NC16: Memorandum submitted by The Edge Foundation


The Edge Foundation is a charity and company limited by guarantee. Our aim is to make the case for practical learning, by which we mean learning by doing, for real. The Foundation funds projects which develop or demonstrate good practice in practical learning, and seeks to improve perceptions of practical learning in the eyes of young people, teachers, parents and the general public.

In this submission, we make the following points, principally about the structure and content of the secondary curriculum -

Edge supports the principle of the National Curriculum but believes that it is not currently fit for purpose.

We need an education system that enables all young people to discover what they are good at, what interests them and who they want to be in life.

According to the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the high-level aims of the National Curriculum include helping young people become successful learners, confident individuals and responsible citizens.

Many young people do not achieve these aims.

We believe this is because the Curriculum is structured around a limited number of mainly knowledge-based subjects, particularly at Key Stages 3 and 4.

Young people who are good at exams tend to be pushed down the traditional academic route of GCSEs, A levels and direct entry to higher education. They are denied the opportunity to make a fully informed choice because they have rarely experienced other forms of learning.

For young people who are not good at exams and do not see the relevance of traditional academic study, the Curriculum is demoralising and irrelevant. They may see themselves as "thick" or as "failures", simply because they have not been given the chance to discover what they are good at. They are at risk of dropping out or (at best) failing to achieve their potential.

There is strong evidence that young people want to experience more practical, hands-on learning, and that it succeeds in motivating them.

The curriculum should be built around a set of aims. These should include the CBI's definition of "employability" (self-management, teamwork, business and customer awareness, problem-solving, communication and literacy, application of numeracy and application of IT), plus creativity, enterprise, self-awareness, adaptability and an appreciation of how to take and measure risks.

Whilst "academic" learning will remain an appropriate choice for some young people, all young people should experience a substantial amount of learning by doing, for real, with the support of experts from outside school. This should include cross-curricular exploration of themes and topics, and should form a key part of the entire 5-18 National Curriculum.


The principle of the National Curriculum

1. Edge supports the principle of a National Curriculum. We could not support a situation in which schools were entirely responsible for their own curriculum: this would create an unmanageable postcode lottery in terms of the nature and content of the curriculum in different parts of the country. However, we have major reservations about the curriculum as presently designed: we believe it is no longer fit for purpose, particularly for young people in secondary education.

The National Curriculum today

2. The QCA says that the National Curriculum develops young people's attitudes, attributes, skills, knowledge and understanding, and that it helps them become -

Successful learners who enjoy learning, make progress and achieve

Confident individuals who are able to lead safe, healthy and fulfilling lives

Responsible citizens who make a positive contribution to society

3. In other words, the QCA would accept that the aim of the National Curriculum is not solely - or even principally - to make sure a student in Hull studies the same subjects, to the same level of detail, as a student in Havant.

4. Unfortunately, this is exactly how it is understood by the majority of students, teachers, parents and the public at large. The reason for this is simple. At Key Stage 3, there is a statutory requirement to teach -

Art and design


Design and technology






Modern Foreign Languages


Physical education


5. There is also a strong expectation that young people will be taught religious education and Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education.

6. In other words, the curriculum is, in practice, built around discrete subjects, not a set of aims and outcomes.

7. Writing in 2005[1], Professor John White said -

We have come to take for granted a certain way of thinking about school education. We take it as read that this should be based around a traditional range of school subjects ... The traditional curriculum may have had a plausible rationale in the past, given certain religious assumptions, but it is an odd starting-point for the twenty-first century. We need to ask fundamental questions [such as] what is school education for?

We share Professor White's concern that the National Curriculum is based on an outdated concept of education as a set of academic subjects.

8. Teaching in this way places an inevitable focus on subject knowledge at the expense of less measurable skills such as teamwork and problem-solving. The curriculum requires young people to be taught facts and concepts which many see as irrelevant to their present and future lives. Practical skills are seen as less important than academic knowledge, except perhaps in art, design and physical education.

9. Young people who show an aptitude for knowledge-based subjects tend to be pushed down the traditional academic route of GCSEs, A levels and direct entry to higher education. They are denied the opportunity to make a fully informed choice because they have rarely experienced other forms of learning, and their teachers and parents consciously guide them in a particular direction.

10. In a report for the DfES[2], Nick Foskett, Martin Dyke and Felix Maringe say that their research -

... suggests that there [is] a greater tendency for pupils in schools with a sixth form to choose academic subjects in the post-16 phase. The subject choices showed that 50% more pupils in schools with sixth forms chose science and mathematics as A level subjects. This compared to students in schools without a sixth form who had a 50% greater chance of choosing vocationally oriented subjects in their post-16 phase.

