The ASDAN curriculum offers pupils a unique opportunity to achieve recognition for personal and social development skills. Chief Executive Roger White charts the development and benefits of this curriculum framework and explains why it is as relevant today as when it started

As the new curriculum gives back more control to schools on how to design the teaching and learning they provide their students, a framework that first came into being more than one-quarter of a century ago is back in ascendancy. More and more schools are incorporating ASDAN courses into their curriculum because they offer the chance to validate learning that other qualifications might not reach. They also put teachers in the driving seat when it comes to deciding on curriculum content, restoring faith in professional judgement, and giving students the chance to receive recognition for skills that otherwise might be ignored. The chief executive of ASDAN outlines how this unique curriculum and qualifications framework works, before the case study school shares how it has benefited from these courses in practice.

Do the words Mode 3 touch a chord? Does it make you smile as you recall those heady days when teachers were trusted to develop their own courses, design the assessment framework, and assign grades to students’ assignments? Young teachers blink in amazement at accounts of what went on under the umbrella of Mode 3 in the ‘good old days’. For them, it is an alien concept to hear about teachers having total control of what and how to teach.

Professional judgement was central to the process. To any teacher in their 20s or 30s it must seem quite bizarre to hear their more elderly colleagues describe a situation where employers and further and higher education tutors completely trusted these professional judgements about a course whose upper grades possessed the same currency as GCSEs do today. Yet this was the world we inhabited as a profession only 20 years ago.

To recall this experience you need to be older than 40, because the last Mode 3 went out with the introduction of the national curriculum in the 1980s. Against overwhelming opposition from the teaching profession, Kenneth Baker harnessed the government majority in the Commons to give the Secretary of State for Education unprecedented powers to decide what should be in the curriculum, how it should be assessed, and how the results of the assessments should be reported.
So now we have programmes of study, attainment targets, SATs, and the annual media publication of test results that lifts some schools on to the pedestal reserved for high achievers, and consigns others to the dustbin of serious weaknesses and special measures. The yardsticks by which schools are judged to be successes or failures are closely aligned with that of the business world, where market forces determine who prospers and who goes bankrupt, overlooking the fact that young people are not commodities that can simply be discarded if found to be deficient in one way or another.

Richard Pring puts it succinctly in a recent paper on aims and values for the Nuffield Review of 14–19 Education and Training:

The language we use embodies particular values and shapes our thinking. The language of education has changed into one which suggests the management of a business rather than the very different task of promoting the welfare of young people. But if one speaks the language of management, one is in danger of treating young people and their teachers as objects to be managed… Language matters and so do the metaphors we employ… When education is conceived in terms of inputs leading to measurable outputs or in terms of targets which constitute the performance indicators against which learning can be audited, or when teachers are seen as curriculum deliverers, or when cuts in resources are referred to as efficiency gains, then education is being conceived very differently from how it was seen only a few decades ago. (Pring, 2008)

His observations offer us a salutary reminder of what has happened and challenge us to examine our own precepts and the words we use to describe what we do. How many of us have readily slipped into using the phrase ‘curriculum delivery’ as if teachers have simply become conveyors of a product, like the milkman or postman, passing on a pre-packaged product from the DCSF factory to the consumer in a school? In using this phrase, we accept the role of teacher as mere intermediary in a process where others determine the form and content of what we are doing.

What has happened to the notion of the teacher as a curriculum developer or designer? It is time again to have more faith in our own professional imagination and professional judgement. There is evidence that the tide is turning: a teacher-led initiative that took root in the 1980s, with professional judgement as its central tenet, has grown from the 25 schools working together in 1988, to a situation where just 20 years later more than half the secondary schools in the United Kingdom are now involved and 20,000 teachers are actively working with the 150,000 students enrolled on one of its various courses: those provided by the Award Scheme Development and Accreditation Network known as ASDAN.

