Give every child the opportunity to become the person they are capable of being

Matthew Burton is the head teacher at Thornhill Community Academy in Dewsbury and appeared on Channel 4’s Educating Yorkshire. Matthew has written for NCFE about using a considered and creative approach when making curriculum decisions to ensure learning success and wellbeing across all intersections of the school.

Curriculum is certainly en vogue at the moment, and rightly so. Previously, in many schools, curriculum was a cold and calculated conversation of ‘What courses are we offering, and can we timetable it?’ before charging headlong into writing a plan and backfilling from year 11. Now, it’s a different thing all together.  

Giving children the opportunity to follow incremental pathways through wide range of subjects, allowing for real consideration to starting points and what knowledge is delivered can be a hugely transformational driver in, quite literally, changing children’s lives.

Who knows just how many more astronauts, doctors, artists, surveyors, poets, chefs, butchers, bakers, or, indeed, candlestick makers that there will be now that schools are truly making sure that children are making decisions about their future rooted in the full breadth of a rich, wide-ranging curriculum? With ambition at the core of decisions made for all children, it’s vitally important that we, as a profession, embrace this opportunity and make the most of the time we get with young people to genuinely provide the structure and opportunities to give every single one the step up they need to meet their potential.

Does that mean every single child should be thrown directly into a highly academic pathway with Classics and Latin for everyone? No - definitely not. Ambition doesn’t mean that pathways need to be the same for all; it means that all children should be offered the choices and chances to leave their compulsory education having been challenged to be the very best version of themselves. School should be challenging; it should be rigorous; it should give every single child the means and the opportunities to become the person they are capable of being.

But what sits alongside that? To quote Stan Lee: “With great power comes great responsibility”, and with an all-powerful curriculum machine expecting greater things from children at every turn, then every school needs to take their pastoral responsibility more seriously than ever before. We need to support their mental and physical health, and make sure they do ‘other stuff’ – the extra-curricular activities which complement the academic content in lessons.

Also, the need to be there for them when things (inevitably) go wrong, and to build a set of experiences around the most vulnerable that, perhaps otherwise, they wouldn’t get to experience. We’re talking about a curriculum for life – a range of subjects, experiences and values which help to shape a child into a young adult ready to take on the world and to succeed.

The academic outcomes on a piece of school-headed paper, gleaned from the exam boards on that all important, ever so tense Thursday morning in August are, naturally, the statistics that get someone’s foot in the door to a college, sixth form or apprenticeship interview. They’re the hors d’ouevre to the main course. They’re lovely on their own, but you’re going to need more, and that’s where extra-curricular comes in. Skills like shaking a hand, making eye contact and holding a conversation, are what can help the person on paper really come to life. Can you explicitly teach them through lessons? Partly. The values of an organisation, the way it operates, the way that adults model the behaviours they expect and the way that people interact can all contribute, but children can really embed this stuff by applying it in other contexts – clubs, societies, after school classes, trips, residentials – all of which are key parts of the curriculum, albeit outside the classroom. Headlines always shout loudly about employers needing people with skills – and that’s so true – but skills and knowledge overlap significantly.

Literacy, numeracy, digital skills and vocational options are vital in empowering our young people to be just those employees that workplaces are crying out for.

Pathways don’t always necessarily lead to the same destinations for everyone, and that’s one of the reasons why schools, leaders and teachers need to embrace all qualifications and experiences, be ambitious for everyone, and think outside the box to make sure that the scaffolding children need to cushion the fall when bits and pieces inevitably go wrong – which it categorically will in the high-pressure life of a teenager in 21st century – is in place.

What do we do at Thornhill Community Academy to offer pathways and options? We try to offer a curriculum which meets the needs and wants of all students through a number of subjects offering both academic ‘traditional’ GCSEs, but also offering technical qualifications.

If we want the next generation of doctors, air traffic control operatives, bankers, carpenters, translators and train drivers to be ready to meet the challenges of whatever the world of work looks like in a few years’ time, they need to be well equipped with the skills they’ll need to do it. As ever, it’s incumbent on schools, teachers and leaders to do a lot of the work to get them there starting with the fundamentals: what are they learning, when, and why?  

To find out more about how NCFE can support you as you make importance curriculum choices, including GCSE alternatives with performance points, English and maths qualifications, PSHE and RSHE and other curriculum bolt-ons, email [email protected] or complete a contact form.