Delivering different pathways within your core curriculum can enable pupils of varying abililties and skills to follow a personalised learning route, say deputy headteachers Paul Ainsworth and Josephine Smith

In most schools nearly 50% of Key Stage 4 curriculum time is given to the core subjects of English, mathematics and science. In terms of the variety of qualifications offered, this large chunk of teaching has generally been the most static. Middle leaders may have trialled all kinds of creative styles of delivery – from single-sex grouping to intervention groups – and may have changed examinations boards, considering both linear and modular syllabi, all with the aim of raising pupil attainment.

However, there has been little change in the qualifications available to pupils. The majority of schools continue to deliver mathematics, English language and literature and dual science GCSE. The only personalisation, until recently, may have been the least able students not sitting an English literature examination, concentrating instead on accreditation simply in English.

This ‘one size fits all’ core curriculum is increasingly under scrutiny from many quarters. Firstly, as school leaders, we look at the varying routes or pathways that we are offering within the optional curriculum, with GCSEs being offered alongside vocational qualifications. Secondly, the advent of the new science syllabi, in conjunction with the entitlement from September 2008, means all students can study separate sciences. Thirdly, the change in league tables means that the five A*-C measure now includes English and mathematics GCSE.

In addition, specialist schools that have English, mathematics or science as their specialist subjects have begun to introduce different qualifications in order to raise standards in these subjects or to increase take-up.

These factors have also been begun to appear in Ofsted reports. One East Midlands 11-16 school with a very successful science department regularly led its school’s KS3 and GCSE results tables. This school received a single-subject inspection in science which members of the school interpreted as Ofsted wanting to see an example of successful practice. The school was surprised to find they were criticised not for results, where CVA was clearly very good, but for the ‘one size fits all’ Key Stage 4 science pathway offered to all pupils.

Delivering different pathways
So how can schools deliver different pathways within their core curriculum, enabling pupils of varying abilities and skills to follow a personalised route – the intention being to raise attainment, allow maximum success and appropriate learning opportunities?

It follows that if pupils’ attainment is raised in the core subjects, their optional studies will be aided, thereby raising whole-school attainment and allowing pupils to prepare themselves for post-16 studies commensurate with their future plans. Those wishing to study engineering at university, for example, will be as suitably prepared as those leaving school at 16 for an apprenticeship as a mechanic.

It is worthwhile considering four pathways within the core curriculum. This number allows the curriculum to be personalised for many pupils without it becoming unwieldy and difficult to explain to pupils, parents, governors and even, perhaps, some teachers.

The first two pathways to plan are at either ends of the ability spectrum: those for G&T pupils and those for the less able. Some schools may then say there is only a need for one additional pathway between. However, in terms of raising your school’s place in the league tables, it is the group of students in between these which are the most crucial. Therefore, it is wise to create two pathways for this group of pupils, which allow them to follow appropriately demanding qualifications.

One of the interesting differences between core subject pathways and those in the non-core curriculum is that core pathway students are likely to be identified by the subject leader in contrast to the optional curriculum where pupils make their own choice of subjects.

Be wary of expecting individual pupils to follow similar levels of pathways in different core subjects; well-designed pathways in the core curriculum will allow pupils to be following different pathways for these. Stereotypically, it can be found that gifted male mathematicians may not fall into the most able group of English pupils and this needs to be considered if the pathways are truly to raise attainment.

English pathways
The pathway for the most able English pupils could be formed in two different ways, according to the school’s wish either to move pupils on to Level 3 qualifications or give them a wider set of Level 2 qualifications. One might assume that these pupils will study both English language and literature GCSEs, covering the skills required by the syllabus relatively quickly. The school could also either provide opportunities for these pupils to work towards a GCSE in media studies or perhaps to study the first module/s in AS critical thinking.

The second pathway could be that for students studying English language and literature GCSE and who may, like the most able, consider English studies at A-level. The third pathway could see English literature replaced with media studies. Again, stereotypically, this has proved effective for raising the attainment of boys in GCSE English language. The skills of analysing media texts complement those needed to analyse non-fiction texts demanded by the English syllabus and coursework crossover pieces make preparing for both qualifications complimentary. In addition, the high content of ICT within media studies can motivate pupils.

The pathway for the least able pupils should be chosen according to pupils’ ability and hence their likelihood of achieving a GCSE grade in English language. As we all know, one of the keys of working with the least able is ensuring they achieve some level of success.

If the pupils are likely to obtain a GCSE grade, then they should study English language. If their greater weakness is in their writing rather than in reading, the online adult literacy qualification offered by Edexcel at both Level 1 and 2 could prove a suitable course of study and acts as a useful precursor to the functional skills qualification.

If pupils are unlikely to attain a GCSE grade then one of the many certificates of achievement in English may be suitable. To provide greater variety, this could be delivered alongside the entry-level certificate in media studies examined by the Welsh Board, currently entirely based on work internally assessed and externally moderated.

Mathematics pathways
The tradition of providing a different pathway for the most able mathematicians has previously been one of acceleration with pupils taking their GCSE examination at the end of Year 10. The difficulty with this is planning further study in Year 11 and then Key Stage 5 studies. You must also decide whether a potentially lower year 10 grade is preferable to a higher one in Year 11.

