be largely on the academic route through secondary school – for which I feel able to make some informed commentary – rather than a vocational route though there will be overlaps, especially as I do not believe the two are or should be mutually exclusive either in form or ambition.

So – to the questions I was asked to consider

What criticisms do you have of GCSEs and the secondary curriculum in this country? What are its redeeming features?

What impact does the current curriculum and exam structure at 16 have on students, teachers, schools and parents?

“In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”     Martin Luther King 1969

The driving forces behind educational reform in the curriculum in the UK have, since the 1980s been driven by three key ideas:  the desire for Uniformity – all children should more or less be exposed to the same curriculum (hence the National Curriculum and the ambition for 90% take-up of the EBacc), the desire for Standardisation – all children should be taught to achieve and tested on the same (minimum) standards (hence Key stages and levels, SATS and GCSEs), and the desire for teacher and school Accountability – the above measures should be used to assess and compare (teacher and) school performance (hence league tables and the various performance measures – %5 pass grades at GCSE, %EBacc, Progress 8 etc). These principles aren’t necessarily bad in themselves but the emphasis on them has tended to exclude other ideas and the implementation of them has been damagingly over heavy. 

Most attempts at real curriculum reform, though periodically contemplated, have usually failed to reach the policy stage (most notably the great missed opportunity – the Tomlinson proposals for 14-19 education), diluted (Higginson’s proposed A-level reforms) or been quietly left on the margins (SEAL, PLTS). At the same time there is constant pressure for schools to deliver more – British Values, SMSC etc. Whilst the National Curriculum at KS3 has to some extent been relaxed to give schools and teachers a little more freedom for choice, innovation and creativity, that has been curtailed effectively at KS4 with the emphasis on EBacc and ‘harder GCSEs’ with 9 different grade levels. One irony is that the reform of Curriculum 2000 has effectively removed AS levels and a focus on three A-levels has left some real room for schools to be creative and innovative with the time freed up – and here is something that may provide models on which to build.

So what, then, of GCSEs and exams at 16?

GCSEs as individual subject specifications have value – indeed in terms of the aims and objectives and the specification content of individual subjects I can see much merit. For example, a Head of Physics when asked what he would change in terms of the course of study commented: ‘Nothing’. What is more the idea of providing some breadth and balance throughout a school career is a key mechanism for exposing students to different areas of experience and learning. My arguments against the GCSE system are less about their objectives and content (though arguably for some GCSEs there is too much content) than about the type and appropriateness of assessment of that content, the overall system of assessment ( exams in the same session at 16) and the constraints/effects that assessment has on teaching and learning and wider curriculum and educational concerns.

GCSEs were introduced by Kenneth Baker about 35 years ago along with the National Curriculum. The GCSEs were conceived as a school leaving  qualification. Kenneth Baker now thinks they should be abolished, not least because 16 is no longer the point at which students leave education. 

Whatever the merits of specific GCSEs, testing nearly all 16 year olds in 8, 10 or more subjects in a five week period when they may take 25 or more different exams when they will be staying on in education or training for at least another two years defies logic. I think I am right in saying that no other European country does this, nor do most education systems across the world. What is more the assumption that the best (even the only) effective way to assess the learning and progress of pupils in subjects is through a written exam taken under immense time pressure at the end of two (even three) years of study is false.

If GCSE examinations were not there, just reflect for a moment on the simple fact of the liberation of time that would bring …certainly, I would judge, in many cases perhaps a term and a half of potential learning and teaching time….  

