What knowledge and skills will our young people need in order to succeed in the future? How do we ensure that our post-16 curriculum reflects this in structure and content?
The Royal Society held a symposium on curriculum breadth on 17 October provided an opportunity to explore these questions with the benefit of new research on the current state of the A level system in England and how other countries have recently responded to curriculum reform.
Bringing together representatives from government, academia, subject organisations, industry, teaching unions and practitioners, the symposium yielded vibrant discussion. Despite the diversity of stakeholders there was wide consensus that the A level system is outdated and we need to come up with ways to make it broader.
Breadth and why it matters
The symposium was opened with a speech by the Society’s President, Venki Ramakrishnan, who stated how “the future of our education system, just like the future of the workplace, lies in its ability to embrace change”. Throughout the day, the discussion was framed in this context of society’s changing skills needs and the need for a curriculum that reflected this. This meant confronting challenges presented by the current A level system.
A levels were contrived in the 1950s when many left school at 15 and entered work. Just 5.5% of the relevant age group passed one or more A levels in 1953-4, compared with over half of 16-18 year olds today.
The demand for greater skills is now also a demand for a greater breadth of skills. While A levels have offered young people with a route into work and further study for decades, questions are now raised over their effectiveness in preparing young people for the diversity and flexibility of skillsets that our future society will require. Indeed, the latest statistics reveal that young people are taking fewer A levels, with the average student taking just 2.7 A levels.
International case studies launched at the symposium revealed how other countries are moving away from a narrow post-16 curriculum, to a broader curriculum encouraging a diverse range of learning opportunities, with coherence within and between subjects. While the A level model was once copied around the world – chiefly in Britain’s former colonies – most countries have since adopted broader curricula. England, having left A levels relatively unchanged, is now a clear outlier.
Where now for post-16 education?
There was clearly an appetite for change at the symposium, but with an understanding that the changes needed would take time.
Coherence was a term which came up throughout the day. It was argued that post-16 education does not have a clear “curriculum offer”. Instead, pupils and teachers become fixated on the link between A levels and higher education, focusing on UCAS points rather than what is actually being learnt. Moreover, there needs to be a more holistic and strategic approach to the learning and development of young people through the content of courses, connecting the learning taking place in different courses.
While higher education participation has significantly increased, and A levels are a trusted entry qualification for an undergraduate degree, the undergraduate route is still only for a minority, which begs the question of what we are offering students in further education. How academic routes work alongside new technical routes will be a crucial component of a future broad curriculum.
Interdisciplinarity was also a key theme. The major challenges of the future are not compartmentalised into singular disciplines. Rigid specialisation can make it difficult to link knowledge to the real-world problems that we need to solve, from the everyday tasks to the global challenges. Employers are calling for greater diversity of thought in the workforce, understanding the growing value of interdisciplinarity in the workplace.
Of course none of this will be achievable without confronting wider issues in the education system. Improving the recruitment, training and support for teachers, and creating assessment and accountability systems that work to strengthen rather than constrain a broad and coherent curriculum were a feature of the discussions on ways forward.
Whatever steps are chosen, the symposium highlighted the need for meaningful consultation to develop a wide consensus on the way forward. Other countries have been unstuck by hasty reform, while those with the strongest systems have taken the time to create, with stakeholder support, a well-planned, coherent vision to implement reform over the long-term.
Thus, while consensus is there on the need for breath, we now must focus on what type of breadth will best equip young people for a diverse and technology-rich future, and the steps we can feasibly take in the current complex educational and political environment.