Generalism to specialism

In considering the purpose of curriculum design methodology I often describe three stages of design in the following way. Initially, learning is generalist in characteristic. What I mean is that all learners experience the same spectrum of disciplines as a foundation for future learning. How long does this stage last? Within the UK system it certainly covers Years 1 to 6, the traditional primary phase, and may extend into Years 7 to 9.

The second stage moves a learner to the personalising stage. The learner has a grasp of who they are as an individual and begins to tailor their intentions for their future. In most schools this happens at the beginning of Key Stage 4 in what has become known as the ‘Options’ or ‘Course Selection’ process. Where this is driven by performance tables there is a factor that is counter-intuitive to the idea of learners making decisions about their futures where the performance structures of schools do not match with their goals, however the system in place in a publicly funded education system should provide a door opening ideal where every learner is able to access engaging, inspiring opportunities they see relevant to their future employment or economic well-being.

The third stag will be a stage that allows a learner to begin to specialise. Traditionally this, in the English education system, happens at the Post 16 stage, after compulsory education has completed. The routes might be to academic education on through the higher education system including university or through an technical route that takes a learner through further education or work related learning into professionally oriented education in a specialist area.

This understanding has one characteristic which is often misrepresented along the journey. The transition points are not just about examination results or ‘careers’ information, advice and guidance. The questions we need to ask are related to how we are preparing learners for these decisions, how are we focusing the learners on the transition points, making good decisions, not just about what courses to study, but who am I and what are my interests and abilities and how am I best preparing myself for my future. Can a child make a decision that can be changed without changing my life-chances or restricting my future qualifications.

These transition points are worth considering carefully, the key transition is KS3 to 4. The KS4 to 5 is well established although still requires equally important preparation. The characteristics of the change are that we are reducing the breadth of curriculum that a learner is covering. One might argue that there is a significant need to maintain a level of generalism all the way through, hence the arguments to maintain literacy and numeracy development for all during Post 16 education and the desire for Universities to maintain a degree of modern foreign language development in the world of a global economic arena. Certainly the place of the International Baccalaureate has established a good understanding of a core delivery that has created a strong reputation within learners who experience this type of learning environment.

I could not pass this element withouth mentioning the issue of the shortened KS3 and the lengthened KS4. The transition here being earlier than the original intentions of the National Curriculum intended. The argument being to provide longer for learners to engage in KS4 programmes and get better results, the evidence is thinin this being effective. One of the isues to consider here is that often this practice is also presented to reduce the number of disciplines available before the KS4 programmes begins to enable learners to reduce subjects that they are beginning to find less relevent to their futures. The truth here is that we are often conflating two intentions, personalising  on the one part with outcome focussed programmes beginning. The actual truth is we do not need to conflate these twp intentions, as long as we have a clear narrative about the intentions and the practice. Recent Ofsted framework realignment (from September 2019) suggests that the disapplication of learners from the ambitions of the National Curriculum is a position that is not acceptable. This opens the door to some creative ideas about elements of the curriculum that can be shaped differently. These might focus on  Creative and Performing Arts, and Technology subjects. The ambitions to deliver beyond the national curriculum might ask the question ‘how can we better prepare our learners for the highest outcomes at KS4’ rather than just how do we cover the GCSE specifications?

The characteristics along the journey from generalism to specialism are many and various, the practice simply opens the conversation about how we are handling this journey for learners. There is clearly no right answer as to when they should happen, and the period of transition may be different in different contexts however the characteristic should be understood and responded to in our management of the learners through this journey to prepare them well for making good decisions about their futures.

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