Curriculum Murmurations #2: Secondary Models Analysis. Compromises!!

This is the second in a series of posts about the direction of travel with curriculum thinking.  The introductory post is here: Curriculum Murmurations #1. Thoughts from 2019.    The image of a murmuration captures the sense of a system looking for direction with all the twists and turns and fluctuations.

A murmuration of migrating starlings is seen across the sky near the village of Beit Kama
REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

In this post I am going to present some analysis from my latest collection of curriculum models.  I’m grateful to the 32 schools that contributed their models to the 2020 collection.  You can access it here.

In my analysis I was looking at a few sets of ideas:

  • How common are two-year and three-year KS3 models and what trade-offs are made?
  • What impact does the KS3/4 decision have on the time given to History and Arts prior to subjects being dropped?
  • How many GCSE options are offered and how is this balanced with other elements such as RE and the total time for RE/PSHE and PE and total time for Core: Maths, English and Science.
  • How do schools manage the requirements around RE and PSHE in relation to pressures on time for the main P8 contributing subjects.

First, some data:

I gathered 32 models to analyse. Of these 8 were not broadly comparable – either middle schools, PRUs, international or highly selective. The models are all very interesting but I’ve only averaged numbers for the 24 mainstream comprehensive schools.  I’ve converted time weightings from a couple of school models to match the more common hour-lesson/50 lesson fortnight model.  I’m conscious that this is not a hugely significant sample size so the detailed examples presented further below might be more interesting with the data providing just some food for thought.

Screenshot 2020-01-14 at 17.46.09.png

GSCE Options: I’ve included MFL where it is made compulsory but not RE. Only some selective schools offer 5 options. All the other models offer either 3 or 4.  2-year KS3 models are very slightly more likely to include four options but there’s no real difference on average.

A strong modal number of periods per option is 5/50 with some mixtures of 4/ 6 between Year 10 and 11.   Mostly schools have 4 x 5 hours.  Some have 3 x 6 hours.  Some have 4 x 4 hours were there is a big RE element in addition. One school even has 4 x 6 hours – but they then have only 1/50 period for RE/PE/PSHE.

RE/PE/PSHE:  10 out all 32 schools offer no weekly period of RE at all. RE provision might be included in drop-down days or PSHE tutorial time. Some schools have a roving PSHE programme that might include RE elements.  The total time for these elements varies significantly from 1 to 10 hours per/50-hour cycle.   There is a definite difference in the 2/3 year models.  Schools doing GCSE in 3 years (2-yr KS3) tend to have more slack and offer more time to RE and RE/PE/PSHE overall than where GCSE time for options is maximised in the 3-yr KS3 schools: 6.2 hours compared to 4.5 hours (noting small sample).    It’s clear from these models that some schools feel it’s a necessary compromise to squeeze these subjects down to a skeleton delivery.  A drop-down day of 5 hours on say 5 days gives a maximum 25 hours per year. That’s equivalent to 1.3 hours/50 on a cycle or one 40 min session per week.  There’s a lot of pressure on that time to deliver some significant areas of the curriculum.  One hour of PE per week is half the recommended minimum.

Total time for English, Maths and Science.  Totals range from 24 to 29 with a strong cluster around 26/27 hours/50.  26.2 hours is the average and differences between the 2/3 year models are not significant. Only the selective or independent schools had totals less than 24 hours. It’s hard to imagine that a total of 29 hours adds much in terms of outcomes relative to 27 hours – and that extra hour per week could be diverted to PSHE?PE/RE – so it’s interesting to see schools push things as far as this to maximise time for examined subjects.

Impact on KS3 History and Arts/DT.  The number is the total number of periods given to the subjects adding up each year in KS3 across the two-week model, before subjects can be dropped.  I included any arts/DT hours where they are compulsory in a Y9 carousel/options system.  So, if there are  4 hours in both Year 7 and 8 with a 2-yr KS3, this is 8 hours in the data.  To get a sense of the comparison, there are 19 two-week cycles in a year, so 8 x 19 = 152 hours of History before the subject is dropped.

There is significant variation here and a significant difference between the 2/3 year models.  The lowest number is 6 hours for history, from 2-year KS3 models only.  Typically this is from 3/50 hours in both year 7 and 8 and then no more.  For comparison, some schools offer 4/4/4 and one school’s model is 4/5/4 = 13 hours.  This leads to a range of total time for compulsory taught history from 114 hours to 247 hours across the whole of KS3.   The equivalent for arts is from 12hrs to 30hrs per model.  12 comes from 6/50 in each of Year 7 and 8 for all arts and DT.  This, to me, is the key pressure point around the length of KS3.  Some students get more than double the time that others get in the foundation subjects that they do not continue to study at GCSE.  This will have implications for the content covered in the time available.   However, arguable, 8 hours from 4+4 in a 2-yr KS3 isn’t massively different to 9 hours from 3+3+3 in a 3-yr KS3; the model needs to be examined beyond a simple comparison is made.

