The prep school curriculum, and primary school curriculum for that matter, is evolving. For the better. Curriculum time is shifting from rote learning to applied practical work to develop so-called 21st Century skills. And schools are keen for you to know it.
If you’re wondering what happened to the 13 or 14 subjects of the National Curriculum, don’t worry. They’re still there. But the way they’re being taught is changing.
Let me explain how, in this article.
As we know, work and life are fast-changing and increasingly technology intensive. Deciphering information and misinformation to confidently know what’s important is ever more challenging.
You’ve probably heard the factoid that 50%-85% of jobs in 2030 don’t currently exist. Alarmist, perhaps, given that 2030 is only eight years away. But it is a rallying cry for schools. Certainly, over the last two to five years, there has been an accelerating adoption of ‘transferable skills’ in prep and primary school curricula. Skills that help pupils navigate, adapt and master their environment.
So what are these skills?
The general consensus is that these desirable transferable skills include;
- Collaboration (working with others),
- Communication (oracy, debating, and presenting),
- Creativity (original thinking, thinking outside-the box),
- Critical thinking (logic flow, evidence-based),
- Character (resilience, perseverance, ‘can-do’),
- Citizenship (empathy, respect, democracy), and
- Computational thinking (analytical thinking, digital literacy).
It’s a clumsy 7Cs, but most schools have their own version of it, especially the first four.
You can see how practical project work helps exercise and develop these skills. On a project pupils have to collaborate. They have to communicate with each other, and present their findings to a judging panel, or teacher. They will have to navigate road-blocks, brick walls and other constraints. And they will have to be exercise logic in their research, experiments, and conclusions.
Science, design technology, business enterprise, the humanities and the performing arts are fertile territories for project work.
Project work can be within a subject. But it’s at the interaction of the separate disciplines where most schools target the opportunities for skills development. For example, where geography meets history meets music meets languages meets art.
Why are skills important in a prep or primary school curriculum?
A skills-based curriculum seen as the key to developing independent learning, proactivity, curiosity, and the ability to solve problems. And the context has to have real-world relevance.
Armed with these (7C) transferable skills, young adults are equipped to be successful in work and life in general. They can respond and adapt to a world of constant change.
The traditional curriculum, caricaturised as rote learning, cramming facts, and swotting for exams, is out of favour. Well, not top of the marketing agenda anyway. The traditional curriculum, apparently, doesn’t adequately prepare pupils for life beyond school.
It is only good for producing individuals unable to function in the workplace, or life, unless given explicit instructions. Human automatons, at the extreme.
Most prep and primary schools’ curricula are a blend of learning facts and developing skills.
My guess, from looking at the 3,000 or so Schoolsmith schools, is that ‘transferable skills’ currently account for 5%-30% of curriculum time. It varies by school and age group. But the greater part of the curriculum is still the one that you and I would be familiar with.
A true skills-based curriculum school asks ‘which subjects do I need to teach to impart this (7C) skill?’. There are very few of those.
Some prep and primary schools differentiate their curriculum as ‘knowledge-based’. What they are saying is that they recognise the importance of both skills and facts, but that, for them, skills are an outcome of knowledge. The approach is to learn facts, recall/revise/test them, apply the facts to problem solving, and build on them year after year.
In my opinion, that’s what most other schools are doing too. They just prefer to market the skills part to prospective parents, as it sounds sexier.
Knowledge-based or fact-based is not the same as rote learning. No school is going to say that their curriculum is all about rote learning.
There are prep schools that are more heavily invested in exam success; 11+ grammar school entry tests, for example. They dedicate more time to maths, English, verbal and non-verbal reasoning than other schools. Sometimes disparaged as ‘crammers’ or ‘exam factories’, they too encourage problem-solving and project work. But perhaps, a little less than some other schools.
Does my prep or primary school teach transferable skills?
You won’t have to look very hard to find out. Prep schools and primary schools alike, are falling over themselves to describe their curriculum or educational offer as ‘future proof’, ‘future ready’, ‘21st Century’, and so on. Transferable skills is what they are alluding to.
You’ll also see reference to some or all of those 7Cs. Especially Collaboration, Communication, Creativity, and Critical Thinking.
Then there are references to skills-based elements of the curriculum.
A current hot favourite is STEM, or Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths. STEM is often practical project work applying elements of those four disciplines. STEM also emphasises the school’s commitment to science, technology and digital literacy.
Another sign is reference to ‘cross-curricular’ linking of subjects. This often a clue that ‘creativity’ and ‘critical thinking’ are at work in a ‘relevant situation’.
A ‘thematic curriculum’ is an example of this. Subjects are linked through a termly or half-termly theme common to several subjects. Geography, history, science, art and DT are the most frequently linked subjects in a thematic curriculum. A ‘creative curriculum’ may link creative subjects into the theme, as well as signal the school’s emphasis on the arts.
Similarly, ‘Topic’, which is very common in pre-prep and infant schools. As are ‘pupil-led’ activities, as opposed to ‘teacher-led’ activities. Independent learning encourages risk taking and initiative.
