As a head of department, I am interested in how different schools make provision for my subject, MFL. This is often difficult to discover. While all school websites state the subjects offered, it takes considerable effort to find out just how much curriculum time is offered to each subject. Often it is not stated at all. When it is, a lot of calculation is required. School periods can be anything from 35 minutes to 3 hours. Most schools that I have seen seem to have 50 to 60 minute periods. Some of them run two week timetables. Some run carousel systems for some subjects. Some change the length of lessons according to the year group.
In the event, I took four different schools, three of which had periods of 60 minutes and the other one periods of 50 minutes. All four were state schools. I added up the minutes given to my subject in all four schools from year 7 to year 11. I assumed an academic year of 40 weeks in all cases, which I am aware does not take into account the fact that year 11 finish early. Nevertheless, the results were astounding.
School A had 720 hours of MFL teaching with 2 languages studied in KS3
School B had 580 hours of MFL teaching with 2 languages studied in KS3
School C had 500 hours of MFL teaching with 2 languages studied in KS3
School D had 400 hours of MFL teaching with 1 language studied in KS3
Therefore, over a period of 5 years, a pupil in school A would have some 320 hours more MFL teaching than a pupil in School D. Of course, it might be argued that School D chose to concentrate on just the one language, therefore they would have similar curriculum time to the other schools for that one language. But then look at the gap between School A and School C, where in both schools 2 languages are studied. There are 220 hours more MFL teaching in School A.
As an MFL teacher, I am naturally envious of School A. Yet I am aware that all this provision for MFL must have a cost on other areas of the curriculum. Maybe a history teacher, a technology teacher, a creative arts teacher in School A would be able to do a similar calculation to find the gap is just as wide in the other direction. I suppose I have two questions.
1) is this diversity to be welcomed?
2) Is it fair?
Although I am broadly traditional and I believe in evidence based practice, the liberal in me tends to recoil at the thought of scripted, uniform lessons. I can’t explain it. Maybe I would be won over if I saw it in action. Yet at the moment, I am not convinced. I would feel a twinge of regret if scripted lessons meant the demise of the eccentric, individualistic teacher. And while I use textbooks and generally follow the course book, I would hate having to use some else’s lesson plans all the time. I believe there should be scope for schools to try new ideas. In addition, if a school has a large cohort of pupils who do not have English as a first language, I can see that it makes sense to account for this in curriculum design, by giving more time to English. If a school has a specialism in a particular subject area, this obviously has to be considered when allocating curriculum time to subjects. So I guess my answer to my first question is, “Some diversity should be welcomed – yes – but this much…probably not.”
Because however you look at it, it cannot be fair that academic outcomes in School A and School D will be judged without any reference to the amount of curriculum time offered. A gap of 320 hours is, I would say, simply too much.
So what is the solution? As I say, I would not like a situation of total uniformity. Yet it does occur to me that parents looking at the subjects offered by a school can easily be deceived, since schools are not obliged to publish the curriculum time given to each subject over a period of years. A number of schools now offer Mandarin Chinese as they believe it will appeal to parents. I remember reading a comment by a pupil on the teaching of Mandarin at his school. “You can’t learn such a difficult language to any decent level if you only have one period a week”.
To conclude therefore, if I were the responsible minister at the DFE, I would introduce a requirement for schools to display on their websites the number of hours given to each subject in each year group. Yes, I know, yet more wretched data! But I come back to the 320 hour gap and I think, “Parents do need to know curriculum time allocations”. Schools should not be able to conceal just how much or how little time is being given to a subject.
Incidentally, I often hear “grammar schools” lumped together as one homogeneous group. In my table, only School D is a comprehensive. Schools A, B and C are grammar schools….