Anecdotes of able female pupils taking mathematics GCSE at the end of Year 10 to spend their lessons in Year 11 preparing for a typing qualification belies the notion of the ‘stage not age’ curriculum which caters for gifted and talented pupils.

The standard acceleration method has usually been for pupils to begin their A-level mathematics in Year 11. This requires careful liaison with their post-16 provider to avoid repeating their Year 11 studies in Year 12.

A better solution might be to enrich their Key Stage 4 studies. Pupils could begin to study an AS module alongside their GCSE, such as mechanics or decision mathematics. As these are not core A-level modules they are less likely to be immediately repeated and because they are wider than the algebraic content of pure maths they are more likely to be of interest to those who do not wish to pursue A-level maths. An alternative is to deliver the GCSE in additional mathematics, which is offered by OCR to bridge the gap between GCSE and A-level. It also carries UCAS points.

Middle ability pupils
The pathways for middle ability pupils are perhaps less creative than for English. Pupils could study GCSE statistics alongside their GCSE mathematics and have been found to have more success in this than in their mathematics. The result is developed confidence, which aids their mathematics studies.

The second pathway could simply be studying GCSE mathematics alone. There could be the option of including, alongside, the online adult numeracy qualification at Level 2, which is worth a half GCSE. The situation for less able pupils depends on whether the middle leader considers they are capable of achieving a grade at GCSE. If they are, the pupils could study GCSE in conjunction with the adult numeracy qualification at level 1.

For pupils who were operating at Level 3 or below at Key Stage 3, the entry level certificate offered by the Welsh Board may be a better vehicle for improving attainment and raising confidence. The teacher might decide this is so effective that the pupils are then capable of achieving a GCSE grade and pursue a joint entry.

Science pathways
It is in science that there are far greater varieties of possible pathways. The choices on offer will depend on the size of your school and how the curriculum time is organised.

The most able pupils are likely to have the option to study GCSEs in the separate sciences. The strategic decision here is whether this is delivered in the core curriculum or whether pupils have to use one of their options. A local specialist science grammar school decided to increase its science curriculum time – if pupils did not want to study the separate sciences they worked towards an AS level in public health, a qualification that I believe no longer exists.

One of the middle two pathways could simply involve pupil studying the standard science double award GCSE. There are a number of choices for the second of these pathways. A large upper school in Leicestershire delivers a science option in which pupils study the single science course and then choose a science related GCSE such as astronomy, environmental science, geology or rural science. This is a very large school with almost 2,000 students in Key Stages 4 and 5.

Most schools would not be able to provide this choice. However, a school could offer one or two of these discrete GCSEs, according to the nature of the school and specialisms of the staff.

An alternative model could be to offer one of the different types of GCSE syllabi, such as 21st-century science. Both of these two models may raise attainment for those pupils who have different learning styles.

Pathways: getting them right

The QCA acknowledges that curriculum pathways can have some disadvantages – for example, at 14, not all students are clear about their future plans and some might be unsure about the most appropriate pathway. It recommends:

  • ensuring that students can access a range of subjects from each pathway
  • enabling students to move between pathways at transition points
  • ensuring that each pathway can lead to progression in other pathways
  • presenting the pathways as ‘equal but different’
  • avoiding labels and curriculum displays that reinforce a hierarchy
  • emphasising the positive aspects of each pathway and the students for whom it is appropriate.

Practical emphasis
The fourth pathway could be based around the single science GCSE with a more practical course running alongside the GCSE. This could be a work-related qualification such as a laboratory technician course. If pupils’ skills were raised in vocational practical skills, this would have the advantage of showing science theory in context. There are certificates in laboratory technical skills at Level 1, administered by the PAA/VQ-SET (Process Awards Authority/Vocational Qualifications for Science Engineering and Technology), which could be considered.

A specialist science school in Worcester is running a class for adult returners combining teaching assistant training with a basic lab technician course. This second type of qualification could be ideal for some weaker pupils. Alternatively, there are entry-level science qualifications available from both AQA and OCR (part of the 21st-century science course).

Pathway options English Mathematics

Pathway 1   

KS3 Level 6c-8


AS critical thinking module

Maths/additional mathematics Separate sciences (pupils must include science in options)

Pathway 2a   

KS3 Level 4b–6b

Language/literature Maths/stats Double award science

Pathway 2b   

KS3 Level 4b–6b

Language/media studies Maths/adult numeracy Level 2 Single science/GCSE environmental science

Pathway 4   

KS3 below Level 4c

Language/adult literacy

Level 1/Entry-level certificate in media studies

Maths/adult numeracy Level 1/entry-level mathematics Single-science GCSE/entry-level science/ Level 1 certificate in laboratory technical skills

Catering for all
While Pathway 1 routes offer your most able, gifted and talented pupils the chance to develop academically, other pathways offer pupils the chance to learn appropriate skills in ways that will offer them chances of genuine accredited success.

Whether you are preparing pupils for future access to the best undergraduate courses or offering them skills for life, a pathway curriculum allows you to cater for all pupils and enables you to reliably assure governors and parents that you are offering the best possible routes for all learners.

Offering pathways in your core curriculum will go a long way to reassure parents choosing your school for their Year 6-aged child that you take seriously the need to respond to pupils’ needs and abilities and will truly personalise their learning. It will also make good sense to governors, classroom teachers and the pupils themselves. Gone are the days of the ‘one curriculum fits all’.