Schools need more imaginative answers to the curriculum squeeze

For students today, studying a broad range of subjects at school is more important than ever before. With an economy increasingly based on roles requiring a combination of technical, interpersonal and creative skills – a trend that will only deepen with an anticipated 119,000 additional creative and tech jobs in the UK alone by 2024 – breadth of understanding is often as important as depth of knowledge. Business leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs now need fluency in everything from coding and engineering to language skills, sales, networking, marketing, design, and even social media influencing.

However, in an era in which there is ever more pressure on education, schools are often unable to offer students the range of subjects they need to thrive and develop. In 2017, arts subjects hit their lowest school enrolment rate in a decade, while an Edge Foundation report last year showed that GCSE entries in creative subjects have fallen by 20% since 2010. Meanwhile, modern foreign language study is also in decline: between 2011 and 2016, the number of entries for French and German A Level both dropped by around 26%, and applications to degree courses involving European languages have fallen by nearly a quarter in the past five years. Although the jobs of the future are likely to be those high in creativity and communication skills, it seems that fewer and fewer students are studying – or are able to study – the subjects that develop these skills. Why?

One possible factor in many schools is teacher shortages. UK-wide, 30% of newly qualified teachers are quitting within their first five years, and nearly half plan to leave teaching within the next five. The inevitable consequence is that teacher numbers are dwindling: between 2010 and 2016, the number of secondary school teachers fell by 10,800, and in 2017 alone the overall number of teachers in England fell by over 5,000.

It is understandable, then, that schools have to prioritise. However, the first casualty is often the range of subjects they offer: increasingly, subjects are being dropped when resources struggle to cover them – particularly in the case of creative subjects. Yet for many students, it is these subjects that allow creative expression and motivate them to engage in their education. While there is often great emphasis on a core of English, Mathematics and Sciences, the truth is that a quality education aiming to create rounded students must cover these and much more.

Of course, there’s no substitute for face to face teaching, but while schools struggle to find the staff to teach a full range of subjects, we should be exploring the available technological options that can allow students to take courses they’d otherwise unfortunately have to miss out on. Even when schools are well resourced and offer a good range of subjects, there are still often more niche subjects they cannot cover which could otherwise allow students to follow their passions, stretch themselves, and grow as individuals. There’s also the simple fact that it’s simply not practical or feasible for schools to have the capacity within their own walls to teach every subject that students want to study, yet all schools want to give their pupils the best chance to fully develop their academic interests.

Having offered IB courses online to schools across the world for over a decade, we’ve found that supplementary online learning – taught via virtual classrooms and supported by experienced online teachers – can help solve these problems. For pupils in exceptional circumstances – for instance, those whose parents’ employment keeps them constantly on the move – online learning can also bring much-needed stability and continuity to their education.

We have many successful case studies. One student who took Mandarin with us because his school in Colorado did not yet have a Chinese program is now regularly visiting China and held his Eagle Scout project in Inner Mongolia. Another followed his passion to take Film Studies online with us in Yokohama International School and is now a filmmaker having studied at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. We’ve also found that online learning can broaden pupils’ digital and collaborative skills, encouraging them to carry out research, co-ordinate group work and discuss material in an online community. Indeed, research has shown that these features benefit students’ wider education by encouraging them to take ownership of their learning process, helping prepare them for their university careers where they’ll need to study independently.

Education is changing faster than ever, with new ideas, technologies and demands arising each year. Classroom teaching can never be replaced, but while schools struggle to offer a full range of subjects, supplementary and judicious use of technology and online learning can allow students to take subjects they otherwise wouldn’t be able to. At its heart, education is about opportunity, so we should be mindful of all the ways we can increase this for the young people of today.

John Ingram is CEO of Pamoja Education