It’s hard to broaden an academic curriculum of 14 mandated subjects. Some schools are.
At face value, it’s quite difficult to differentiate between schools on academic curriculum alone. Why? Because most schools offer pretty much the same academic subjects. The same ones you and I were taught many years ago.
And there’s a reason for that. Most schools in the UK follow the English National Curriculum which mandates the teaching of 14 specific subjects.
Yes, there’s a bit of variation between schools. A larger senior school will probably offer more subjects to GCSE/A Level than a smaller one. Schools may differ in what languages they teach and when they start teaching them. Elements of computing may be taught as a standalone subject or integrated into other subject lessons. And the various elements of design and technology may vary too. Some primary schools may teach philosophy, others not. Some may teach current affairs, others not. You may choose a school because it offers a particular subject but it’s not the strongest reason to do so. Not at Key Stage 1, Key Stage 2 or Key Stage 3 at least.
Schools can vary the amount of time they spend teaching any subject, at the expense of others. Spending more time teaching geography at the expense of history is not really broadening the academic curriculum. But it may appeal to you, and that’s fine. Typically, the time bias is in favour of flagship exam subjects such as maths, English and science. And usually this bias does narrow the academic curriculum. Some also weight the timetable in favour of PE or in favour of RE in faith schools.
Scottish Schools do have licence to vary the curriculum within the Framework of the Curriculum for Excellence. Independent Schools can teach what they like, but most choose to teach a variation of the National Curriculum.
Extracurricular clubs can help differentiate the academic curriculum
The same goes for extracurricular clubs. Most schools offer a homework club or subject clinics. Beyond those the average state primary offers two extracurricular academic clubs; the most popular relating to computing and gardening. Independent primaries offer an average of four.
It seems like an opportunity missed. Extracurricular academic clubs offer the chance to “go beyond the curriculum” and explore the subject, or at least apply it. The benefits of, for example, chess, creative writing, debating, other languages, philosophy are well documented. Schools with a broader academic curriculum tend to offer more academic clubs. The highest number I’ve counted for a primary school is 21.
The creative, integrated or thematic academic curriculum
Senior schools tend to teach subjects as discrete subjects. There is variation between primary schools, however, in the use of cross curricular topics. They combine several traditional subjects into an integrated and cohesive topic. For example, if we are teaching about the Romans, why not combine the history with the geography of Italy and the Roman Empire? While we’re at it, let’s have a DT project about building an aqueduct and learn some Latin. Let’s do some maths in Roman Numerals. And how about a bit of gladiatorial wresting in PE?
This is the “integrated” or “thematic” academic curriculum. At its most basic the integrated curriculum differs only in its use of projects and/or “Theme Weeks”. The rest of the time subjects (especially maths, English, science) are taught separately.
It is quite common to find English primary schools teaching the foundation subjects with an integrated curriculum, at least to Year 2.
An extension of the integrated curriculum, the “creative curriculum”, goes further. The creative curriculum seeks to impart learning and life skills through these projects. Skills such as such as research, collaboration, creativity, presentation, questioning, debating, initiative and self-direction. The aim of the creative curriculum is to create creative, self-directed, independent thinkers. The opposite of those produced by a curriculum of rote spoon-fed learning.
But there are degrees of creative curriculum too. And here we come to a debate raging among educationalists. Which is better, a knowledge-based curriculum or a skills-based curriculum? Traditionalists v Progressives. A knowledge-based curriculum teacher asks “What activity can I use to help teach long multiplication?” A skills-based curriculum teacher asks “is long multiplication the right activity to teach collaboration and teamwork?” Both have their merits, both have their place in a broad curriculum.
Themes that broaden the academic curriculum
Some primary and secondary schools are teaching additional themes to the ones we learned. I call theme “themes”, rather than “subjects” because they are often not taught in a classroom lesson. They are taught experientially and through an integrated or creative curriculum.
The “environment” is one such theme. There are many ways of learning about the importance of safeguarding the environment. Textbooks supplemented by field activity, and an exam, perhaps. A powerful way is through a programme such as “Eco Schools”. which embeds learning into the daily behaviour of the school community.
And so it is for four other common themes; health and wellbeing, the community and citizenship, global issues, and business and entrepreneurship. At schools offering a broader academic curriculum you might expect to see activity beyond the classroom subjects. For example; programmes encouraging start-up student business ventures, charitable enterprise, student-led health and care, or political debate.
Additional subjects, clubs, projects, themes and skills all contribute to a broad curriculum. For more on how some curricula reflect broad curriculum ideas, please see “Notes for parents on some common school curricula“.