This is clear evidence that teachers in schools with a sixth form promote "academic" options over practical and vocational routes. We believe that this goes against the best interests of some young people.

11. Ofsted has also found evidence that schools limit the options open to academically-able young people. Reporting on "increased flexibility pilots", Ofsted[3] noted that -

Providing distinct curriculum pathways in Key Stage 4 limited the opportunities for able students to undertake courses leading to vocational qualifications, and for those following vocational courses often ruled out options open to other students. ... [Furthermore,] curriculum development in a small minority of the schools visited was constrained by a perception that change would not maximise success in public examinations. They offered a narrow curriculum with little or no access to vocational qualifications.

12. In principle, young people of all abilities should experience work-related learning as part of the personal, social and health education (PHSE) curriculum. In practice, this part of the curriculum is often given a low priority. In 2005, Ofsted[4]reported that -

Despite the benefits to the pupils of providing a PSHE programme ... some schools do not provide the subject in any form.

In many schools PSHE is taught by form tutors [even though] the quality of teaching by specialist teachers is considerably better than that of non-specialist form tutors.

Too few schools see achievement in PSHE as related to their pupils' attitudes, values and personal development.

13. Academically-able young people are being denied opportunities to experience practical and vocational learning. Meanwhile, young people who are less interested in academic subjects are still largely constrained by the subject-based Curriculum.

14. For those not destined to be academic high-flyers, dissatisfaction with the curriculum often starts early. Some young people are unhappy even at primary school. Others find the transition to secondary education difficult. And as Professor Andy Furlong reported in 2004[5]:

Among those who did make a good start in the secondary school, some began to lose interest as a result of poor performance in exams and tests. They lost confidence in their ability and lost the motivation to learn. More frequently there was a gradual loss of motivation which could be linked to patterns of attainment as well as the development of outside interests which began to take up more of their time and energy. Among the middle and low attainment groups, attitudes to school were often ambivalent. They appreciated a need for qualifications in order to get decent jobs, but were never stimulated academically and tended to regard school as a chore. These young people often felt that teachers focused on the academic high-flyers and saw themselves on the periphery of a system centred on the needs of the academic elite.

15. The same point is made in a report by EdComs for the Department for Education and Skills, "90% Participation Project: Desk Research"[6], as these extracts show:

A considerable body of research demonstrates that for a significant proportion of young people of moderate or low ability, the curriculum, qualifications system and associated teaching styles are unsuited to their ability, leading to a gradual build up of disaffection.

Clearly the young people that work their way down this spiral manifest a wide range of disaffection. They can range from the persistent truants who hate school and want to get out of the system as soon as possible, to the mildly disaffected who quietly struggle on, but with diminished self-esteem and expectations.

Some moderate achievers may also be unaware of other pathways that they can take at 16 if they fail to achieve the GCSE results they hoped for.

[Moderate and low achievers] are more motivated by [vocational or work-based] courses ... for a number of reasons. The learning is hands-on rather than conceptual; the qualifications are relevant to the world of work that they will ultimately enter; the students can be put on a course at an appropriate level (e.g. Entry level or level 1) where they are more likely to get a pass, as opposed to a Grade D GCSE; and assessment is based more what you can "do" than what you can "write".

Young people also value one-off experiences that allow them to better understand the college-based or work-based options that they may decide to enter after 16.

Although schools increasingly offer vocational GCSEs now, their staffing is still more geared towards more traditional academic subjects, and the range of vocational qualifications they can currently offer is limited by expertise and in some cases equipment.

Even in subjects such as Design & Technology once seen as "practical" and "hands-on", there has been a shift in emphasis from rewarding what you can make, to explaining and evaluating the design process which requires greater amounts of reading and writing.

16. Edcoms go on to describe the "mind-set" of 14-16 year olds who are contemplating leaving education and training at 16:

Self-esteem: They lack confidence in their own ability based on low achievement in tests and exams. This may have been reinforced by being put in lower streams.

Lessons: They do not enjoy school. They see the curriculum and thus lessons as irrelevant and/or boring. They may have dropped into an anti-learning culture as a way of coping with the low self-esteem created by repeated low achievement. They may be truanting to various degrees and deliberately misbehaving in class.

Learning: They would prefer to do more "hands-on" learning, and less conceptual learning.

Teachers: They feel they are not treated like adults in schools. They feel that teachers are more concerned with "academic" pupils. Importance of qualifications: They recognise that qualifications are important for getting a job, but since they do not expect to do well, this is actually de-motivating for them.

Future plans: Many are anxious to leave the school environment in which they have failed, but most are keen to continue in some education or training ... They are also very unlikely to have specific career goals, or to have an awareness of the features of other pathways, such as FE colleges or apprenticeships.