Furthermore, the GCSE system has tended to result in an instrumental approach to teaching and learning – teachers teach to the test – many learners only want to learn about what will be tested and how to pass that specific test.. The temptation to teach to the test is exacerbated by the fact that GCSEs are not only used to assess the learning of the individual students but are used as a key accountability tool for assessing teaching and the relative ‘effectiveness’ of schools – now through a variety of measures – %gaining EBacc, %5 pass grades, Progress 8 and so on. ‘Harder’ GCSEs the extended grade range – from 9 – 1 have increased the pressure to achieve. Some schools begin GCSE courses in Y9 in order to cover the content and demands. At the top end where once there were three pass grades – A, B and C, then there were four with the addition of A* and now there are 6!  Why one needs or thinks it desirable to have 3 ‘fail’ grades and 6 ‘success’ grades is unclear and, furthermore, one can only suspect the decision to grade from 9 at the highest to 1 leads open the possibility of having a grade 10  or a grade 11 or a grade 12 to  differentiate further at the top end …   For the learner, for the teacher, for the school and for parents too GCSEs have become increasingly  ‘high stakes’ tests with all the pressures and emotional stress that involves. Certainly, whatever the other factors, exam pressures on adolescents, as every school counsellor will tell you, are a significant contributor to the increase in mental health issues for many.

GCSEs, as you would expect, dominate Years 10 and 11 (and to some extent Year 9) and fill the timetable to such an extent that other worthwhile educational experiences (including co-curricular activities) are often marginalised or disappear (especially in Y11) as the ‘exam’ focus and the pressure to perform drains motivation for, engagement in and even provision of, other possibilities.

And additionally the ambition to have 90% of students following the relatively narrow requirements of the EBacc is distorting teaching across the curriculum, limiting choice and damaging non- EBacc subjects. Reducing choice for students is also demotivating and arguably increases disengagement.  

And that is the final criticism – the GCSE system is a one size fits all approach that aims to cater for the lowest and the highest attainers. I am not convinced that even if a set of national assessments was appropriate for all at 16 that there should be a single assessment for all whatever their ability or progress.

As a final point it is worth noting that in some of the supposedly most successful school systems, for example in Singapore, South Korea, even China there is a move away from standardized high stakes testing and constraining curriculum in order to allow for more creativity, innovation, a more student-centred approach and wider educational goals. 

So I agree that a system of ‘high stake’ national exams taken by all students two years before the end of their education should go

What of the secondary curriculum more generally? Arguably one of the saving graces of the curriculum at KS3 and to a lesser extent at KS4 is that it combines breadth and balance which some would argue is vital given the specialism of 3 A-levels at KS5. From the beginning of its introduction under Kenneth Baker there have been calls to reduce the requirements of the National Curriculum at KS3 and to be fair there has been movement  here and there is a more flexibility and freedom of movement for schools and there have been moves to make the curriculum more relevant and to reflect the modern world – most obviously through computing, for example, but also through choice of content. That said there is constant pressure on the secondary curriculum to deliver more be that in terms of Citizenship education, or in communicating British values, or in careers education to name a few.

If we were to abandon a system of national exams at 16 (and reduce the demand of what is core), then we would have the opportunity for some serious curriculum review and reform that is urgently needed given the realities of the challenges of the present century. It is urgently needed.

COVID and opportunity …

The Covid-19 crisis and the subsequent closure or part closure of schools has created an unprecedented situation and what impresses is the way so many schools are adapting to the ‘new normal’ albeit often through trial and error. If nothing else it helps schools and teachers to learn more about the strengths and limitations of ‘on-line’ and ‘distance’ learning. But it has also provided opportunities for schools to experiment, get creative and explore some different ways and areas of learning with their students. The instinct is to try and replicate the school at home, but this is not straightforward even with the wonders of Google Suite for Education, Microsoft Teams and the like. There has been some imaginative and creative approaches adopted, for example, in providing new and different learning opportunities for Y11 and Y13 students and many schools I am aware of are also exploring opportunities for virtual international links and collaborations. We are all learning that it is possible to do things differently.

And, of course, Y11s and Y13s are not taking their exams …. Rather than reinvent the wheel, I quote here a recent blog by Professor Young Zhoa:

Stop and Rethink What’s Worth Teaching and Learning

We have a rare opportunity to examine what we have always been teaching (or trying to) for a number of reasons. First, Covid19 has forced the cancellation of many high stakes examinations students have been subject to, at least temporarily removing the pressure to teach to the test. Second, university admissions will have to rely on other evidence other than test scores and many universities have announced their decision not to use standardized test scores for making admission decisions. This may be temporary for some, but could be permanent for others as Covid19 accelerates the rate of universities dropping requirements of test scores. Third, governments and accrediting bodies cannot reasonably expect schools to comply with their prescribed curriculum during the crisis. Fourth, online education is not conducive to deliver high quality instruction of some traditionally valued subjects. Fifth, it is unethical and unjust to hold students accountable for learning the same things at the same rate and assessed by the same exams because their learning environments are so unequal as a result of their home background. Sixth, during this crisis, parents and the public are more concerned about the physical safety as well as social and emotional wellbeing than academic content, so should educators.

