Extra curricular: What it is and why we need it

This article was written for SecEd Magazine

Extra-curricular activities are learning opportunities that take place outside of the taught timetable and which are, in most cases, voluntary for pupils to attend.

Some extra-curricular activities take place before a school’s official start time, some at break and lunch-time, some after school, and others during weekends or holidays. Some activities take place on the school site, and others off-site at specialist facilities including sporting venues, theatres, and so on.

The core curriculum – in other words timetabled lessons – tends to equip pupils with knowledge and skills in academic subject disciplines. Extra-curricular activities, meanwhile, complement that timetable by providing opportunities to learn useful skills including beyond national curriculum subjects. 

Extra-curricular activities also help pupils to expand their horizons and foster a love for less traditional, academic pursuits.

The benefits of running a varied programme of extra-curricular activities are myriad but, to name a few, such activities can:

  • Help schools to offer a broad and balanced curriculum to all pupils (see article three) which keeps doors open to pupils’ future pursuits by mitigating the dangers of a narrow academic curriculum and/or lessening the impact when schools are unable to recruit specialist teachers to deliver some subjects to a high level.
  • Extend pupils’ opportunities to learn beyond the purely academic, and ensure that school is a place of fun, discovery, and personal growth (see article four). 
  • Build pupils’ knowledge and cultural capital and thus help pupils to succeed in school and in later life (see article four), affording more equitable access for all pupils to an ambitious curriculum and thus closing the attainment gap (see article five).

An essential, optional extra…

Emma Marshall, the principal of Havelock Academy in Grimsby, told SecEd that in her school the difference between the core curriculum and the school’s programme of extra-curricular activities is that the latter is optional.

Extra-curricular programmes enhance the core curriculum, she explained, and they tend to focus more on skills development than on knowledge acquisition.

“Extra-curricular activities often allow more time for the development of softer skills,” Ms Marshall explained. “They often work across year groups and allow a natural development of student leadership too.”

While the core curriculum is delivered “in conjunction with a clear lesson structure and a focus on knowledge, our enrichment programme has a much stronger focus on skills development, team-work, and enjoyment”.

Caroline Barlow, headteacher of Heathfield Community College in East Sussex, meanwhile, said that her staff understand that “the curriculum extends beyond the classroom” and that extra-curricular activities in particular can help “ensure pupils’ continued entitlement to a broad, rich education”.

The wider curriculum at Heathfield, she explained, is integral to delivering “a high-quality experience that is bespoke to our students, developing the knowledge and characteristics to be able to access, succeed and thrive at the highest levels”.

Heathfield tries to offer pupils as many opportunities as possible to try new things and discover their passions. Whether through clubs, visits, trips, or in-school experiences, extra-curricular activities help pupils to develop leadership skills and to become articulate and confident.

“The experience of school,” Ms Barlow explained, “must involve far more than the number of qualifications they have gained.”

Ms Marshall agrees, adding that extra-curricular activities are important because they also “build cultural capital and support the development of a love for learning”.

Havelock’s director of music, Ian Cooke, said that the “extra-curricular programme provides a range of opportunities that many children would not otherwise be able to access due to financial constraints, a lack of home support, and a lack of local/accessible opportunities outside of school in the local area”.

He continued: “The enrichment programme helps to develop the so-called softer skills, building confidence, resilience, an understanding of the importance of commitment, and of course team-work.”


PODCAST: Extra-curricular activities

This episode of the SecEd Podcast considers extra-curricular activities and what effective provision looks like across the secondary school, including common challenges, staffing, quality-control, and equitable access. What kind of activities work best? How do we schedule these? How do we encourage students to take-up provision? How does this feed into a “broad and balanced” curriculum? And many more questions. Listen for free here.


Benefits for staff

The benefits are not limited to pupils, either – staff can also reap rewards. Ms Marshall explained: “Staff benefit from extra-curricular activities because they have the opportunity to see students in a different setting/situation, which is often less formal and so builds positive relationships.

“Extra-curricular activities also allow teachers and other staff to share their own passions and interests with the students, not necessarily directly linked to the curriculum,” she said. “Passing on your love of something to the next generation is just fabulous. Often the most rewarding part of the job.”