Emergence of ASDAN
At a conference at Exeter University in Febru­ary 1981 on tackling disaffection John Tomlinson, head of the Schools Council, spoke of the importance of keeping teachers at the centre of curriculum develop­ment – of drawing on the countless examples of good practice in the school system. Inspired by his remarks, a handful of the teacher delegates agreed to meet on a regular basis to share ideas about what they knew to work with some of their most challenging pupils. They were influenced by a document published in 1977 by Her Majesty’s Inspector­ate (HMI). The introduction to Curriculum 11–16 stated that:

It is not the intention to advocate a standard national curriculum for all secondary schools to the age of 16, not least because that would be educationally naïve. (HMI, 1977)

Although they indicated broad support for the idea of a common core of learning, the Inspectorate was concerned to promote an entitlement model, based on the notion that the curriculum should be organised in such a way that all pupils had access to eight ‘areas of experience’ (aesthetic and creative, ethical, linguistic, mathematical, physical, scientific, social and political, and spiritual). Many local education auth­or­ities (LEAs) responded by requiring schools to indicate how they were addressing these eight areas of experience through their timetable, and the emphasis was very much on the teachers being at the centre of the curriculum development.

In all, 34,000 copies of the Curriculum 11–16 document were distributed on request by the then DES, which is a remarkable print run for a government document. It raises interesting questions about how different things might have been, had the obsession with stated curriculum content and mistrust of professional involvement not overshadowed the formulation of policy and if HMI’s recommendations had been followed through in the late ’70s, early ’80s.

But the winds of change were blowing through the DfES. The newly-elected Conservative administration had heralded there was going to be closer scrutiny of schools, and set in train a series of initiatives that were to lead to the abolition of the Schools Council (in 1984), and, ultimately, the Education Reform Act 1988 (HMSO, 1988) with centralised curriculum control that specified programmes of study and attainment targets.

What is worrying about much of the current educational debate around the principal components of the 14–19 Education and Skills White Paper (DfES, 2005) is that there appears to be no ‘educational memory’ among those responsible for policy development and implementation. It is as if those leading the next phase have little grasp of the significant curriculum milestones in the last 100 years. It is as if the Schools Council never existed, CSE Mode 3 didn’t happen, and the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative (TVEI) meant nothing.

What we are witnessing is a complete disregard for previous practice. Fortunately, teachers don’t suffer the same problem. If something works they tend to hang on to it, conscious that fashions change within the DCSF (including the name), but that the essence of an effective approach to teaching and learning is timeless. So it was with the group of teachers (led by Brian Fletcher, Head of Coombeshead School), who created ASDAN in the years that followed the Exeter conference in 1981.

The small group of teachers who had envisioned a programme to cater for the needs of the disaffected were joined by many others who saw in the course an opportunity to construct a framework for protecting those activities they considered significant to the lifeblood of a good school for all young people – even if the activities themselves didn’t directly contribute to exam results. The ASDAN story is a remarkable testimony to the power of the ‘professional imagination’ and what this can achieve if coupled with a trust in professional judgement (Crombie White, 1997).

After 20 years of a centrally-prescribed national curriculum, the pendulum is finally swinging back towards the profession. But while increased flexibility sounds attractive as a concept, it is not helpful in practice if the alternatives to the traditional courses have no points attached and cannot be counted towards the school and college attainment tables. Persuading parents, fellow teachers and the young people themselves to support a new programme, however relevant and exciting, is going to be an uphill struggle if it has no extrinsic value.

What is ASDAN?
I am often asked what ASDAN stands for. Rather than elaborate on the words behind each letter in the acronym, my answer now is simply: ‘The best example of teacher-led curriculum development in the UK over the last 100 years.’ This may sound arrogant, but there is some justification for the claim. In all, 5,627 schools, colleges, training providers and alternative provision in England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland (and an increasing number of countries abroad) are using ASDAN courses with upwards of 150,000 young people. On offer to schools is a whole range of curriculum material that can be ‘wrapped around’ existing good practice and that provides schools with a vehicle for formally accrediting many of those activities they have always valued but which have been hard to promote and celebrate within the national curriculum assessment framework. Unlike many national curriculum subjects, where the teacher is now regarded as simply a ‘deliverer’ of a course decided by others, the ASDAN experience puts teachers centre-stage in terms of the curriculum design.