It is thus possible and necessary for policy makers, school leaders, teachers, and parents to seriously rethink: do we need to simulate school and teach everything that is supposed to be taught in school? Is it reasonable to demand that each and every student, despite his/her individual circumstances, learn the same thing at the same time as before? Is it in the best interest of students and teachers to require them to follow the same curriculum as if they were still in school?


“In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”     Martin Luther King 1969

So What Next? Or how could secondary education be improved ?….

So arguably the biggest obstacle to innovative, worthwhile educational change in the UK is the distorting impact of a national system of exams at 16. If we remove (or ignore?) that obstacle (and are willing to be still more flexible on the KS3 curriculum – as independent schools could be … taking account of, but not constrained by)  then we move to a situation where we have a relatively blank sheet of paper and a real chance to provide an approach to secondary education that will better meet the needs of our students in the present century. It is an opportunity to stand back and to ‘re-imagine’ education and the curriculum and make it more ‘fit for purpose’. My intention in what follows is to set out some ideas for going about rethinking the secondary curriculum building on some great initiatives both here and abroad, and what I have gleaned from my own experience and my own beliefs about education.

Our national system of exams at 16 may be a significant obstacle to innovation, flexibility and adaptability but there others that are equally constraining: the structures and organisation within schools with their year groups, class groups, terms, timetables, lesson lengths, the Chinese walls between ‘curriculum’, ‘traditional subject disciplines’, ‘extra/co-curriculum’, ‘pastoral’, ‘academic’ . These are what David Tyack and William Tobin referred to as the ‘grammar of schooling’ back in 1994: the assumed/unquestioned ‘regular structures and rules that organize the work of instruction’. Well, it is time to question them, and move, as Professor Yong Zhao argues, from the ‘grammar of schooling’ to a new ‘language of education’ and build a new ‘grammar’. We should not only challenge the rationale for compulsory exams at 16 but also the ‘grammar of schooling’ that inhibits innovation and the education of our young people. The design of a new curriculum should be flexible and adaptable to meet individual student needs and should not be bound by present conventions of timetable and year cohort structures.

And there is a growing consensus around the world about what that education should look like: a view that marries traditions of ‘holistic’ and subject based education with the context of the present day and that is present in the vision, aims and learner profiles of many schools already, if not in a curriculum that looks pretty much as it did in the early 20th century. 

In short a new curriculum needs to be flexible and adaptable in order to offer development not only of subject knowledge and understanding but also:

  1. A more personalised education, more tailored to individual student needs and involving greater student agency
  2. Character education
  3. Global and  21st Century Competencies
  4. Digital/Virtual World Competencies

A new curriculum also needs to be coherent and aligned across all aspects of a student’s educational experience.

The design of a new curriculum should be coherent … calibrated to school vision/aims, learner profile

I’m with Simon Sinek (Start with Why?, Penguin, 2009) in believing that the answer to this question must be the fundamental driver for what we do and how we do it. The answer will be different for each school but I suspect there will also be commonalities across many schools which may allow for collaboration, joint action and development.

Most schools will have a Mission/Vision statement and/or a number of aims and/or a learner profile that encapsulates their ‘why?’ I suspect that most schools will have a rationale that is about much more than exam results and I suspect, for example, the externally imposed ambition for 90% of students to achieve the Ebac does not get to the heart of what the school and its staff and parents believe the school is, or should be, about.