Money and the adult world: Many express a wish to enter a more adult world and start earning money. This may be rationalisation based on their dislike of learning and/or school, rather than a positive choice. Employment may be the better of two bad options. Some, however, do feel that they can get on in employment without qualifications, either because of contacts or because of a belief in their own abilities.

17. As EdComs noted, there is a clear appetite among young people for more experiential learning (what we would call learning by doing for real). Foskett, Dyke and Maringe[7] make this point, too:

Pupils wanted more direct experiential learning to inform post-16 choices, rather than information. Young people placed a great premium on visits to post-16 providers and on concrete experience gained from interacting with outside visitors ... This does not have to be lengthy exposure, often short tasters are all that is required. Information does not confer the same degree of realism for young people [as direct experience].

18. Many adults would support a move in this direction. In 2004, Edge commissioned YouGov[8] to survey 4,468 adults throughout Great Britain on their experience of and attitudes towards education. By a margin of four-to-one, respondents agreed that "our education system places too much emphasis on academic achievement, and not enough emphasis on children and young adults gaining practical experience of learning-by-doing". More than half said that if they had their time again, they would like the balance shifted, with less traditional classroom teaching and more learning by doing.

19. Furthermore, there is evidence that practical learning works. In a glowing report on Young Apprenticeships, Ofsted[9] said -

The students were highly motivated, well behaved, enthusiastic and enjoyed the programme. Students in one partnership, which provided retail as a vocational area, could not stop saying how good their experience was and how different it was from school. Students said they enjoyed the programme because they were treated more like adults, took pride in their work and went on work placements. Their positive attitudes impressed employers who saw clear benefits from the programme, for themselves and for students.

Different features of the programme helped students to develop a good picture of the vocational sector, including:

visits to local companies and public sector organisations

presentations and talks by local employers

students' own research for assignments on aspects of the vocational sector

teaching programmes which focused on different aspects of the vocational area

careers information and interviews with the Connexions service

tutors and teachers with recent experience of the vocational sector

work placements.


20. Despite concerns that the testing regime has led to a narrower experience for many children in key stages 1 and 2, some primary schools have shown that the curriculum can include a considerable amount of learning by doing. Some of the most successful approaches focus on developing each child's creativity and thirst for knowledge. Teaching based on themes and topics enables teachers to cover different aspects of the curriculum without having to place each subject in its own separate silo. Whole days, weeks or terms can be given over to cross-curricular projects, often supported by experts from outside the school.

21. The value of experiential learning has been given partial recognition by the Government, most recently in its response to the eleventh report from the Education and Skills Committee, "Creative Partnerships and the Curriculum"[10]. This includes a commitment to work towards a new entitlement to five hours' cultural activity per week, with an emphasis on young people working with "the very best of the professional cultural sector". Elsewhere in the same report, the Government refers to a "drive to make the teaching of science and maths in schools more engaging and interactive; and the programme of work to encourage young enterprise". The phased introduction of Diplomas is also intended to put learning into a new, more engaging context.

22. Edge strongly supports personalised learning, Young Apprenticeships and the introduction of Diplomas. Our main reservation about Diplomas is that as presently designed, they may favour young people who can write about practical tasks, rather than young people who can actually perform practical tasks. Young Apprenticeships include far more practical learning, but they will be available to a much smaller number of young people.

23. Overall, we believe the Government's current reforms are too timid. We believe practical learning has to be a thread running through the whole curriculum, not just selected parts of it. We see the Key Stage 3 curriculum as a particular barrier, because it delivers education as a series of subject silos. A failure to provide practical learning at Key Stage 3 reinforces the negativity many experience at this age and limits the options open to young people when they choose their Key Stage 4 options. Reforms of the 14-19 curriculum go a small way towards practical learning, but Diplomas still risk being seen as essentially knowledge-based qualifications.

Our proposals

24. The National Curriculum should be built around a set of aims and hoped-for outcomes. The CBI argues[11] that education should develop the seven competencies needed for "employability":



Business and customer awareness

Problem solving

Communication and literacy

Application of numeracy

Application of IT

We would add creativity and enterprise to this list, alongside personal attributes such as self-awareness, resilience, adaptability and an appreciation of how to take and measure risks.

25. The National Curriculum should take these skills and attributes as both a starting point and an end point, so that we can see -

How every young person will be helped to develop these skills and attributes

How well the Curriculum has succeeded in developing these skills and attributes

26. In this model, the vital questions are not "what subjects should we teach at school?" and "how intelligent are our young people?, but "what do we hope to achieve by teaching young people?" and "how are young people intelligent"?

