The key change to the curriculum at Key Stage 4 has been to increase the breadth of choice. Alan Monks, Deputy Headteacher, describes the impact on Ellis Guilford School and Sports College, Nottingham

School context

Ellis Guilford School and Sports College serves a community in Nottingham with considerable social deprivation and students enter the school with literacy skills much lower than the national average. We have 1,260 students in the 11–16 age range. A total of 22% of our students are from a range of minority ethnic backgrounds. The intake is represented by the full range of ability, but we have a higher than average percentage of students identified with special educational needs (SEN) — 390 students, totalling 30%. A total of 32% of students are on free school meals (FSM). A particular barrier to learning is the low literacy levels on entry: 14% of students are in the bottom 1% nationally for reading ages, and 45% are in the bottom 15%. At the same time our brightest students attain very high grades at GCSE and many progress to higher education. Students make good progress from Key Stage 2 to Key Stage 4. Last year, 36% of our students achieved 5+ A*–C grades.

During recent years, the curriculum at Ellis Guilford has undergone substantial change both at Key Stage 3 and Key Stage 4. Our philosophy during the past five years has been to develop a curriculum with ‘joined up’ pathways that begin before students join us in Year 7 and continue to beyond Key Stage 5. These pathways must cater for the wide range of ability and aptitude among our students. They must also be flexible so that pupils are not committed to specialised pathways at too early a stage.

 Before explaining the systems and structures we have put in place to effectively guide students on to the variety of pathways on offer, I will first briefly describe the changes to the curriculum we have made.

The key change to the curriculum at Key Stage 4 has been to increase the breadth of choice. This involved from September 2005 adopting a compulsory vocational choice for all students. After a few years trialling applied GCSE courses with varying success, the school decided to fully embrace vocational education and adopt a wide range of BTEC first certificate and diploma courses. We currently offer:

  • BTEC:
  • sport
  • performing arts — acting, music and dance
  • fashion and design
  • art
  • health and social care
  • applied GCSE manufacturing/electronics
  • Aida (Award in Digital Applications).

We selected these courses as each progress on to a national diploma at post 16, offered by the FE providers in our locality. Our previous reluctance to fully adopt a vocational curriculum stemmed from the lack of recognisable pathways for some courses.

Research into the destination of students post 16 revealed that many of our pupils are opting for vocational pathways and not the traditional A-level route. Students must choose at least one vocational option to attain the BTEC first certificate, but the majority (80%) opt for a double option leading to a BTEC first diploma. We feel that students of all abilities must have the opportunity to benefit from the vocational option and the work-related ethos that underpins these courses.

The vocational curriculum is complemented by the full range of GCSE subjects. Most pupils will study eight GCSE subjects alongside the BTEC and some have the opportunity to study nine. Alongside the change in the optional curriculum, we have developed the core curriculum so that all students follow an integrated personal, social and health education (PSHE), citizenship, careers, enterprise course taught by a specialist team of teachers. Work-related learning is central to this.

Students who cannot access both the GCSE and BTEC first courses have access to a range of options that need much greater guidance; for example, BTEC introductory certificate in construction, NCFE performing arts, ABC diploma in motor vehicle studies, ABC diploma in personal health and fitness and ASDAN certificate in personal effectiveness (COPE) underpin the curriculum to ensure that our most vulnerable students can also attain.

All of this curriculum is delivered from within school. Preparation for the introduction of such change has involved considerable planning and professional development for the large team of staff involved.

Guiding students through pathways

Role of curriculum change at Key Stage 3
Changing the curriculum in Key Stage 3 to link in with the options available at Key Stage 4 has been vital in guiding students to ensure they have coherent pathways to choose from. For example, performing arts has been developed in Year 9 combining the existing drama and music courses and this will soon be taken into Year 8. We believe that pupils need to experience the styles of learning associated with the vocational curriculum earlier than Year 10.

Similarly, we have developed an inclusive curriculum in Years 8 and 9 where vulnerable students have the opportunity to study for BTEC ‘skills for working life’ where they can specialise in horticulture or performing arts. These pathways are complementary to the additional resources and interventions targeted at improving low levels of literacy and numeracy.