For me, and for many schools here and across the world, the purpose of education is to help students flourish as human beings (in the context of the contemporary world). It is a holistic view 0f education that draws on the Aristotelian idea of ‘eudaimonia’  a term which does not lend itself to straightforward definition – though often it is characterised by that phrase  ‘human flourishing’ or ‘thriving’. This encompasses personal wellbeing, and the development of ‘character’, of the knowledge, skills and dispositions to lead a fulfilling, worthwhile and personally and socially responsible life – a ‘good’ life in the virtuous sense, to help a student become the best they can be. This is not simply a ‘western’ liberal view but is reflected, albeit in different ways/forms,  in traditional approaches to education across the world (see Timothy Reagan, ‘Non-Western Educational Traditions’ , Routledge 2018).

For some schools the ‘holistic’ approach will be implicit in the curricular, co-curricular and pastoral arrangements and activities to varying degrees. Other schools are, or are becoming, much more explicit about this via mechanisms such as learner/student profiles, and/or identification, development and ‘assessment’ of ‘habits’ or dispositions/skills etc they seek to develop. For example, schools such as Latymer Upper have used their learner profile to identify ‘Habits of Heart, Head and Hand’ to guide and inform what they do and Round Square schools seek to encourage the Spirits of Internationalism, Democracy, Environmental stewardship (and sustainability), Adventure, Leadership and Service and to help students (deemed ‘explorers’) find and develop 12 positive attributes, skills and habits (deemed ‘Discoveries’). And, of course, a  holistic learner profile has always been at the heart of the IB approach. For many schools one of the drivers of such approaches is reflection on how education should better reflect demands of the 21st century ever-changing, interconnected world, the requirements of employers and the knowledge, skills and attributes needed for a fulfilling adult life. ‘21st century skills’ (most not 21st century) and ‘global competencies’ have been identified and are increasingly used to inform teaching and learning and student experiences. And in 2018 PISA included ‘Global competencies’ in its tests and Andreas Schleicher has become an advocate. 

Typically the lists of such ‘21st century’ skills and global competencies, however variously expressed, include , some or all of: 

Character attributes: emotional intelligence and empathy, self awareness, personal and social responsibility, resilience, growth mindset, (ethical/appropriate)leadership, courage, curiosity and love of learning, reflection/metacognition, desire to contribute positively to the world

21st century competencies: Critical thinking and problem-solving skills, communication skills, collaborative and teamworks skills, creativity and innovation, flexibility and adaptability

Global competencies: Intercultural understanding and knowledge and understanding of global interdependence, interconnectedness and globalisation, appreciation of diversity, service and service learning, commitment to sustainability, negotiation and conflict resolution skills

Digital competencies: Information and media literacy and responsibility,  digital and computing skills, ‘learning to live, learn, socialise and work in the virtual world’ 

Many of these skills and attributes are also those that are desired by employers . For example, Oly Newton (Edge Foundation) has identified creativity, communication skills, teamwork, and problem-solving  inter alia and  the World Economic Forum in its Schools of the Future pamphlet (Jan 2020)  (https://www.weforum.org/projects/learning-4-0 ) has identified eight key areas for what it calls its Education 4.0 project:

  1. Global citizenship skills: Include content that focuses on building awareness about the wider world, sustainability and playing an active role in the global community.
  2. Innovation and creativity skills: Include content that fosters skills required for innovation, including complex problem-solving, analytical thinking, creativity and systems analysis.
  3. Technology skills: Include content that is based on developing digital skills, including programming, digital responsibility and the use of technology. 
  4. Interpersonal skills: Include content that focuses on interpersonal emotional intelligence, including empathy, cooperation, negotiation, leadership and social awareness.
  5. Personalized and self-paced learning: Move from a system where learning is standardized, to one based on the diverse individual needs of each learner, and flexible enough to enable each learner to progress at their own pace.
  6. Accessible and inclusive learning: Move from a system where learning is confined to those with access to school buildings to one in which everyone has access to learning and is therefore inclusive.
  7. Problem-based and collaborative learning: Move from process-based to project- and problem-based content delivery, requiring peer collaboration and more closely mirroring the future of work.
  8. Lifelong and student-driven learning: Move from a system where learning and skilling decrease over one’s lifespan to one where everyone continuously improves on existing skills and acquires new ones based on their individual needs.