27. We also need to find new ways to teach young people - or more accurately, new or better ways to help them learn. We are not against knowledge-based education - far from it - but as we have said already, we believe practical learning should be a key part of the whole curriculum, for all young people. Young people should be given the opportunity to find out for themselves where their talents and interests lie, so that they can make well-informed choices about future learning and careers. Many will still choose an academic path to success. Others will discover that their talents lie elsewhere.

28. Further, the responsibility for helping young people find and develop their talents should be shared not just by teachers and parents, but by employers and other experts from outside education who can help bring learning to life by putting it into a real-world context. Many people who are not teachers have skills and abilities which can add richness, context and variety to the National Curriculum. In terms of "learning by doing", employers represent the single greatest resource.

29. A move to more practical learning in and beyond the classroom has profound implications for assessing progress and achievement. Traditional written exams will not capture progress in developing skills such as leadership, teamwork and creativity, nor the readiness of a young person to move on to further or higher education or the world of work at the end of their time at school. We will not develop this point further, as the Committee is already conducting an inquiry into testing and assessment.

30. There are also significant implications for teacher training and development. All initial teacher training should enable newly-qualified teachers to value and embed practical learning in the classroom. It should also explain the role which employers and other experts can play in enriching education. Similarly, practical learning and employer engagement should be a key aspect of continuous professional development programmes for teachers and school leaders.

31. As we have already said, we believe the structure of the National Curriculum limits young people's options. This is particularly true in the transition between Key Stage 3 and Key Stage 4, where many young people opt for subjects they already know. A greater breadth of experience, more visits to other providers (particularly FE colleges) and the workplace would help young people develop a better understanding of the options open to them. This needs to be reinforced by excellent, objective information, advice and guidance for all young people. Again, this is not central to the Committee's current inquiry and we will not develop the point further here.


32. There is compelling evidence that we are doing many young people a massive disservice. They are required to follow a largely knowledge-based curriculum which many find dull, difficult and largely irrelevant. Furthermore, the testing regime demoralises many: they start to see themselves as "thick" because they don't achieve high marks. This triggers a vicious circle - why try to do your best if your best is always judged mediocre? Among young people who achieve average or better marks, there is a strong tendency to guide them towards further academic study even if they might be happier, or achieve even better results, by pursuing practical or vocational learning.

33. We should not be asking "how intelligent are our young people?", but "how are they intelligent?". Their intelligence may lie in practical skills, in sport, in enterprise or in creativity. They may have a latent ability to lead others. Far too often, these talents lie hidden and undiscovered because our present approach to education fails to bring them to the fore.

34. Edge believes the current system is out-dated because it focuses largely on traditional, knowledge-based subjects and the ability to do well in written exams. If we stick with what we've got, we will never break the cycle of underachievement and disaffection which leads so many young people to drop out of education at the first opportunity, and we will continue to deny real choice to many academically-able young people who do not realise they have a choice.

35. We need an education system that enables all young people to discover what they are good at, what interests them and who they want to be in life; and we have to give them the skills and confidence to succeed. In particular, we believe there is a huge unmet need for practical, hands-on learning, working with experts from outside school, and combining theory with practice. We believe a new curriculum is needed: an aims-based curriculum that will enable young people to find answers to two vital questions:

What am I good at?

What do I want to be in life?

The reward will be a massive improvement in young people's -

motivation - because they will have a better understanding of the relevance of what they learn

aspiration - because they will have seen and heard about learning and career options at first hand, not second or third hand

skills and confidence - because they will develop skills which are vital in the workplace, in further and higher education, and in life.



March 2008

[1] Professor John White: "The Aims of School Education", IPPR 2005

[2] Nick Foskett, Martin Dyke and Felix Maringe, School of Education, University of Southampton: "The Influence of the School in the Decision to Participate in Learning Post-16", DfES research report 538, 2004

[3] Ofsted: "The Key Stage 4 curriculum: increased flexibility and work-related learning", 2007.

[4] Ofsted: "Personal, social and health education in secondary schools", 2005

[5] Professor Andy Furlong, University of Glasgow: "Cultural Dimensions of Decisions about Participation among 14-19 year-olds", Nuffield Review of 14-19 Education and Training Working Paper 26

[6] Edcoms: "90% Participation Project: Desk Research", DfES research report RW102, March 2007

[7] Nick Foskett, Martin Dyke and Felix Maringe, 2004, ibid

[8] Survey conducted for Edge by YouGov, 2004; summarised in the report "Practical Learning: Challenging the Education System"

[9] Ofsted: "The Young Apprenticeships programme 2004-07: an evaluation", 2007

[10] House of Commons Children, Schools and Families Committee: "Creative Partnerships and the Curriculum: Government Response to the Eleventh Report from the Education and Skills Committee", Session 2006-07, First Special Report of Session 2007-08, HC266

[11] CBI: " Time well spent: embedding employability in work experience", 2007