The super-curriculum

As pupils progress, the tendency to specialise should always be balanced with ensuring breadth of study. James Priory, Headmaster of Tonbridge, examines how 'super-curriculums' can help.

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A close-up glimpse of the moon can be utterly breathtaking. William Wordsworth certainly thought so, moon-obsessed as he was. On a night-time walk up Snowdon in 1791, the poet found himself pausing to consider why the ground was growing so much brighter at his feet: 'and lo! as I looked up, /The Moon hung naked in the firmament.'

Magnify this moment by 14% and you have what happened in February when the largest moon to appear this year came into view 30,000 miles closer to the earth than the moon will be at its most distant point in September. Not only was the moon so much closer and bigger, it was also substantially brighter and exerted a stronger gravitational pull.

The phenomenon of the supermoon captured imaginations and headlines around the globe, especially so in the year which marks the fiftieth anniversary of the 1969 Moon landings. From Wordsworth's 'small adventure' up a Welsh mountain to Neil Armstrong's 'one giant leap for mankind', the moon has inspired some extraordinary flights of human thought and exploration.

Just as 'supermoon' has become part of our everyday language, so teachers, pupils and parents are finding themselves becoming increasingly familiar with the concept of the 'super-curriculum' to describe those opportunities for learning which extend far beyond what the curriculum requires. Like a dramatic close-up of the moon, super-curricular learning enables pupils to explore subjects in greater depth and detail, developing higher order thinking and learning skills and the potential for subject mastery.

Such opportunities have traditionally included independent wider reading, clubs and societies, talks by visiting experts, research projects with pupils from other schools, insights into university research, industry links, national and even international competitions. What is changing, however, is the extent to which super-curricular opportunities are being developed within curricular time and becoming less of an after-school add-on for only the most conscientious. The concept of the super-curriculum is being embedded in the day-to-day learning as timetables become more personalised, as digital technology offers access to online resources and the opportunity for greater connectivity, and as teachers adopt less traditional approaches to homework, such as flipped learning.

"Like a dramatic close-up of the moon, super-curricular learning enables pupils to explore subjects in greater depth and detail, developing higher order thinking and learning skills and the potential for subject mastery."

With 50% of young people now progressing to university and the most popular courses and destinations under increasing competition, both here and overseas, we should not be surprised to see schools thinking creatively about how they enable pupils to differentiate themselves. Other factors are also at play. Concerns about young people's well-being and mental health mean that more schools recognise that pursuit only of the best examination grades is unlikely to mean young people develop the intellectual curiosity and love of learning so important to their future fulfilment. As one 90 year-old alumnus of my school asked me, 'How do you prepare young people today to live a life as long as mine?'

Another factor, conversely, is economics. Curriculum 2000 encouraged greater breadth of subject choices at Sixth Form level thanks to the modularity of A Level. Many students typically completed the equivalent of 3.5 A Levels because they were able to convert at least one year's study of a fourth subject into an AS Level. It has been interesting to see university degree courses becoming more interdisciplinary at the same time.

National reform means that A Level has now reverted to being fully linear with examination at the end of a two-year course. Content has become more challenging in order to differentiate high level performance. Against a background of financial pressure on post-16 education within the state sector, and with universities committed to standard offers based on three rather than four Sixth Form subjects, many schools have found themselves reviewing the sustainability of so-called 'minority' subjects. Half of all Sixth Forms in colleges and schools, for instance, are reported to have cut courses in Modern Languages. Value for money clearly matters, but the risk is an overall narrowing of opportunity and experience for pupils. And this is why, in part, I think the super- curriculum is such a source of interest because it is a way of extending the range and depth of pupils' knowledge, and of enabling them to put their learning into action in interesting ways.

In my own school, we have launched a review of our Sixth Form Curriculum for 2020 and have visited a range of schools across the country, fascinated to see the different approaches being developed to prepare pupils for university and beyond. It has become apparent just how many schools are thinking afresh about their pre-university curriculum, A Level pathways, and the extent to which they provide genuine super-curricular opportunities which excite and challenge pupils' learning. The same interest in curriculum review is apparent in prep schools as consideration is given to potential alternatives to Common Entrance and the relevance of study programmes on offer in Years 7 and 8. There have even been renewed calls recently for a reassessment of the validity of the GCSE examination.

"It has become apparent just how many schools are thinking afresh about their pre-university curriculum, A Level pathways, and the extent to which they provide genuine super-curricular opportunities which excite and challenge pupils' learning."

Some years ago, I remember Lord Winston explaining that the secret to education was 'specialism with breadth'. Widely recognised as a ground-breaking medic, Winston has been an advocate for the value of the humanities for critical thinking and communication; he has been passionate about the creative and performing arts; he has also argued for the place of business and finance if the potential for new scientific ideas is to be realised.

Not long after, I had the opportunity to be involved in hosting the crew of the Space Shuttle Atlantis after what was believed to have been her final mission to the International Space Station. We welcomed the astronauts to Portsmouth before an appearance to 4,000 school children in Fratton Park. During their visit, I was struck by the fact that each astronaut had at least one area of significant expertise without which the rest of the crew would have been deficient. And yet each of them also possessed huge breadth of experience and knowledge as well as an insatiable appetite for learning. They were always asking questions. Add to that their emotional intelligence, ability to communicate, and versatility – and it was easy to see why the astronauts made such an incredible team: specialism with breadth that was literally out of this world.

I was lucky enough to relive this experience recently when we hosted NASA astronauts Dr Michael Foale and Dr Steve Swanson as my school became the first to host Mission Discovery, a course for young people invited from a wide range of schools modelled on NASA's own development programme. Whole school timetables were suspended to allow the pupils to quiz the astronauts and explore their experience, as well as to collaborate in designing an experiment for the International Space Station.

This, for me, was the super-curriculum in action: learning being put into action in an inspirational way and going beyond what examination specifications require. Mission Discovery is an apt name for such a super-curricular approach. The next most significant supermoon will be in April 2020. In that period of time, super-curricula will also be going through their own elliptic orbit in schools up and down the country. The opportunity to explore subjects in real depth whilst developing flexibility of thought and creativity of ideas, is like seeing the same moon, but bigger, brighter and with a greater gravitational pull.

James Priory Photo

James Priory is Headmaster of Tonbridge School, Kent.

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