And the CBI, in its latest skills survey report (https://www.cbi.org.uk/media/3841/12546_tess_2019.pdf) has stressed:

The importance of a broad and balanced education system that equips students with the character, knowledge, and skills needed to adapt to the changing nature of work is critical. This matters most for communities and people from difficult or less advantaged backgrounds and places.’

The design of a new curriculum should be Comprehensive – encompassing all aspects of the educational experience a school provides

Whatever a school’s ‘why?’, it should be the foundation and driver of educational and curriculum thinking in the school and the term ‘curriculum’ should be used loosely to encompass all that the school’s education provides – (in the widest sense – i.e. encompassing not just the formal timetabled curriculum but also the co-curriculum and pastoral provision)  – and the way it delivers it (e.g. pedagogical practice). The curriculum (in the widest sense) should be reverse engineered from that ‘why’ and at least should be carefully calibrated to it to ensure coherence and a common ambition.  

The design of a new curriculum should combine the very best of  the traditional and the modern

None of this is to belittle nor decry the need for traditional subject knowledge and disciplines, and co-curricular activities. It would be hard to envisage a school that did not offer sciences, humanities, arts, technology, languages, music, sport etc  in some form or other. Certainly, for me, the ambition should be to maintain the best of the traditional and accommodate the best of the modern. Students should be introduced ‘to the best that has been thought and said’ and the different subject disciplines with their distinctive ways of examining the world. That ‘powerful knowledge’ is the bedrock of academic provision and a key medium through which pupils are exposed to new experiences, ways of thinking and understanding about humanity and the world about them. That said, there does need to be some recalibration because knowledge is not static and is constantly evolving.

Traditional subjects and activities can, often do, and, certainly, should contribute to the development of the approaches, attributes and skills referred to above, but there needs to be a deliberate intention to do so and a willingness to examine and flex subject/activity content and pedagogies to accommodate them and make them explicit. There also needs to be, I would argue, distinctive space to be found in education provision for new areas of knowledge, and approaches to learning – be that outside the present National Curriculum at KS3, or across subjects or realignment within them. Traditional subject disciplines are important but much new knowledge crosses boundaries, or at least, draws on different disciplines and that interconnectedness and interdependence could be explored –   and then there are the new areas – nanotechnology, genetics, AI etc. There needs to be room for experiential learning, project and problem-based ‘real world’ learning where students can draw on and apply what they have learned in different subjects and the relevant expertise of others – teachers, parents and outside agencies. And there needs to be room for students to explore and follow their passions – some student agency, for example, in selecting and exploring questions they wish to answer with support and guidance as appropriate.

The design of a new curriculum should be mindful of the context in which the school operates

Thinking through your ‘why?’ is a necessary and critical starting point, reference and driver to curriculum provision but it is not sufficient. Curriculum design should also have in its design concern for the following:

  1. Student wellbeing
  2. Student Agency and the flexibility to respond to individual needs and learning pathways
  3. Responsiveness to and connection with  the school community, local needs
  4. Relevance and responsiveness to the ‘real world’ and contemporary contexts (not least the Fourth industrial Revolution)
  5. International and global connection and intercultural understanding/collaboration
  6. Developments in Neuroscience in relation to Adolescence (that may indicate a restructuring of a typical school day, for example)

The design of a new curriculum should start from where the school is now 

If a school has a clear vision and set of aims and/or learner profile/breakdown of attributes, skills, areas of experience it wants to develop it is useful to map these against what the school already does to see where it is strong (e.g. probably in areas like critical thinking)  and where it is weaker – this may help to point where the school needs to consider change and development.  It is one way for evaluating how far a school may be making effective provision to achieve its ambitions. A school may also consider explicitly linking key aspects to key (co-curricular and curricular) activities to help guide student choices. This mapping exercise can be reassuring because it may show staff how much is already being done, what may need tweaking and then areas that need to be developed.

