Beyond the curriculum: how independent schools are getting an edge

Having the freedom to teach beyond a set syllabus is bearing fruit in the sector. Jo Golding investigates

Curriculum is widely debated today with questions about whether schools are equipping students for the modern world high on the list of discussion. This has led to a lot of change over the last few years.

The basic school curriculum includes what is called the national curriculum, as well as religious education and sex education. Private schools do not have to follow the national curriculum, making their choice of subjects much more flexible.

In this feature, Independent Education Today asks education experts their views on the current curriculum, what the most significant changes have been over the last few years, as well as how independent schools experiment with their curriculum, in order to improve pupils’ experiences and opportunities.

The current curriculum

Stephen Spriggs, managing director of William Clarence, feels there are still changes that need to be made to our curriculum. “We learn various things that are outdated and, although a knowledge of medieval history or theoretical maths does demonstrate the skill of learning, this skill could be achieved in other ways that better prepare students for a modern world.

“I feel strongly that technology, coding, personal finance, risk-taking and entrepreneurship are all very important for the modern world and as strides are being taken to help incorporate this, we are behind our counterparts in the US.”

Students at Cambridge International
Students at Cambridge International

For Sophie Oates and Rachel Lewis, senior consultants at Gabbitas, it is the state sector that has seen more of an impact. They say: “The move to a fully examined set of exams rather than a combination of exams and coursework has had an impact on both pupils and outcomes but the impact has been greater in the state system than in the independent sector.

“The previous system was far more subjective and perhaps less accurate in reflecting academic ability. Independent schools use the national curriculum as a baseline but augment this to ensure their pupils receive a well-rounded education with additional subjects and careful preparation for an exam-based system.

“Often mindfulness and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) form part of the independent student’s experience to reduce the level of anxiety around exams. There are also extensions to the timetable to improve standards in basic subjects, such as mathematics and literacy to better meet the requirements of the new regime.”

Significant changes

Peter Monteath, regional director of Cambridge International, says the UK curriculum has undergone significant changes in recent years, cumulating in the first examination of new 9–1 graded GCSEs and the decoupling of AS-levels from A-levels. “At Cambridge International, we’ve seen independent schools continuing their use of Cambridge IGCSE, Cambridge International AS and A-levels, and Cambridge Pre-U – none of which have changed in content or structure.

“Cambridge International AS-level still counts towards Cambridge International A-level, which may account in part for the 33% growth in entries last academic year. The use of International AS-level allows sixth forms to maintain a broad curriculum without requiring students to commit to two years’ study when they select their subjects. I expect this trend to continue, and for more independent schools to use Cambridge International to offer a staged approach in the sixth form.”

Most top tier independent schools will now incorporate ‘break out’ periods, creative classes and wellbeing classes

Monteath says the Cambridge IGCSEs also represent an “element of stability”. He continues: “Cambridge IGCSE is aligned to the standard of UK GCSE using a range of statistical and judgemental evidence, and there is extensive overlap between the two qualifications, though Cambridge IGCSE remains distinct from UK GCSE, providing UK independent schools with a choice. Many UK independent schools continue to use IGCSEs. In 2018, we offered UK schools the choice of A*–G or 9–1 grading in some of our most popular Cambridge IGCSE subjects, and in summer 2018 around 40% of Cambridge IGCSE entries were for the 9–1 graded options. We expect to see a higher proportion of entries for 9–1 next summer as schools become more comfortable with the grading system.”

Spriggs agrees: “The move away from a traditional A–G grading system represents a significant change, one that resulted in confusion among students and parents who struggled to get to grips with the sudden change. Ofqual did produce a weighted table levelling the grades 1–9 alongside A–G in order to aid those who couldn’t understand the change, but it remains one of the biggest changes within the schooling system in recent years.

“A recent move towards an inclusive curriculum composed of various initiatives aimed at boosting students’ wellbeing is taking effect. A balanced combination of modern education techniques, school trips, a variety of subjects and increased time learning outside the confines of a classroom are all combining to help young people’s health, lifestyle and academic success.”

Comment: Katy Parkinson

Katy Parkinson, founder director of Sound Training, says it’s important to bolster current curriculums with training to improve literacy and vocabulary

The average person says more than 7,000 words every day, but do we ever really think about what they actually mean?