Ms Barlow agrees: “One important facet of our extra-curricular programme which is delivered predominately by Heathfield staff is showing their passions and commitment to lifelong learning.”

She cited the example of a maths teacher who had a passion for sporting activities and who ran a badminton club, and a science teacher with a passion for scuba-diving who organised a trip for students to achieve their PADI licence.

“It is important that pupils see teachers’ passions which lie outside of their job as well as the subject they teach as this inspires students to be broad with their own interests while also strengthening teacher-student relationships,” she added.

Havelock has had a number of children who have been the first in their families to go to university and who say that their access to high-quality extra-curricular activities when in school was one of the key factors to inspire them to explore university as an option.

Citing one memorable example, Mr Cooke talked about former pupil Danielle who was the first in her family to go to university after getting involved with a range of music and drama activities from year 8 onwards. She went on to study music and performing arts in the school sixth form, and then gained a performing arts degree. Upon graduating, Danielle initially worked in the industry as a performer in the UK and abroad, before returning to Grimsby and becoming a music teacher at Havelock.

The experiences of pupils at both Havelock and Heathfield are not unique, of course. Extra-curricular activities are widely regarded as essential to expanding pupils’ life experiences. 

Social mobility

A paper from the Social Mobility Commission – An unequal playing field: Extra-curricular activities, soft skills and social mobility (Donnelly, 2019) – argued that: “The breadth of extra-curricular activities, spanning the musical, artistic, social and sporting domains, are widely considered valuable life experiences that should be open to all young people, regardless of background or where they happen to live.”

Apart from the inherent value of extra-curricular activities, the report says that “young people can also develop positive tangible outcomes from these experiences of interacting and working with others … which could benefit them in later life”.

But access to extra-curricular activities was not yet universal and the impact of such activities was not yet good enough, the report concluded. To help further improve the situation, its authors shared four key findings and four recommendations for policy and practice.

Four key findings

First, extra-curricular activities are important to young people and result in a range of positive outcomes: “Extra-curricular activities are important in developing soft skills as well as being associated with a range of other positive outcomes.”

Regardless of instrumental outcomes, “extra-curricular activities (are) hugely valuable to young people in ways that are not quantifiable (because they) boost young people’s confidence to interact socially with others, extend their social networks, and provide them with new skills and abilities”. Above all, they offer “an important space to have fun and relax”.

Second, opportunities to take part in extra-curricular activities are unequally distributed. The report found that “wide parts of life experience gained from extra-curricular activities are unavailable for the most marginalised groups in society”.

Opportunities to participate are driven by household income, school attended, gender, ethnicity and geographic location. Household income is by far the most important factor driving gaps in participation, with children from the poorest households much less likely to take part in all types of extra-curricular activities, but especially music classes and sport. 

The report also found that “independent schools (are) likely to offer an unparalleled breadth and range of activities compared to state schools” thus further impacting social mobility.

Third, employers in the UK increasingly demand soft skills which can be an important factor in driving intergenerational social mobility. 

Indeed, the Social Mobility Commission’s research found a correlation between higher levels of some soft skills (readiness to learn, problem-solving, and planning skills) and upward social mobility (defined as an individual having higher educational attainment than their parents).

Fourth, new programmes and initiatives are required to widen opportunities to participate in extra-curricular activities. 

Four things to be done

The report proffered four recommendations aimed at levelling the playing field and improving access: 

  • Introduce a national extra-curricular bursary scheme.
  • Provide funding to develop and extend third-sector initiatives that successfully facilitate access to extra-curricular activities.
  • Increase the organisational capacity of schools to support their extra-curricular provision and improve information on the availability of activities in local areas.
  • Improve data collection and carry out further research into the nature of soft skills developed and deployed across different settings. 

Over the course of the next four articles in this series, we will explore ways of ensuring pupils of all backgrounds have more equitable access to extra-curricular activities so that opportunities to participate are not driven by household income or other contextual factors.

We will also look at ways of ensuring extra-curricular activities provide opportunities for pupils to acquire “soft skills” beyond the traditional academic curriculum.

And we will examine how to widen opportunities for pupils to participate in extra-curricular activities in order to “level the playing field” and improve access to a breadth of life experience provided by extra-curricular activities.

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