Developed and managed by classroom practitioners, many of whom are themselves working directly with the materials in schools, in all, ASDAN offers 36 different courses: sets of curriculum resources that can lead into any one of 10 QCA kitemarked qualifications listed in the box below that give points in the league tables.

ASDAN qualifications

  • Key Skills (including the Wider Key Skills): Levels 1–4
  • Basic Skills (Skills for Life/Adult Literacy and Numeracy/ALAN)
  • Certificate in Life Skills (Entry Level): Entry Levels 1–3
  • Certificate in Career Planning: Levels 1–3
  • Certificate of Personal Effectiveness
  • CoPE Level 3
  • Personal and Social Development Qualification (PSD)
  • Community Volunteering: Levels 1–3
  • Employability: Levels Entry 2 – Level 3
  • Functional Skills

These are a stepped suite of courses (Stepping Stones for KS2, Key Steps for KS3, Bronze, Silver, Gold and Universities Awards for 13 to 19-year-olds) and 30 specific subject or activity focused ‘programmes’, under headings such as expressive arts, sports and fitness, business and enterprise, citizenship, personal education, work experience, the environment, adventure and residential, personal finance, sex and relationship education. All of them lead to certificated awards, which are credit-rated into formal qualifications within a framework that enables schools to ‘count’ their student achievement within the school and college performance tables. This is achieved largely through ASDAN’s Certificate of Personal Effectiveness (CoPE), which has been kitemarked by QCA  as a GCSE equivalent (see the box below).

What CoPE involves

The Certificate of Personal Effectiveness (CoPE) is a full GCSE equivalent course and one of the 10 QCA kitemarked qualifications accredited by ASDAN. It provides a flexible curriculum that teachers can wrap around existing prac­tice – or use to create new experi­ences for students. Overlaying the curriculum is a structured framework for developing and assessing the skills of ‘personal effectiveness’ (initiative, response-ability, teamwork, self-reflection, and communi­ca­tion), which resonates with QCA’s personal, learning and thinking skills (PLTS) that are so highly regarded by emp­loyers and further and higher educa­tion. CoPE encourages a range of ‘areas of interest’ or ‘topics’ to be used as the vehicles for evidencing skill develop­ment. These are: communication, citizen­ship and commu­nity, sport and leisure, indepen­dent living, the environment, voca­tional preparation, health and fitness, work-related learning and enterprise, science and technology, international issues, expressive arts, and beliefs and values. Within each topic, challenges are presented in a gradation of complexity and students gain credits as they pro­gress through the topics (one credit for every 10 hours of activity, with 12 credits being required for the full qualification). ‘Section A’ challenges are short, clearly structured and aimed at Level 1 learners. ‘Section B’ challenges are more demanding, requiring a higher level of personal planning and personal activity. ‘Section C’ challenges are open ended, to be negotiated with the pupils, so enab­ling the demonstration of Level 2 skills.

ASDAN courses focus on rewarding achievement and celebrating success, on promoting personal development and skills acquisition, and on enabling young people to develop to the full their positive attributes. They are modelled on the operating principles of ‘sharing good practice’ that underpinned the work of the Schools Council. ASDAN takes the best aspects of Mode-3-style moderation and sets these in a 21st century context, where the rigour of its quality assurance systems ensure that standards can be guaranteed across the country. It builds on many of the excellent approaches supported by TVEI. So it is not surprising that the CoPE qualification, which was only made available to schools at the start of 2005, already has more than 2,500 registered centres and 100,000 candidates enrolled. Rather like the strapline of the Heineken advert, it refreshes the parts that other curricula can’t reach.

Using ASDAN creatively, and making use of its full range of QCA kitemarked qualifications, schools can access the equivalent of up to 10 GCSEs. ASDAN provides a structured framework for accrediting the personal learning and thinking skills (PLTS) that are both at the core of the new diplomas and also to the revisions to the national curriculum at KS3, so is hugely attractive to curriculum deputies seeking a coherent vehicle for meeting the common requirements within respective lines of learning, and across KS3 dimensions and themes.

ASDAN is as much a description of a process as a set of materials; it may not be long before the verb ‘to asdanise’ enters the Oxford English dictionary as increasing numbers of teachers use the word to describe this unique approach to teaching and learning, where professional judgement is once again in the ascendancy.