Let’s take the word ‘pendant’, for example, and break it down. It’s easy to think of lots of words that contain ‘pend’ – suspend, impending, independence, perpendicular, pendulum. Exploring the etymology of the words reveals to us that they all have origins from the Latin verb ‘pendere’ which means ‘to hang’.

For instance, a lady’s pendant hangs down from her neck, suspend means to hang something from somewhere, a perpendicular line hangs down and meets the horizontal line at 90 degrees.

Students, embarking on an adventure into new and exciting subject areas every day, encounter thousands of new words. If we encourage them to think about the origins of those words, learning becomes easier as they begin to see familiar patterns.

When it comes to learning, independent schools have the autonomy to set their own agenda. Class sizes are smaller, allowing teachers to have more face time with each student and more support; they have outstanding facilities with excellent extra-curricular activities, shown to strengthen communication skills and camaraderie and, perhaps most importantly, the freedom to set its own curriculum.

Parents investing in independent schools already expect the best standard of education for their children, but there is always scope for improvement and it would be myopic to dismiss experimental topics and software, with the potential to enhance student experiences and increase attainment.

In my capacity as a senior learning and language team coordinator for the Middlesbrough Education Authority, I was responsible for developing the skills of secondary-aged students who were underachieving in reading. The benefits of the training for these pupils was highlighted when I met a wonderful EAL student.

He arrived in this country in September, with a very basic level of English, but spoke three other languages, including Italian. After living in London for only six months he was able to give me definitions of words such as entomology, geothermal and autobiography.

We are now working with some leading British international schools, who after some initial scepticism, have been overwhelmed by the impact of our teaching programme with students of wide-ranging ability since implementation.

Etymology and morphology are extremely important components, not just in literacy, and for children who struggle to get to grips with language, but for everyone.

While Oates and Lewis of Gabbitas cannot comment in the same way as teachers on the curriculum, they do work with a wide range of schools and receive a lot of feedback from clients. They see the biggest change over the last few years as the move to a robust exam system, away from a mix of exams and coursework.

They continue: “The new system seems to favour boys who perform better in the exam-based system. The quality of teaching and resources have an important impact in delivering the best outcomes. Private schools have some excellent teachers who offer a very wide range of skills to help pupils reach their potential, not just academically but in sports, life skills and the creative arts.

“There is a big difference from privately educated pupils moving on to senior schools than those in the state sector. They are well prepared academically with pastoral support to help them succeed whereas state sector pupils have not necessarily had the benefit of a detailed academic focus and extra-curricular activities that provide the confidence to achieve to the very best of their abilities.”

Private schools get creative

So, how are independent schools experimenting with their curriculums? For Spriggs, it is a move to more practical work that has been taken on by private schools. He says: “Schools are working far more out of the classroom with practical work, modern case studies and new courses each year – equipped for a modern world. Most top tier independent schools will now incorporate ‘break out’ periods, creative classes and wellbeing classes. Examples of these include the empathy classes at King’s College School, Wimbledon which in 2017 introduced the classes for Year 7 students. They include lessons on dealing with anxiety and stress, as well as mindfulness and relaxation techniques in an effort to combat the impact of technology.

Independent schools can be much more flexible in their approach and this inevitably helps with the individual development of each pupil

Oates and Lewis say independent schools are good at using alternative teaching methods to get the best from their pupils. “Flipped learning, where the pupils lead on the topics under discussion, and round-table learning, together with ‘outside’ experience-based teaching, are just some of the methods being employed in the independent sector.

“Additional subjects such as global awareness, environmental studies and leadership, as well as entrepreneurial and life skills form part of the students’ daily curriculum. These all help to encourage the child to truly reach their potential. Creative arts and design-led technology are also an integral part of the overall learning experience for pupils. With smaller class sizes and greater resources, independent schools can be much more flexible in their approach and this inevitably helps with the individual development of each pupil some of whom can be fast tracked into the next stage of their education development.”

Independent schools feel ahead of the curve when it comes to wellbeing, taking it upon themselves to organise lessons on dealing with anxiety and stress – something that is vital today when we are so often looking at a computer or phone screen. They are lucky in that they have the freedom to experiment and are making the most of it to offer a well-rounded education to pupils.


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