A very useful indicator of how to review a curriculum in the light of present imperatives can be found in the work of the Centre for Curriculum Re-Design (www.curriculumredesign.org)and a good starting point here is their book by Charles Fadel and others, ‘Four Dimensional Education’ which considers the whys, whats and hows of curriculum design. Some related but alternative design principles are offered by the OECD Learning Compass project. https://www.oecd.org/education/2030-project/teaching-and-learning/learning/

The design of a new curriculum should draw on the ‘best’ of what has already been done and implemented both in the UK and around the world

Research should be a foundation of any curriculum review: we need to learn from the best of what is known and done. In looking for alternative ways to think about , implement and structure a new curriculum, schools will find numerous wonderful initiatives and ideas implemented elsewhere (in the UK and internationally) that may be of relevance and of use to them in their thinking. They are worth examining to inform thinking. Within the UK there are some radical approaches that may resonate. XP Doncaster and School21 are two such examples, both driven by a clear vision. For example, XP’s guiding principles of ‘Character’ and ‘Quality Work’ are reflected in a curriculum organised through cross-curricular ‘Learning Expeditions’ based on searching questions – an approach that is carried through all the way to the January of Y11 – and only then is the focus on specific preparation to take (at least a) a core of 8 GCSEs. Other schools have developed alternatives to GCSE.  Schools such as Bedales and Sevenoaks have developed their own alternatives to GCSEs that offer different experiences and better meet the needs of their students. And such schools are not alone. Many schools have innovated at KS3 with courses aimed at new areas of learning, of some element of global education, or they have adjusted curriculum time to accommodate ‘off-timetable’ days or weeks for  themed learning, problem-solving collaborative exercises, experiential and real world learning or adventure challenges and activities. And in the Sixth Form many schools have also innovated. Indeed the recent reforms in A-levels have given many schools the impetus to reinvent their 6th Forms with the space left by the ‘4th AS level’ being used in creative ways which may provide another model for extension backwards down the school. For example, Latymer Upper School redesigned its sixth form curriculum around the principle of a Core and an Electives programme, with the Core including 3 A levels, Service, Knowledge and Research Skills, Life Skills, Games, and a learning journal and a wide range of teacher-designed, non-traditional elective courses and a research project, all of which, including accrediting of co-curricular activities, lead to a school leaving diploma awarded at Distinction, Merit or Pass levels. 

And that notion of core and electives is perhaps a model worth exploring further – certainly in relation to 14-19 education and when combined with an approach that reimagines traditional structures and provides for much greater flexibility and choice so that students can find motivating and challenging individual pathways. In Canada, Ontario State education, for example, operates a system of core and electives for the final four years of secondary education – to graduate students must gain 30 plus credits (18 compulsory/core) plus 40 hours of community engagement.

Many private schools in the US also operate various systems of credits – with a compulsory core of varying degrees. Some have chosen to break the link between age and stage – i.e. classes may contain students from different age groups according to their level of mastery/progress. What is more credited courses may operate on a termy/semester basis – e.g. 10 weeks of relatively intensive study rather than a whole year of less frequent teaching and learning. Typically a student in grades 9-12 will take 5 or 6 courses per semester, plus a range of co-curricular activities – this can be of real benefit to students (they are not trying to juggle the demands of 10 or more subjects each week) and teachers (they take fewer classes for longer). Choice and flexibility are drivers in the approach – so Phillips Academy, Exeter, New Hampshire offers over 400 elective courses and students agree their programmes with a student adviser.