Schools using ASDAN can expect dramatic results. Disaffected groups will become re-engaged; disillusioned teachers will become re-enthused. Where ASDAN has been introduced ‘whole school’, significant shifts in ethos and culture are being reported, as well as raised levels of achievements in core subjects such as English and maths. League-table results start to rise, attendance figures improve, exclusions reduce and the ‘Heineken effect’ is noticeable in attitudes to learning.

Heart of the process
ASDAN operates around a skills-based approach to learning as opposed to the knowledge-based approach of the national curriculum. Through ASDAN, the three Rs are redefined as Responsibility, aRticulation and Relevance. Emphasis is on actions, rather than words – on doing rather than theorising. Young people are required to think ahead and to be engaged in the design of the challenges they choose. Through a process of action planning and reviewing they are encouraged to take resp­onsibility for their learning. At the heart of all this is the importance of the relationship between teacher and learner – with the teacher acting as animateur, adviser, mediator, guide and supportive critic.

The lower levels of the ASDAN award framework are designed around very straightforward tasks, which represent small steps of achievement that offer young people a quick sense of success. Challenges may take no more than a lesson to complete, such as ‘Plan a journey using a map’ (CoPE Module 1: Communication: Section A). At the upper levels of the qualification, challenges may be 30 or 40 hours in length, such as ‘Organise a fundraising event for a chosen charity’ or ‘Mentor a group of Year 7 pupils during their first term’.

This skills-based approach can present a formidable challenge to some staff who find it difficult to allow control of the design of the task to be shared or even delegated completely to the students. Such a shift in approach won’t just happen automatically; it requires senior management to structure appropriate staff development opportunities, using Inset days to prepare teachers for the ASDAN approach to teaching and learning. ASDAN offers schools support and advice to help them overcome the specific challenges faced by their school – see the box below.

Support offered by ASDAN

  • The main switchboard at ASDAN’s head­quarters in Bristol is staffed by people knowledgeable about the ASDAN courses and the assessment and implementation issues. All senior staff are expected to dedicate a day each week to be ‘on call’ to deal with the more complex queries.
  • ASDAN’s website comprises 500 pages of text, with information about all the curriculum resources and qualifications, assessment issues and training opportunities for staff. The ‘secure’ area, which is password protected for schools registered with ASDAN, contains copies of all the required paperwork as well as a huge array of supporting materials.
  • Regional managers coordinate teams of locally-based staff whose main job is to provide support for registered centres at a regional level.
  • Through workshops and Inset, ASDAN provides staff development opportunities that can be tailored to individual need.

Curriculum wrappers

As well as CoPE, the flagship qualification, ASDAN offers curriculum ‘wrappers’ – course titles such as personal, social and health education (PSHE), citizenship – which can, quite literally, be wrapped around existing practice. These raise the status of cross-curricular and extra-curricular activities through the qualification currency that ASDAN offers, and also celebrate broader concepts of intelligence and ability and achievement that are not currently appropriately rewarded by the existing exam system.

ASDAN’s ‘key steps’ course provides an excellent vehicle for certificating PSHE and citizenship activities within Years 7 and 8. Its range of ‘short courses’ enables schools to capture extra-curricular and curriculum extension activities in Year 9. All of these can count as part credit towards CoPE, the full GCSE equivalent in Year 10 – with the opportunity of further enrichment and achievement by accessing the individual wider key skills or one of the other ASDAN qualifications in Year 11.

Each course is designed around areas of activity or experience (harking back to HMI 1977) that offer a series of open-ended tasks presented as ‘challenges’. The parameters of each challenge are broad, allowing the professional imagination to blossom – as the example below shows.

ASDAN challenge example

‘Entertain a number of people to tea and coffee’ (CoPE Module 1: Communica­tion: Section A) could mean asking pupils to sort break-time drinks for hard-pressed staff from neighbouring faculties, or managing the refreshments at a parents’ evening, or providing the catering within a much bigger ‘challenge’ that sees the group laying on a whole afternoon of entertainment and refreshments for an invited group from a nearby care home.

