Modular changes to A-Levels and the introduction of diplomas are just a few changes that have come to the secondary curriculum since September 2008. David Marriott offers a related guide for governors

‘There are so many changes taking place all at once. In September 2008 all A levels are reducing to four modules. This means that all schemes of work will need to be changed, the new key stage 3 curriculum starts with major changes, competencies and so on. Staff are getting concerned about overload. The extra teacher development day has been useful for preparation for the new curriculum but information on some foundation subjects – art, music and technology will not be available until June!’

This is the view of one secondary school curriculum deputy I know. And what he describes is just the start of wide ranging change that will continue to affect the secondary school curriculum for years to come. There are big changes at key stage 3, key stage 4 and in the sixth form. Increasingly the emphasis is on continuity from 14-19, with more diverse pathways through the curriculum for individual students – very different from the original plans for the National Curriculum which proposed the same diet for all from 5-16.

Schools will have more freedom to decide what to teach, how and when. This should make the curriculum more interesting for teachers and, crucially, students. The QCA (Qualifications and Curriculum Authority) are feeling confident about the transformational effect the new curriculum will have on our teenagers:

‘Learners will experience a curriculum that is more relevant, provides the support and challenge they need, and better meets their interests and aspirations. As a result, their engagement with learning will increase and they will make better progress and achieve higher standards. They will enjoy school more and their behaviour and attendance will improve. Their progress through school will be smoother and more of them will move on to further and higher education.’

Whilst standards and levels of achievement have risen steadily over the years, there is still a long tail of underachievement and staying on rates are low compared to Europe and the rest of the world. The changes recognise that, for too many young people, the curriculum is a major turn-off. The government is keen to address the problem. For example, the recently published Children’s Plan includes the following ambitions:

‘(Government will) allocate £31.5 million over the next three years on a new programme to re-engage 16-year-olds who are not currently engaged in learning, building on the extra measures we have announced on NEETs (ie young people not engaged in education, employment or training) including better tracking and financial incentives to remain in learning and legislate to raise the participation age to 17 from 2013 and 18 from 2015.’

It may well be that schools and governors will welcome these changes and that they will succeed in motivating students more effectively. Here are the thoughts of a secondary school governor:

‘For too long our less academic students have been faced with an inappropriate education under the constraints of the National Curriculum. I believe that a good deal of poor behaviour in schools comes from the disaffection of those who have been struggling under the current system. We do what we can. We have sent some out already to courses in other towns and we have introduced beauty, horse-care and bricklaying courses at the school.’

The new secondary national curriculum

According to the DCSF: ‘The new programmes of study have been designed to give teachers a less prescriptive, more flexible framework for teaching, meeting more easily the needs of individual students. The curriculum is designed to raise standards across the board and prepare pupils for the demands of today’s world, teaching them skills such as financial capability and economically useful languages. Yet the classic components of the curriculum that have stood the test of time will remain – elements such as algebra, historic dates and the World Wars. There will then be a three-year period from 2008 to 2010 for schools to implement the new programmes of study.’

New programmes of study (or syllabi) follow the same pattern and structure:

  • importance statements say why the subject matters and how it can contribute to the aims of the curriculum
  • key concepts identify the big ideas that underpin the subject
  • key processes identify the essential skills and processes of the subject
  • range and content outlines the breadth of subject matter from which teachers should draw to develop knowledge, concepts and skills
  • curriculum opportunities identify opportunities to enhance and enrich learning, including making links to the wider curriculum

The curriculum should enable all young people to become:

  • successful learners who enjoy learning, make progress and achieve
  • confident individuals who are able to live safe, healthy and fulfilling lives
  • responsible citizens who make a positive contribution to society


In addition, we are seeing the introduction of new Diplomas. These new qualifications for 14-19 year olds have been created to provide an alternative to more traditional education and qualifications.

They are intended to give young people a fully rounded qualification, which combines theoretical and practical learning, including functional English, Maths and ICT, to equip them with the skills, knowledge and understanding they need for further or higher education and long-term employability. There are compulsory and optional elements within each Diploma and there are three levels:

  • Foundation – roughly equivalent to five grade D-G GCSEs
  • Higher – equivalent to seven grade A*-C GCSEs
  • Advanced – equivalent to 3.5 A levels

There will also be a Progression Diploma equivalent to 2.5 A levels for those not wishing to take on a complete Advanced one. Each Diploma will take roughly two years to achieve. The first five Diplomas will begin to be taught from September 2008. There will be 17 Diploma disciplines by 2011, introduced in four phases over four years (see panel below).