Even more radical is the approach of schools like Templestowe College, a state school in Victoria, Australia where student agency lies at the heart of what they do. After an introductory year students choose their courses of study from their ‘Flexible Learning Environment’ and can suggest (and are then supported) courses and subjects they wish to study – so there are, for example, courses in computer game design and Geek (sic) Studies. If a subject or course is not on offer the school will do its best to provide or empower the student to undertake a Personalised Learning Project. Again the link between age and stage is broken. And you may also have heard of the Independent Project – an option within the Monument Mountain Regional High School in the US – a semester long programme (a school within the school) where students plan, design and organise their own learning in three elements – weekly questions (they choose) based on one of 4 curriculum areas – English, Maths, Natural Sciences or Social Sciences; a semester long Individual Endeavour and a three week long Collective Endeavour. Another innovative school is Ivanhoe Grammar School in Australia that complements its core curriculum with cross-disciplinary enquiries, experiential learning, service and a personal project; what is more the equivalent of our Y10 students spend that year on a university campus with a distinctive programme. Markham College in Peru complements their core curriculum with their HELIX and IMPACT programmes. The Helix Programme stands for Holistic, Experiential learning, Leadership, International citizenship & the X-Factor and offers a range of activities to meet those ambitions – the X-Factor is to help students find and pursue a passion. IMPACT lessons encourage students to apply their classroom knowledge to solve real-world issues and become positive agents of change. Working closely with experts from the school community, this authentic learning experience challenges students to be creative, reflective and become the best version of themselves.There are other schools that you may well have heard of like Hi-tech High schools in the US  and the Green School in Bali that are animated by different visions of education resulting in innovative, and by all accounts successful, practice. 

The design of a new curriculum should be flexible and adaptable to meet individual student needs and should not be bound by present conventions of timetable and year cohort structures

However administratively convenient and seemingly efficient, the present typical organisation of schools in the ‘factory model’  – year groups, regular classes, short, standardized timetabled lessons , year or two year long programmes of study should be re-thought. It’s a model for a different era, designed for uniformity and, perhaps, to use a Napoleonic phrase ‘to cast a whole generation in the same mould’. Many schools have tinkered with the system, introducing ‘off-timetable’ weeks or days, introducing two week timetables or longer lessons in order to try and bring some flexibility, accommodate particular areas and approaches to learning, and more effective learning to bear – but the basic ‘grammar’ remains. It seems to me, when you examine the most innovative schools here and approaches adopted abroad, it is possible to find ways more suited to the ambition of an education better adapted to the priorities of the present. Project and problem-based learning approaches often need substantial intensive time; working with employers and the community similarly may require a different approach to the standardised timetable slot; experiential learning/outside visits presently often means disruption of the ‘normal’ timetable (hence some moves toward things like Activity Weeks or Days); whilst language teachers may (not universally) advocate ‘little and often’, for many areas of learning, especially if practical and /or enquiry-based, much longer sessions of time are optimum. It seems to me the organisation of time , especially from Y9 onwards, around 5 or 6 or 7 courses per week for  each ‘term’ (or ten week period) would have considerable educational merit. An additional benefit of such an approach is that more courses and choices can be offered and students can have more chance to find their interests because they are not committing (in the elective element at any rate) to two years of study. Furthermore, if we became much more willing to move away from age-related cohorts, especially after Y9, and moved towards a mastery and progress based provision we could better meet the needs of individual students. And finally, the assumption that all teaching has to be to classes of 30 (or whatever number) irrespective of the educational purpose needs challenging, too. For some purposes (e.g. where basic information giving or  instruction is provided this could be done to several ‘classes’ at once ; for discussion a smaller seminar unit may be appropriate ; for other purposes small group, pair or individual tuition may be needed. Education should drive the mechanism not the other way round.

The design of a new curriculum should empower schools and teachers and trust their professionalism

Schools know their communities best, and working with them, they can provide an education best suited to the needs of that community and its young people. What impresses me about most schools is the overriding concern to do the best by their students, but they feel constrained by relatively inflexible requirements imposed upon them. My experience of curriculum innovation is that once teachers are trusted and empowered they, working together, can come up with well thought-through exciting and effective courses and approaches that are also popular with students and parents. Such innovations at my old school, Latytmer Upper, for example include their Global Goals and World Perspectives courses (Y9-11) and the wonderful range of well over 30 ten week elective courses offered in the Form (including curses as divers as Anthropology, International Development (involving international collaboration with two other schools and a service project), Medical Ethics, Effective Altruism, Game Theory, Parasitic and Tropical Disease etc, etc.