Some of the sections offer schools the opportunity to accredit activities that are already a well-established part of the curriculum but for which there is no formal accreditation, such as work experience, which is an expectation for all in Key Stage 4.

Complete a period of work experience which will help you develop an understanding of the world of work. (Bronze Award, Section 8)

Alternatively, extra-curricular activities such as lunchtime or after-school clubs could be captured within the expressive arts section of the Silver Award – see the below.

 Example of how ASDAN can capture extra-curricular work

‘Do one of the following:

  • compose a piece of music
  • write a short story, a poem or lyrics for a song
  • write a short piece of drama
  • work out a dance routine
  • make a piece of jewellery, pottery or sculpture
  • take photographs and print them
  • produce a short piece of film
  • make an item using textile
  • produce a drawing or painting
  • produce a print or piece of graphic design work’

(Expressive arts section of the Silver Award)

The critical factor in all this is flexibility and professional judgement. Guidance about standards and specifications is provided by ASDAN (with specifications becoming more precise if the course is a formal qualification), but the design of the teaching and learning process is in the hands of the teacher. It is up to the individual to work their own magic on the curriculum framework.

There is even an opportunity to engage parents and guardians, that other critical partner in the educational process, as the example in the box left illustrates.

How do schools use it?
There is no single ‘right’ way to develop (not deliver!) ASDAN within a school. The only ‘wrong’ way would be to think you can teach it to a whole class, using a trad­itional didactic approach, as dialogue between teachers and students, who themselves have to be actively involved in the design and imple­mentation of the chosen challenges, is a critical component. This box lists some of the more common examples of how to use the ASDAN framework.

 ASDAN qualifications

  • Key Skills (including the Wider Key Skills): Levels 1–4
  • Basic Skills (Skills for Life/Adult Literacy and Numeracy/ALAN)
  • Certificate in Life Skills (Entry Level): Entry Levels 1–3
  • Certificate in Career Planning: Levels 1–3
  • Certificate of Personal Effectiveness
  • CoPE Level 3
  • Personal and Social Development Qualification (PSD)
  • Community Volunteering: Levels 1–3
  • Employability: Levels Entry 2 – Level 3
  • Functional Skills

Organisational issues for schools
Curriculum leaders need to clearly decide what they want ASDAN to do and use their answers to guide their decision-making on which elements to adopt and how – see below.

Deciding on the role of ASDAN – questions to ask

  • Is it to wrap around a timetabled slot, which is not currently formally assessed, so as to raise its status (such as the sixth-form curriculum enrichment on Wednes­day afternoons, or tutorial work in KS4)?
  • Is it to capture a range of curriculum experiences that are a requirement of the new national curriculum, but which don’t easily fit into GCSEs (such as work experience, RE, and financial capability)?
  • Is to boost extra-curricular activities by accrediting sports, arts, residential activity, or community involvement?
  • Is it for a targeted group, such as the gifted and talented in Year 8 who could gain a GCSE equivalent through ASDAN before the end of Key Stage 3, or those who have dropped a foreign language in Key Stage 4?
  • Is it to take a whole-year group approach to PSHE and citizenship and support a shift in ethos throughout the school, where young people are more actively involved in the learning process?

Schools will need to consider the resource implications of whatever choice they make, and ASDAN can assist in this process through direct involvement with senior managers and then through its series of training workshops and associated Inset – for details of other areas where ASDAN regional officers will be able to help schools, see the box below left. Increasingly, our advice to curriculum managers contem­plating a whole-school approach to ASDAN is to approach it as if introducing a brand new subject – with dedicated planning and coordinating time for whoever is leading the initiative in school.


  • DfES (2005) 14-19 Education and Skills White Paper, DfES
  • Crombie White, R. (1997) Curriculum innovation: a celebration of classroom practice, Open University Press
  • HMI (1977) Curriculum 11–16: towards a statement of entitlement, HMSO
  • HMSO (1988) Education Reform Act 1988, HMSO
  • Pring, R. (2008) Aims and value, Issue Paper 6, Nuffield Review of 14–19 Education and Training, February 2008
  • RSA (2005) Opening Minds, RSA

Roger White, Chief Executive, ASDAN