Just what is a broad curriculum? Or rather, when is a curriculum broad?
When we hear a headteacher refer to the school’s broad curriculum we switch off and relax. I did. A box is ticked. Everything’s OK. The curriculum is broad. Phew!
But it’s a lazy claim. Every school has a broad curriculum. Not narrow, not regular sized, but broad. Broad is the standard, broad is the norm.
The root of this descriptor lies within the national curricula of our home countries. The national curriculum for England is “broad and balanced”. The Scottish Curriculum for Excellence describes a “broad general education”. In Wales, the current national curriculum is “broad and balanced”, the new one will be “inclusive, broad, balanced and challenging”. In Northern Ireland… “broad and balanced”.
Unrestrained by any obligation to follow a national curriculum, an independent school will also boast of a… “broad curriculum”.
You get my drift?
Great, so they are all broad. What’s the big deal?
Well, it’s just that some curricula are broader than others. Some are very broad indeed.
We should question the school about its broad curriculum
We should question the breadth of a school’s curriculum. Which is the point of this article. We should also question the point of having a broad curriculum. Which is the point of the next one. And finally, we should understand the compromises a school makes to provide one. Also addressed in the next article.
Our lack of understanding of what a broad curriculum is becomes apparent when we struggle to answer the “Why do I have to?” and “What’s the point of?” questions. “Why do I have to learn about Thomas Becket and Henry II?”. “What’s the point of learning about verbs that take être in the perfect tense?”. “When am I ever going to expand algebraic brackets in real life?”.
Another manifestation is when we ask why our school isn’t offering something that we would like. “Why are the children in the school up the road learning Mandarin and ours aren’t?”. “How come they have an orchestra, and our school doesn’t?”. “Why do they have lacrosse teams and our school doesn’t?”.
When a broad curriculum isn’t broad
I felt very pleased with myself when I flipped the question to ask what a narrow curriculum might be.
Firstly; specialist schools for sport, music, performing arts or even STEM subjects. Pupils in these schools spend 3 or more hours a day learning that specialism. Maybe specialist is the opposite of broad. The trouble is that for the rest of the day a specialist school’s curriculum is broad as any other. The same is true of the faith schools that offer 3 hours of faith curriculum.
Maybe there’s a breadth v depth requirement for a qualifying broad curriculum. But I don’t think so.
Secondly, I thought about how we accept that most curricula narrow as children get older. They start off with a broad and increasing array of subjects through Key Stages 1, 2 and 3 (from age 5 to 13). Only for that number of subjects to pare back in the GCSE Years to 3 or 4 in A Level Years, and then to one at degree level.
I don’t think that the A Level years are considered broad. There are curricula that offer an alternative to that narrowing. The International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma, for example, requires study in 6 different subject areas as well as 3 cross-subject projects. In the US, a Liberal Arts degree is a popular broad curriculum degree covering natural sciences, social sciences and the humanities. It is gaining traction in the UK too.
The choice is a broad, broader or very broad curriculum
It seems to me that when a headteacher refers to the school’s broad curriculum he/she is really saying “we offer more than the statutory minimum”.
“We have a broad curriculum” often refers to the school’s sports and arts provision. At its most basic it means that the school also offers a school play, a choir, musical instrument lessons, house competitions, and some after school sports clubs. At which point parents start to compare the number and variety of clubs the school offers. They can range from zero up to 150 (depending on definition) for some senior independent boarding schools.
But it’s not just sports and arts. Broad includes a modern language taught throughout the school, PSHE lessons, or school day and residential trips. Broad also refers to curricular theme weeks such as Arts Week, Science Week or Enterprise Week. And themed days such as “World Book Day” and “Red Nose Day”. Broad includes programmes for outdoor adventure education such as Forest School, Duke of Edinburgh Award and CCF. And school community activities such as school councils, Eco Schools and positions of responsibility.
Some schools go even further. They may include cross subject topics such as the environment, health, finance, global affairs, entrepreneurialism and business. Some include the opportunity to develop learning skills such as critical thinking, independent research, collaboration, communication, initiative and leadership. The list is long. Sometimes referred to as “enrichment”, they are all part of the broad curriculum.
So, to achieve a broader than broad curriculum a headteacher just needs to bung a load of extra stuff into the curriculum. Possibly at random, hopefully coherent and coordinated. But to what end?