The accredited PSHE, citizenship, careers enterprise course followed in Key Stage 4 starts at the beginning of Year 9 to provide coherence at Key Stage 4. This is particularly important given the need for quality careers education in Year 9 in preparation for the options process. Outside providers and the Connexions service make important inputs to this course.

Large team of staff developed to guide students in Year 9
Our team of options staff is led by the senior leadership team (SLT) including the headteacher, KS3 deputy who also prepares the school timetable, KS4 deputy who is also leader of the school 14–19 team, the guidance and support team assistant head at Key Stage 4 and the year manager for Year 9.

The headteacher and the two deputies are responsible for making the key decisions regarding the following year’s curriculum. A booklet of guidance for students and parents is subsequently compiled from information provided by subject leaders.

Having made key decisions in early January regarding the curriculum we have developed a timeline of action that supports pupils in making appropriate choices.

Launch to students
In early February, we launch the options process with students. This is led by the KS3 and KS4 deputies. The leaders of the vocational subject choices are also invited to give a short presentation.

The launch culminates in the distribution of the subject choices booklet and the students’ record of achievement from each of the subject areas. During the week of the launch, heads of department are also encouraged to ensure that all staff explain the nature of the subjects on offer to students.

In asking students to make appropriate subject choices we pose three fundamental questions;

  • do I enjoy my subject choice?
  • am I good at the subject and likely to achieve success?
  • do I understand the pathways that my choices allow access to and those that would not be accessible?

The first of these questions is particularly emphasised for the vocational options. The timetabling of the vocational option means that students at KS4 have the opportunity to study their vocational option for extended periods of time. Year 11 students, for example, have the whole of Monday morning devoted to the vocational option. This lends itself to much greater variety of teaching and learning style and flexibility for ensuring a work-related ethos.

These questions set the agenda for the following interviews and events.

Peer group interviews used effectively to challenge student choices
Following the launch, students are given one week to make initial choices and after choices are returned, an analysis is carried out. On the basis of their vocational choices, students are divided into groups of eight to 10. These groups are then invited to ‘peer group’ interviews where we encourage students to challenge each other about their option choices in a ‘safe’ supportive atmosphere. We particularly try to explore with students the impact of their choices on their worklife options on leaving school. We feel this discussion format has been particularly effective at overcoming some of the issues relating to peer group pressure, which can greatly influence student choices, and enables us to challenge choices made purely on the basis of maintaining friendships.

Following these interviews, the students are given a further two weeks to reconsider their choices.

Parental involvement
Parental involvement is essential. Parents are invited to a combined subject choices and achievement evening. The headteacher and the two deputies give a presentation of the curriculum. A representative from a college of further education (FE) explains the pathways from our curriculum on to further and higher education. This is particularly helpful in raising the importance of the vocational, work-related curriculum. All local 14–19 providers are represented at this evening and are available for discussion with students and their parents.

Final interviews
Students have a final individual interview with one of a team comprising the careers education teacher, the year manager and the KS3 deputy head to check that choices are appropriate and meet students’ needs.

Analysis of subject choices
An analysis of subject choices is then completed by Easter by the KS3 deputy head using the option package. The option blocks and timetable are constructed in response to the final student choices as opposed to pupils choosing choices from within predetermined options blocks. The options package allows us to test for best fit a variety of combinations of option blocks and classes. Last year, this enabled us to achieve about 97% satisfaction with regard to students being able to follow their first choices. We ask all students to make one reserve choice, which will be used if certain combinations of subjects are not available. If changes are necessary, renegotiation will occur with the students. In the past two years, we have been able to run all but one of the courses offered. The cancellation of this course occurred due to very low student uptake.

The timetable is then prepared by the Key Stage 3 deputy in the first half of the summer term.

Additional guidance and support for vulnerable pupils
The levels of inclusion within the school have meant that the degree of guidance must also reflect need.

A team of staff, involving the work-related learning coordinator, learning support unit (LSU) manager, SEN coordinator (SENCO), senior teaching assistant and the inclusive curriculum leader, identify and guide vulnerable students who need a much more individualised curriculum sometimes involving outside providers. The Connexions team is heavily involved in these interviews.

About 50 students with a variety of special educational needs including behavioural, emotional and social difficulties (BESD) have additional individual interviews, often with parents or carers to help create a much more personalised curriculum. This process also helps us to deploy our Level 2 teaching support to best effect, ensuring that GCSE courses are underpinned by appropriate alternative accreditation. The Level 2 teaching assistants have developed considerable experience in planning and delivery of learning that leads to open college network (OCN) accreditation.