KS3: Two years vs Three years

These two models are very similar. From a KS4 point of view,  Y10 and Y11 are nearly identical. In School A they could blur the start of GCSEs in Year 9 and the time allocated to Ebacc subjects taken to GCSE is very similar, if Y9 time is included. However, School A offers double the KS3 time for Hist/Geog/French to students that drop those subjects compared to School B. That seems to be where the differences are seen.

Screenshot 2020-01-14 at 10.00.25
School A:  3yr KS3; four options. 
Screenshot 2020-01-14 at 09.59.24
School B: 2 yr KS3; four options. 

MFL for All:  

Both Schools C and D make learning a language a core curriculum expectation all the way through Y7-11.  Interestingly both schools also deliver above average time for History and ‘Geography in KS3. School D uses the 3 x 6 hrs model for its options allowing it to give additional time to RE whereas School C is more squeezed in the middle as MFL is one of four subjects.

Screenshot 2020-01-14 at 11.24.55
School C: 3 yr KS3; four options including MFL
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School D: 3 yr KS3; three options including MFL

RE Time and Length of KS3/4 with four options. 

This comparison is interesting.  School E has 3-year KS3 with above average time for humanities and arts. GCSE options get five hours  – and due to a 48 hour model (allowing for CPD slots etc)., there is one hour for PE/week and no timetabled time for PSHE/RE. They’ve prioritised maximum time for GCSE subjects.  School F has a very broad KS4 over three years: four options, 5 hours/50 for RE and PE and PSHE having regular slots.  The trade-off is that the options have  4 hours/50 and dropped subjects at KS3 have much less time particularly as RE has more time than Hist/Geog.  Arts in particular are well below average – eg half the time for drama compared to school E.   Obviously enough it’s typically faith schools that have this kind of model where RE has such a prominent place.

Screenshot 2020-01-14 at 09.58.40
School E: 3 yr KS3; Four options; no RE
Screenshot 2020-01-14 at 09.48.40
School F:  2 yr KS3; Four options plus big RE

Length of KS3/4 with three options. 

This final pair of models has two school each with three GCSE options and strong presence of RE at KS3 and KS4 and time for PE. The difference is that School G has the 3-yr KS3, so  much more dropped subject time, and then gives options 6 hours/50 each – squeezing En/Ma/Sci into 24/50.  School H gives a bit more time to En/Ma/Sci so has 5 hrs/50 per   option – but this is over three years so each option subject has more time overall. Meanwhile they have the lowest-end time for dropped humanities.  The balance of breadth and where this is given priority is subtle.

Screenshot 2020-01-14 at 10.03.16
School G:  3 yr KS3; three options.
Screenshot 2020-01-14 at 09.47.06
School H: 2 yr KS4: three options.  


My main conclusion here is that you just have to evaluate a model in the round. There all kinds of trade-offs.  Of course, one could argue that we should link this to outcomes but that would be a whole other layer of complexity and, if P8 is the main measure, I’m not sure I’m interested in supporting a line of justification build around that give how many other contextual and baseline integrity factors affect the validity of inter-school P8 comparison.

I do find myself feeling that the ‘dropped subject’ time issue is big one – and you have to be very sure that strong outcomes in the continued subjects is definitely worth more than the reduced learning in several subjects in a 2-year KS3.  That said, some models of a two-year KS3, still push foundation subjects much more than others, at the expense of the core. This is harder to do if RE has to be given the weight that some faith schools feel compelled to give it. RE/Core vs arts in a two-year KS3 can leave arts as a very poor relation.  At the other end of things, I wonder if the value gained from the breadth of having four options at GCSE is enough to justify pushing PSHE/RE/PE down to the bone or zero, with floating time allocations providing the rigour and quality subjects like SRE demand.

If you throw Ofsted pressure into the mix.. who can really say with the certainty a graded judgement suggests that one of these models is better than another?  Almost certainly the quality of what is planned and delivered within any of  the time allocations here matters a lot more than the structures themselves.




  1. Thanks Tom. I suppose it’s about best use of limited time available, and this ignores I assume at what point the students zone out during each period! I have become keener on out of class experience as an adjunct to what takes place in schools. Arguably it is better quality, as knowledge is not being forced down kids’ throats like old fashioned remedies. It also removes the influence of Ofsted, that harbinger of gloom to all of English education.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. […] This inequality isn’t only represented nationally but within curriculum implementation. In 2020, Tom Sherrington (@teacherhead on Twitter) analysed different curriculum models and curriculum positions in England. Working in a Scottish curriculum, it is nonetheless interesting to see the varying subject time at S1-2 level. Compared to most of these models, Expressive Arts in the school where I teach already has less representative time within the timetable (by 1-2 period a week). That’s compared to in England, where creative subjects have already fallen by 20% since 2010 after the introduction of EBacc. To say arts education has already been squeezed out of the curriculum would be an understatement. […]


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