The design of a new curriculum should not be bound by present systems of assessment and accountability

Clearly assessment is an important part of the learning process and its outcomes. And a ‘terminal’ exam in the traditional sense, may be an appropriate part of an answer to assessing what a student knows, understands and can do for some areas of learning,  but it is not, however seemingly efficient, a complete answer in any subject area or at all in some. Summative assessment should be both timely (e.g. at end of topic) and appropriate to what you are trying to assess. It may be that a written report or a coursework essay may be appropriate, or it may be a portfolio of work, it may be in a mixed media format, it may be an artefact and accompanying explanation, it may be an oral presentation and q and a with an audience, it may be continuous or terminal, etc.  A key question may be what is the best way for the student to demonstrate mastery or progress in their learning?

My prejudice is that any overarching grading system for a course, unit or diploma should be simple and straightforward – e.g. pass, merit, distinction – rather than over complex.

How should schools be held to account? It seems to me the most effective and fairest approach is an inspection framework focused on quality rather than quantity  – i.e. not bald  exam percentages and league tables and the key question should be how well does this school meet the needs of its students and community?


You will have detected from the above that the kind of curriculum development I believe is needed and urgent, is quite radical. It is not enough to re-organise or realign years 10 and 11 more or less along existing lines but without terminal examinations. We must challenge the ‘grammar of schooling’ and introduce  a ‘new’ language of education if we are to meet the needs of our young people growing up in the ever-changing, globalised world, if we are to help them to thrive and flourish as individuals, citizens and contributors to the progress and wellbeing of society.  I suspect there will be many who will agree and say ‘Yes’ to much of the above… but they may also say, ‘but’ and list the obstacles and difficulties. Well those aren’t to be underestimated and any change will I think need to be bottom up rather than top down – to create a movement. Success will depend on a mindset that is willing to rise to the challenge, to take risks and to work to persuade – to move from ‘yes, but’ to ‘Yes and so ….’ There is an opportunity and urgent need. We should draw inspiration from the words of John F Kennedy in 1961:

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.” J. F. Kennedy 1961

Select Reading List:

Simon Sinek, Start with Why? (2009)

Valerie Hannon, Thrive: Schools Reinvented for the Real Challenges We Face, (2017)

Charles Fadel et al., Four-Dimensional Education: The Competencies Learners Need To Succeed, (2015)

Young Zhao and Brian Gearin (Ed), Imagining the Future of Global Education:  Dreams and Nightmares, (2018)

Lucy Crehan, Clever Lands, (2016)

Fernando Reimer and Connie Chung (Ed), Teaching and Learning for the Twenty First Century:  Educational Goals, Policies, and Curricula from Six Nations (2016)

Timothy Reagan, Non-Western Educational Traditions, (2018)


CBI/Pearson Skills Report 2019 Education and Learning For the Modern World https://www.cbi.org.uk/media/3841/12546_tess_2019.pdf

Edge Foundation: Our Plan for 14-19 Education: Coherent, Unified, Holistic, 2017

Kenneth Baker, 14-19 Education, A new Baccalaureate (Edge Foundation)

Innovation Unit, Re-Imagining Education Together, (2019) https://www.innovationunit.org/publications/reimagining-education-together/

OECD The Future of Learning and Skills, Education 2030 https://www.oecd.org/education/2030-project/

OECD Future of Learning and Skills, OECD Learning Compass 2030 (https://www.oecd.org/education/2030-project/teaching-and-learning/learning/)

Ted Dintersmith, What School Could Be, (2018)

www.asiasociety.org , Educating for Global Competence: Preparing our Youth to Engage the World

The Tomlinson Report, 2004, http://www.educationengland.org.uk/documents/pdfs/2004-tomlinson-report.pdf 

https://youtu.be/RElUmGI5gLc The Independent Project

https://tc.vic.edu.au/learning Templestowe College

https://youtu.be/nMxqEkg3wQ0 Paul Hutton talks about Templestowe College

Yong Zhao, Trina E. Emler, Anthony Snethen, Danqing Yin: An Education Crisis Is a Terrible Thing to Waste: How Radical Changes Can Spark Student Excitement and Success (2019)

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