Most schools have been grappling with the ‘reformed’ A Level system these last few months, faced with the prospect of doing what’s best for the students in their care - or in some cases, what they can afford to do for the students in their care - while knowing that whatever decisions are made, choices for sixth formers are likely to be diminished. Compared with the educational model in, for example, the US, our children already have to narrow their choices too swiftly and the latest 'reforms’ dictate that the stakes are even higher for sixth form students who will need to get their choices right, lest they start down a path from whence they cannot backtrack. The new A Levels involve increased content (nothing wrong with students having more knowledge) though the challenge is finding enough time on the curriculum to deliver.
As a result, I expect that ultimately, most pupils will end up taking three subjects in the examination room at the end of their sixth form careers. The last generation of sixth formers (of which I was one) who were examined in a linear world, for the most, part did the same: three A Levels, perhaps three plus General Studies or a couple of 'Special Papers’ at a push. It was acceptable in the eighties.
But we are now in the twenty-first century. Although I have no objection to linearity (I doubt that many teachers, given a 'blue sky’ scenario would conclude 'Why don’t we test more? What about every year for at least three years?’), I do have an issue with an outdated, Victorian model of cramming knowledge, to spew out in an examination room context, that does little to prepare students for the world beyond school. I am fortunate that the pupils at Freemen’s do rather well in the examination room, though I should like something a little better for them which might prepare them for the real world.
And in that real world, it is unlikely that their first boss is going to shut them in a room in silence with no frames of reference and expect them to come up with 'a solution’ to 'the problem’ in a couple of hours. That real world expects people to research, prioritise, liaise, synthesise, present, communicate, collaborate; it expects individuals to lead and to be members of a team.
As these skills are clearly not going to be tested in an examination room, it is essential that young people pick them up elsewhere in their education.
When my leadership team met with me to discuss our offering, we established two tenets for decision-making. First, we wanted pupils here to learn beyond the curriculum in each subject that they chose to pursue. We are fortunate to have inspirational teachers at Freemen’s who have a genuine passion for their subjects. We wanted those teachers to have the space to inspire. So we have added 64 extra hours of teaching per subject, over the two year course, so that they can do more than simply cover the syllabus. Second, we wanted every sixth form pupil to benefit from a skills-based series of options that would mean that they had a better chance of amassing the tools required to succeed when they leave the school.
We will be meeting with parents to outline our programme later this week and are genuinely excited about where we have got to with it. We feel that a combination of compulsory and voluntary options will provide pupils here with a broad, bespoke curriculum and that they will be empowered to make choices that develop them as people. Not so much a ’safe and narrow’ response but one, I hope, that will come a little closer to providing an educational experience from which they will benefit.