Timetable for introduction of Diplomas

September 2008 Creative and Media Construction and the Built Environment Engineering Information Technology

Society, Health and Development

September 2009
Business, Administration and Finance Environmental and Land-based Studies Hair and Beauty Hospitality and Catering

Manufacturing and Product Design

September 2010
Public Services Retail Sport and Leisure

Travel and Tourism

By 2013, all students anywhere in the country will be able to choose one of the first 14 Diplomas. In addition, the Children’s Plan proposes the development of three new Diplomas in Science, Humanities and Languages to increase the options for young people, which the government expects will become available for first teaching in September 2011.

However, any school or college wishing to offer the new Diplomas has to jump through a number of hoops. No single institution may offer the Diplomas on its own – there has to be an effective partnership with other schools and colleges – and all bids to offer the courses must pass through a ‘gateway’ of approval.

One can see this as a brave attempt to broaden the educational experience of our young people, in the same way that their continental peers access the International Baccalaureate. However, long and bitter experience suggests that any perceived attack on the ‘gold standard’ of three A levels will meet with resistance from employers, universities and the great British public. In any election year politicians will want to play down society’s fears of a ‘dumbing down’ of the traditionally academic bias of post-16 education. But employers are involved in developing the Diplomas and universities are working out their own admission policies in relation to the new and untried qualifications.

In my experience, governors can be frightened by the curriculum, since it is so big and complicated – and different from when they were at school. And it’s managed and policed by the professionals, tending to leave the amateur on the outside. Yet, as the comments in the panel above demonstrate, there are some very practical issues for governors to steer strategically – financing the curriculum, transport and communication issues, monitoring and evaluating the effects of the changes on their school’s performance over time.

Change is usually painful, challenging established priorities and ways of working, throwing up a series of new problems and challenges to be overcome. If at the moment the problems seem to overwhelm the advantages of the new curriculum, that’s only to be expected. It doesn’t mean that the benefits won’t be realised.

There is, undoubtedly, a long way to go and it will be a few years yet before we’ll be able to say, hand-on-heart, whether or not it has worked. Governors have a central role in helping it to happen and judging its impact.

Some practical problems posed by Diplomas

My friendly secondary governor welcomes the new courses but sees some practical problems that need to be overcome:

I support the idea of the Diplomas. They offer a fabulous opportunity to rewrite parts of the curriculum in new and innovative ways that are exciting, dynamic and relevant to today’s students and their future development both as learners and in their future careers. The main difficulties for us are:

There will be difficulties with students arriving from other parts of the UK who have started particular diplomas which we do not offer. This will be a problem until the entitlement sorts itself out in 2013.

Rural schools
How will we get our students to and from other schools and colleges in the partnership? With our 100 square-mile catchment area this is a major issue. There could be long travelling times which could lead to boredom-induced poor behaviour on the buses and disaffection from the courses. Who is going to pay for the additional transport?

Whose results are they?
Will they appear on our stats or the college’s stats? Who is responsible for the students? Whose standards of behaviour, cultural ethos do they sign up to? Who is responsible if they go walkabout or fail to connect with their return transport?

Selling the diplomas to parents
We anticipate a poor uptake in the first instance as parents with high expectations will not want to take risks with their children’s education. They will need to see the courses working and universities taking students with Diplomas before they take the plunge themselves.

We are being given no extra funding to develop or deliver a curriculum which, when it is rolled out, is as big, if not bigger than the entire KS3-4 that we already deliver. If the entitlement is there, we have to fulfil our statutory duties but it appears the government does not feel minded to pay us to do it. The idea that we can fund these developments out of savings is a nonsense. We will still have to run the full timetabled GCSE options AND fund the students on the courses AND pay contributions to development costs for future courses AND in all probability the transport costs.

David Marriott is currently Head of Governor Services at Wiltshire County Council. His background is in secondary education, having taught for 21 years in five different schools, including deputy headship. He is the author of three books on governance (The Effective School Governor, 1998, Monitoring and Evaluation, 2004 and Being Strategic, 2006).