External providers and agencies complement the options process
The large team of school staff who are involved in guiding students are well supported by a range of outside providers coordinated by the school’s 14–19 team. This ensures continuity of guidance and flexibility to the pathways on offer.

Year 9 students have regular opportunities to visit the local universities. Conversely, ‘aim higher’ students from local higher education (HE) institutions are involved in working at our school providing support to students in lessons. This involves developing projects alongside teachers and working with small groups of students. For example, last year, a student following an arts degree was involved in designing and constructing a piece of sculpture. We feel that interactions such as this can support the raising of aspirations.

On a similar note, for our gifted and talented cohort we run extension and achievement groups in each year group 7–11. This is very much focused on broadening the horizons of our most able students through a wide-ranging programme of cultural enrichment. 

An ‘opportunities at post-16 evening’ towards the end of the first term of Year 10 ensures that the work in Year 9 is revisited in an informative and entertaining format involving a visiting theatre group, who explore through comedy the subject of career pathways and the important decisions teenagers are faced with. Representatives from local colleges are also at the event, which attracts a considerable number of parents.

At present, the school’s 14–19 team is focusing on transition at post 16 and is tracking students through FE. This will help us to gain much greater understanding of the success of the pathways that we offer, and to help us identify possible areas for improvement. This team is also recognising the need for an equally rigorous subject choices process for post 16 courses, ensuring that placement on courses post 16 matches the needs of the students.

Taking stock
We have made considerable progress towards developing a personalised curriculum that meets the needs of all students. This was recognised as a considerable strength in our recent Ofsted inspection report (October 2006). However, we still believe that we have considerable work to do.

Assessment for learning (AfL) is our whole-school development area for continuing professional development (CPD). We recognise that this is linked directly to our personalisation of the curriculum. Developing student skills in self-assessment, review, evaluation and reflection is a prerequisite for successful guidance in the important decisions they make concerning their futures.

The first cohort of students through the new curriculum will leave in July 2007. An analysis of student targets suggests that the new curriculum will make a considerable impact on the school’s performance data. However, our motivations for making the changes were to provide a broader range of opportunities post 16 and give students a ‘head start’ in the vocational pathways open to them. In previous years, students have needed to follow vocational courses post 16 at Level 2. We believe that the majority of our students leaving school next year will achieve this level at 16 and will be able to progress to national diploma (Level 3) at a much earlier stage in their career development.

In hindsight, making vocational education compulsory was a bold step. However, the enthusiasm of staff, students and parents has helped ensure success. The school now has real evidence in terms of the quality of student work to demonstrate the rigour and academic nature of vocational education to both students and parents in future option processes. At the same time, the vocational programme values and develops the skills that are a prerequisite to success post 16. ‘Real’ success will only become apparent when our current Year 11 cohort completes Key Stage 5.

Alan Monks, Deputy Headteacher, Ellis Guilford School and Sports College, Nottingham

Connexions Direct — options  resources
Which way now? — a workbook that leads Year 9 students through all the stages of making their option choices at age 14. Most sections contain exercises to help students relate the information to their own thoughts.

It’s your choice — provides educational and careers guidance for Year 10 and 11 students, setting out the main choices available, be it further education or moving into the world of training and work, with tips on how to find out more.

Parents and carers of Year 9 students — designed to help parents and carers support their teenagers through the career and learning choices they face from Year 9 onwards.

The website itself also includes sections on options guidance. The ‘choices in Year 9’ section includes advice helping students to explore core questions to find out more about the key issues surrounding careers, including which subjects to take, how to choose which qualifications to study and how to get started on the whole options process. The ‘Choices in Year 11’ section includes guidance on how to improve qualifications if not good at exams, help for those wanting to stay in full-time learning to choose whether it be at the school sixth form or college, and advice for those interested in doing a job traditionally done by the other sex.

Information and guidance for students on choosing 14–19 qualifications is available on the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) website at: index_s3-6-info-guidance.htm

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    approaches to subject option choices: a study of students in the west of England in 1984 and 1996’, Educational Research, vol 41, no 3, pp287–99