Extra curricular: Contributing to a broad and balanced curriculum

This article was written for SecEd Magazine

This is part three of a 5-part series. Catch-up with Part One and Part Two.

While timetabled lessons tend to equip pupils with knowledge and skills in academic subject disciplines, extra-curricular activities complement this by providing opportunities to learn useful skills beyond national curriculum subjects, and by helping pupils expand their horizons and foster a love for less traditional, academic pursuits. 

In this article, we will explore ways of using a school’s programme of extra-curricular activities to help deliver a broad and balanced curriculum for all.

Broad and balanced 

Schools in England are required by the government to offer a “balanced and broadly based curriculum”, a phrase featured in the 2002 Education Act and echoed in the national curriculum.

The national curriculum goes further and says that a school’s curriculum should promote “the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils at the school and of society” and prepare “pupils at the school for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life”.

Although only maintained schools are required to teach the national curriculum, and although there are no legal requirements for any school pertaining to the methods of delivery of the curriculum or the amount of time allocated to each subject, all schools – including independent schools and academies – must meet the requirements of the 2002 Education Act. 

So, what is a broad and balanced curriculum in practice and how might a rich programme of extra-curricular activities help us to provide it?

The regulatory standards for independent schools might provide a useful way of thinking about breadth. The standards require schools to provide a curriculum that gives pupils experience in the following areas: linguistic, mathematical, scientific, technological, human and social, physical, and aesthetic and creative, so that it promotes spiritual, moral, social and cultural development. 

A broad curriculum, therefore, might be regarded as one in which there are enough subjects on a pupil’s timetable to cover all these experiences. Narrowing the curriculum for less able pupils or stretching GCSE study into key stage 3 probably runs counter to this. A broad curriculum offers all pupils a wide range of subjects for as long as possible.

A balanced curriculum, meanwhile, might be regarded as one in which each subject is not only taught to all pupils but is afforded sufficient space on the timetable to deliver its distinct contribution. The danger here is that some subjects, such as art, music, and languages, are squeezed out of the timetable by English, maths and science.

It is not uncommon for English to have five or more lessons on the timetable per week and art just one, or for the arts to operate on a carousel whereby design technology is only taught for one term of the year. 

Using extra-curricular provision

Many schools will be unable to deliver this broad and balanced curriculum via the timetable, however. Schools may be limited by staffing – unable to recruit subject specialists qualified to teach some disciplines to a high level. Some may find they need to dedicate more time to the teaching of English if a high number of pupils have English as an additional language. And some may find their subject breadth limited by the significant additional and different needs of pupils, including those schools with high proportions of pupils with SEND. 

And thus, a rich programme of extra-curricular activities might fill gaps in the core curriculum by ensuring that all pupils can engage in, albeit not necessarily to qualification level, areas that interest them and in which they have a particular aptitude, thus keeping doors open and affording them the opportunity to explore areas of study beyond the traditional, academic curriculum. 

Ofsted inspects schools on this basis of their curriculum and, in line with the national curriculum, expects to see that it is both broad and balanced. Indeed, one of the aims of the Education Inspection Framework when it was launched in 2019 was to discourage the narrowing of the curriculum. 

Inspectors are particularly alert to signs of narrowing in key stage 3.

If a school has shortened key stage 3 to two years to allow for a longer GCSE, inspectors will look to see that the school has made provision to ensure that pupils still have the opportunity to study a broad range of subjects in years 7 to 9. Extra-curricular activities can clearly help here. 

Furthermore, at the heart of an effective key stage 4 curriculum, Ofsted says, is a strong academic core: the EBacc. But Ofsted also expects to see that a school’s curriculum equips pupils with the “knowledge and cultural capital” they need to succeed in life.

Ofsted’s definition of this knowledge and cultural capital matches that found in the aims of the national curriculum: namely, that it is “the essential knowledge that pupils need to be educated citizens, introducing them to the best that has been thought and said and helping to engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement”.

We’ll return to cultural capital in article four in this series but, for now, let us focus on how extra-curricular activities can help schools to deliver a broad and balanced curriculum.

A case study of provision

Principal of Havelock Academy in Grimsby, Emma Marshall, explained that “the core curriculum should be broad and balanced in itself but that extra-curricular activities enhance this and complement this, as well as providing opportunities that sit completely outside of the curriculum.”

Ian Cooke, Havelock’s director of music, added that their extra-curricular programme “allows more time for skills development, practical activities, and exploration”.

He continued: “It also serves to increase cultural capital, which enhances pupils’ understanding of content within the main curriculum. Having a broad curriculum throughout school, especially up to and including GCSE, is very important.

“A good extra-curricular programme can enhance this with offers that are not available in the timetabled curriculum, for example with additional languages, wider STEM activities, access to different sports and more ensemble-based activities.”

If extra-curricular activities are used to provide a broad and balanced offer, then it is important that all pupils engage with those activities or schools will be in danger or perpetuating gaps in pupils’ knowledge and cultural capital, or of denying some pupils the breadth of curriculum content – knowledge, skills and understanding – that they need in order to be fully prepared for the next stage of their lives.

This rather begs the question of how schools can engage those pupils who do not readily wish to engage with extra-curricular activities. Ms Marshall said that engaging students is “not always easy”.

“Many students come to us at age 11 without the understanding of commitment, so will come to an activity once or twice, then miss a few weeks, then maybe come back, and so the activity will not necessarily run as successfully as it could or should do.”

She continued: “However, making it as appealing as possible, continually stressing the benefits of showing commitment and what could happen as a result of a longer-term commitment does help.”

Mr Cooke added that “where students show no interest in coming to an activity in the first place, then selling it through assemblies, tutorials and showcase events will help. 

“Getting tutors involved in promoting activities can help hugely, as long as you sell the activities to all staff, including tutors, in the first place so that any promotion is genuine.

“An extra-curricular fair at the start of the year, where staff – and older students who are already involved – can promote their clubs, also works well. Covid made this more difficult and more virtual promotion was needed, but we already have plans for our Enrichment Fair in September, as well as information ready for year 6 pupils and their parents for their transition days and evenings in July.

“Involving primary schools in our school life helps, including inviting them to sports events and performances at our school,” Mr Cooke added. “This is good promotion for the school, but it also gives the younger children an idea that these types of activities are just a normal part of secondary school life, so they can get stuck in as soon as they move up to secondary school.”

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