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Changing the subject

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Overview

Secondary schools have managed significant changes in the Key Stage 4 curriculum they offer in response to changes in performance tables and accountability measures from 2010 onwards. In this piece we assess how these changes are starting to affect the educational choices and successes of pupils at the ages of 16 and 18. We do this by following a cohort of pupils who took their GCSEs in 2012/13 and A-levels or other Key Stage 5 qualifications in 2014/15, comparing their outcomes to a cohort passing through the education system three years earlier.

Some schools have moved faster than others to realign their subject offer to suit the new accountability measures. In this research brief, we focus on 300 schools that implemented major curriculum change over the three year period 2009/10 to 2012/13. We are particularly interested in outcomes for pupil premium pupils and those with lower prior attainment because there is some concern that a more ‘traditional’ or ‘academic’ curriculum could stretch their efforts over too many subjects or into subjects for which they are less motivated or well-suited.

Key findings

  • 300 secondary schools – we call them curriculum change schools – transformed their Key Stage 4 curriculum between 2010 and 2013 in response to government policy, achieving a rise in the proportion of pupils entering the EBacc from 8% to 48%.
  • We find that pupils at these schools largely benefitted from these changes. They were more likely to achieve good GCSEs in English and maths, refuting claims that the more academic curriculum would distract focus from these core subjects.
  • Those pupils who attended the curriculum change schools were 1.7 percentage points more likely to be taking an A level or other level 3 qualification after the age of 16 and 1.8 percentage points less likely to have dropped out of education entirely.
  • Pupil premium students benefitted most from the changes at these schools, essentially because low and middle prior attainment students increased take-up of EBacc subjects most. As a result, the pupil premium gap closed a little more than in schools with similar pupil intake demographics, including a six percentage point narrowing of the EBacc gap.
  • Nevertheless, pupil premium students still do not have fair access to the EBacc curriculum subjects nationally, compared to students with similar prior attainment. We have identified nearly an 8% gap in languages take-up which translates 11,000 disadvantaged students and an 11% gap in humanities, equivalent to 15,000 students missing out.
  • Although our evidence demonstrates that schools have successfully moved towards an EBacc aligned curriculum, our survey of headteachers confirms that delivering the EBacc to 90% of students is beyond the reach of many schools given specialist teacher shortages. Moreover, these headteachers believe that it is not appropriate for many students.

Recommendations

  1. All pupils should have fair access to sit EBacc subjects, particularly those eligible for the pupil premium
  2. The Government should reconsider its intention that 90% of pupils should be entered for EBacc subjects.
  3. The Government should consider what type of Key Stage 4 curriculum is appropriate for those not entering the EBacc and do more to facilitate a Technical Baccalaureate option.