The shrinking curriculum – will educational changes in Brentwood really provide more choice?

One of the central principles given for the changed approach to Academies and the introduction of “free schools” since May 2010 is the provision of more choice for parents. It has been argued that by providing a greater array of school types the options open to pupils will be greater and will, therefore, enable more children to be educationally successful.

But is this really the case? What are students actually being offered?

The changing educational landscape in Brentwood provides an interesting illustration of this national issue as it relates to secondary education.

By becoming an academy, a school is given complete freedom over the curriculum offered to its students. Local Authority (LA) schools are obliged to follow the National Curriculum which comprises a set of subjects that must be taught at Key Stage 3 (Yr7-9) and offered at Key Stage 4 (10-11). The National Curriculum is under review currently but relevant subjects, and the required approach to them is provided by the DfE.

So far, the approach of schools in Brentwood that have converted from LA to Academy status has been to retain a broad offer of subjects in Key Stage 3 and offer options around a small core of compulsory subjects for Key Stage 4. For example, St Martin’s School summarise their position thus:

“As an academy, St Martin’s School is not obliged to follow the National Curriculum. In practice we embrace the overarching principles that the National Curriculum was designed to deliver.

We offer a significant amount of time in Year 7–9 for the core subjects of English, mathematics and science. A broad curriculum of the full range of humanities, arts, PE, technology and modern foreign languages tops up a provision that equips students well with the knowledge, skills and understanding required in Years 10 and 11.

In Key Stage 4 students are able to have a free choice for their options following a tailored core provision of English, mathematics and science. Students will also follow non-examined subjects of PE and civics.”

“Free schools” are also Academies but those that have so far been set up or proposed seem to be taking a very different approach. The proposed Becket Keys Church of England School intend to offer the following:

“The curriculum of the proposed school will focus on subjects that reflect the Christian ethos, the needs of the future workplace and the local community. Therefore, the core GCSEs all children will take will be: mathematics, English Language and Literature, religious studies (RS), information communication technology (ICT) and science (triple science – biology, chemistry and physics as three, separate GCSEs -will be an option). A selection of other GCSEs will be available including: music, Mandarin, Spanish, art, physical education (PE), geography and history.” 

In this case, the core of compulsory subjects that all students will be required to take at GCSE are greater in number than in other Brentwood schools while the options outside this appear to be a lot smaller. Any child that attends this school knows from the outset that they will be sitting at least six prescribed GCSEs. In common with Brentwood Ursuline, one of these will be Religious Studies. Seven options are listed here but contrast that to the list available after Key Stage 3 at Shenfield High School:

“In Y10 and Y11 students begin to specialise.

All students study: English, Mathematics, Science, PE and Citizenship.

Students also select from other areas of study including:

GCSEs:History, Geography, German, French, Spanish, Art and Design, Drama, Music, PE, Resistant Materials, Graphic Products, Textiles, Food, i-Media, Business, Childcare, ICT

Double Awards (BTEC, OCR National, VRQ, NVQ)Music, Business, Performing Arts, Retail, ICT, Construction, Hair and Beauty”

At present it appears that Brentwood’s existing schools will be maintaining a wide choice of curriculum to their students, allowing them to discover what suits their skills and plans for the future in the three years leading up to choosing their GCSE options. As we have noted, their is no obligation on them to do so in future if they have Academy status.

Interestingly, there are currently challenges to “free school” proposals in other parts of the country that argue that, far from extending choice, these new schools threaten it. As state money is allocated by head of pupil, for each pupil attending a new school that would otherwise have gone to an existing one, the existing school will lose that revenue. If this loss is significant the outcome is likely to be a consolidation of courses rather than an expansion as teaching and other resources are concentrated on key subjects.

Either way given the evidence above, in Brentwood it is difficult to see how the student is being provided with greater choice. It also makes us wonder how closely the Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Reverand Stephen Cottrell, has looked into the proposal that his diocese is backing…

“this new school will serve the whole community, work alongside other excellent schools in the town, and offer a broad curriculum.”

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