I feel like in Britain, we specialise way too early. Everyone does the same wide range of subjects up to age fourteen, after which we pick a few to concentrate on. Did you know what you wanted to do at fourteen? At fourteen, I still thought I was going to be discovered on the street and made famous. Maths, English and Science stay compulsory, and everyone does PE and RE was also compulsory at my school. We only have a limited number of spaces we can choose, and sometimes you have to pick one from column A, one from column B, etc. My school was a specialist technology college, which just meant I had to take a technology subject, giving me even less choice. Only one, of course, they were in the same column. Technology subjects are Food Technology, Textiles, Resistant Materials, Product Design. We have four slots. Between that, we have decide between History, Geography, Art, ICT (using a computer), Music, Drama, Religious Education, Child Development, Physical Education, my school had three languages you could choose. Sometimes, those Technology subjects would be included in this list, too. That’s a lot of choice, and if you want two from the same column? Sorry, you’re screwed.
At sixteen, we specialise even further. English, Maths and Science can get dropped completely. I feel this is still an unreasonable age to literally decide your future. And if you didn’t pick the right subjects before, but now want to study something different? You’d better hope the right teacher likes you, and that you can catch up on two years of missed work, while studying all your new subjects.
And absolutely none of these subjects taught me skills I need. Food Technology? Didn’t teach me to cook. Anything I know about cooking, I’ve got from Mum or self-taught. I had to teach myself how to bake a potato. The wasted hours of Textile lessons before I could drop the subject? Didn’t even teach me how to sew a button.
However, I also agree with the theory that children should be allowed to take the subjects they're interested in, if they are sure about that they want. Case in point? Music, which wasn't my forte. Some people enjoy music, let’s let them choose an instrument to play. Allocate some of the education budget to rent instruments and for specialised teachers to come in and teach those who would like to learn. That way, learning to play an instrument will be more accessible to those from lower-income families, too.
So, how would I fix things? I’d scrap PE, but instead make a compulsory one afternoon a week where you have to do a sport of your choosing. Monday may be football, Tuesday tennis, Wednesday athletics, Thursday netball and Friday hockey perhaps. The variety on offer would vary by school, of course, and if you wanted to go along to more than one, you could do that, too. Unless there were no more places, and places would go to those who weren’t doing another sport. So people who were serious about one sport could go to one class and then probably practice it after school on other days. People who like sports in general could do as many as they could. And people not so good at sport could pick one with their friends and have a nice game without worrying about people laughing at them, or being picked last. And if you could prove you’re doing enough sport outside of lessons, you don’t have to go. Dance a few days a week? You’re free!
I’d also lessen the over-reliance on exams and give more weight to teacher recommendations, too. A teacher’s recommendation wouldn’t counteract a very bad grade on your exam, but if you were a few marks off and the teacher said you were always a good pupil, it would be counted as a pass for that subject. Again, more encouragement for people to do well in class consistently. Hopefully, this makes it so there is less of the “teaching students how to pass exams” culture we have now.
I’d re-introduce Home Economics and make it compulsory for everyone. You’d learn how to cook a variety of different meals, some basic sewing skills, first aid, how to look after a child, how to budget a house and how to keep a house clean. Clothing care labels would get one whole lesson. I remember when I first used a washing machine on my own, I looked in horror at the labels, before throwing all of my washing in at once on one cycle. I still cannot believe these aren’t skills everyone is taught by default.
I’d also make sure that subjects never lose sight of the real aspect of their course. RE should talk more about all religions. I learnt a great deal about Christianity, a little bit about the “big five” (Judaism, Islam, Sikhism, Buddhism and Hinduism) and nothing about anything else. I actually believed there were only six religions until my late teens. And in today’s society, it is more important than ever to give pupils a decent knowledge on many different religions. Maths would talk about trading stocks, English would allow pupils the chance to talk about a book they liked. Shakespeare and the classics would stay on the curriculum, but this should encourage people to pick up books in their own time. In theory, at least, although I know a lot of people will just watch the movie of the book.
PSHE. It might be the most important subject, but it seems to be the one most people see as a joke. This is where we did things like sex education (all we learnt was to use a condom, and we saw diagrams of sex organs) and drug use. I’d move drug use from only “don’t do drugs!” to “It’s not good to do drugs, but if you ever find you have ingested too much of one drug, here’s what you should do. Here’s what the symptoms of various drug overdoses look like, so if you take an unknown drug or your friend does, you can tell the paramedics a reasonable guess about which drug.” Also, I doubt this would encourage more drug use, since seeing the consequences so graphically may help convince people to stay away from them. There would also be more done on coping with stress, mental disorders (how to recognise them, how to help), different sexualities, how to write a CV and impress at a job interview, how politics works and what the main parties stand for. I do believe a big reason why voter turnout is lower in younger generations is because they literally do not know what they are voting on.
As for the actual system, I'd make it so you can choose subjects when you are eleven. You would be highly encouraged to take the basics in Maths and English. Most further education courses would ask for Maths level 8 and English level 8. This would be 8 terms of study. If you want to do a degree in Mathematics, you’d need Maths level 12, although some leeway would be provided for people who decided what they want to do later, if they didn’t take all their required courses and their current teachers and the University think they could handle it. If you are messing about in class, not doing homework, you can be kicked off the course for that term, and expected to sit in a quiet room and work on your other subjects. This should in theory provide people with incentive to work in lessons, and provide a quieter environment for those who would like to do so. You can take it up again at a later point, and if you fail a level, you can do it again, too. So if I like Drama when I start school, but later on have a real interest in travel and want to do Geography, I can do so. If I never take one subject but at the very end want to give it a go, I can try taking it in almost every slot in my timetable to see if I could catch up. Now, there would be advice given by teachers, “I think you should/shouldn’t continue with my class,” and “the course you want to do requires you to have Science level 10,” sort. This should make it so those who know what they want to do can specialise early, and those who don’t can do basics in all courses then specialise when they develop their interests. And there would be plenty of advice available for people who find they are struggling more with a subject at higher levels and those who want to specialise in something different. If you regret taking a subject, stick it out for the term and then change.
Think it sounds complicated? Try explaining the education system you have now. Not easy either, is it.