There are more projects appearing in the curricula of prep schools. Especially for older pupils seeking to win places at prestigious boarding schools at age 13. Many of these schools are moving away from the rote learning/traditional Common Entrance exams to a curriculum that incorporates elements of skills-based projects. The Pre-Senior Baccalaureate is a popular example.
These projects don’t have to be confined to the classroom. In fact, many involve outdoor activities, including adventurous challenge and community service.
Talking about skills is one thing, implementation is another
Transferable skills has also become an important way to differentiate between schools. More appropriate, perhaps, than by facilities and exam results. A new, relevant, curriculum is certainly exciting, and should give us confidence that the school is dynamic and energised.
But because it’s relatively new, there is variation in the degree of skills implementation amongst prep and primary schools. For sure it takes a lot of work. It could be 5% of the curriculum, it could be 30%. It could be part of the daily curriculum or limited to projects in theme or focus days and weeks.
And in the spirit of caveat emptor, you have to probe to see what is really being offered.
The creative curriculum may be a curriculum that links some subjects, for example, English, history and geography, with art, music and drama. But sometimes it may also just refer to the presence of music, art and drama as lessons on the curriculum.
Topic may link humanities, science, languages, art, and music. But it may also just be geography and history alternating each term.
Even STEM. Is it weekly double-periods of project work? Or is it individual lessons covering the individual components; science, computing, DT, and maths?
How prep and primary schools compete on curriculum
Differentiating by curriculum is difficult for prep and primary schools (see article here).
They all offer similar subjects. Primary schools have to follow the National Curriculum which mandates English, maths, science, design and technology, computing, a foreign language (from age 7), history, geography, religious education, art and design, music, PE, and relationships and health education. PSHE (personal social and health education), sex education, and citizenship are non-compulsory additions.
Most prep school curricula offer a similar spread of subjects. They don’t have to, and they may vary some bits of it. Within the context of a broad education (see article here), prep schools compete by adding subjects such as drama, dance, more languages, current affairs, or philosophy.
But here’s the problem.
50% of a primary or prep school curriculum is given to maths and English. Between 5% and 10% is for science. Perhaps 10% is for PE, and if it’s a religious school, 10% is for RE. That doesn’t leave much time for the other eight or more subjects. Maybe it’s 30% of a 9.00am to 3.15pm day. Taking out lunch and breaks could leave one to one and a half hours for those eight subjects.
Prep schools have an advantage of a longer day. So maybe extra subjects and skills-based projects are more suited to prep schools.
However, we should temper our expectations of the impact of skills-based learning, at least at primary/prep school level.
Opportunity increases from Year 7. The school days get longer, for a start. But only until the GCSE years; Year 10, and increasingly, Year 9. GCSE subjects are taught separately, and the curricula are anchored by national exams. And the outcomes of those exams still inform opinions of the school’s reputation.
Critical thinking on the prep and primary school curriculum
One of the transferable skills that has received most attention has been the area of critical thinking. Critical thinking is the skill of analysing facts and evidence, then using logic and reason to make a judgement.
You may notice it timetabled as regular or periodic sessions. More often than not, critical thinking is developed within discrete lessons called ‘philosophy’, even ‘debating’. Schools that have more developed curricula integrate critical thinking into each subject.
Critical thinking shouldn’t be confused with analytical thinking (dissecting a problem), and creative thinking (out-of-the-box). But it often is. But at prep/primary level, I’m not sure it’s too much to worry about. What’s important is the thinking.
Learning skills and meta-cognition
Teaching children to understand their own personal learning styles is also appearing on many a prep school curriculum.
Often called ‘learning skills’, or an impenetrable word with a ‘neuro-‘ prefix, meta-cognition is familiar territory to anyone who has taken an exam before.
Pupils are encouraged to understand what learning technique works best for them. Do they remember better through mind maps, visualisation techniques, or mnemonics? How do they organise their tasks and to-do lists? Can they create an effective (revision) timetable? And how they evaluate success and adapt.
Character as a transferable skill
Character development within the curriculum is a larger topic, which I address here. But it is starting to become part of a holistic integrated curriculum.
Character education encompasses attitudes to learning, what used to be called ‘grit’, persistence, or perseverance. Specifically, a successful character education encourages ‘having a go’, dealing with knockbacks, and learning from mistakes.
There’s probably not a school in the land that hasn’t adopted Growth Mindset. This is a character ‘skill’ that encourages the belief that success comes as a result of effort rather than innate talent.
There’s no doubt that skills-based elements make for a more interesting, engaging, and relevant curriculum.
Parents should be encouraged by schools who are developing their curriculum. Though, bearing in mind that balance and implementation are varied. And there’s a lot of smoke and mirrors. This energising of the curriculum is becoming a means to differentiate between schools. Better than the current obsession with facilities and exam results. Breadth of curriculum is currently a differentiator. And now, relevance and dynamism are too.