Impington Village & International College Written evidence (EDU0014)


The ages between 11 and 16 years old are often described as the ‘middle years’ in education. Prior to that, the primary years have acknowledged importance and post 16 education has a whole landscape if its own in England. These ‘middle years’ often get lost though, dominated by GCSEs which, in most schools, actually only account for the last two years, “yet, it is during this transitional stage, from childhood to adulthood, that young people develop a unique set of physical, physiological, intellectual and social needs and characteristics, which shape them as adults.”[1]

Before the committee considers proposals for reform of the ‘middle years’ curriculum in England  it is important to consider the psychological and physiological changes young people experience between the ages of 11 and 16 and ask if their school curriculum, which dominates almost every day of their lives, is helping to shape the sorts of adults we need them to be to thrive and progress in the mid twenty first century, with its ‘digital and green economy’. As anyone with experience of teenagers knows, this needs to be done via explicit teaching of competencies such as self-management, communication and thinking. 

According to Nick Gibb, there is a tension between whether we teach a ‘knowledge rich’ curriculum or whether we teach a skills based one. He apparently believes that “notion of ‘generic skills’ is one of the most damaging myths in education today…It is fanciful to believe that a thinking skill in one domain can be readily and reliably transferred to other domains. It is ignorant of the evidence of how people learn.”[2] In contrast, educationalist and inventor Charles Faddell believes that rather than being ‘fanciful’ to consider transdisciplinary skills, our “…present education systems are not geared to teaching modernized knowledge and its interdisciplinarity”[3] he goes on to give AI as an example of where not just multidisciplinary but transdisciplinary thought is required. On teaching children skills, or competencies that transcend the boundaries of traditional subjects he states:

              competencies–skills and character and meta-learning… These are the things that enable you to have a deep education and to be successful. It is not all about knowledge, it is about how you use the knowledge (your skills), and about how you behave and engage in the world–your character. And it is about your ability to reflect and adapt, which is at a premium in a rapidly changing world– your meta-learning.”[4]

Reflecting on this we should consider that the development of so called ‘soft skills’ such as self-management, teamwork and communications actively foster the conditions for learning in the human brain; that research and thinking skills have to be explicitly taught before any actual research or thinking can occur. Any curriculum that does justice to the ‘middle years’ needs to have a pedagogy that embraces the explicit teaching of skills that facilitate learning as well as ‘knowledge rich’ content – one without the other just does not work.  

Balance is a key concept in any curriculum design for the ‘middle years’. A ‘board and balanced’ curriculum is of course already a requirement at Key Stage 3. But it is funny how often it is the ‘broad’ or the range of subjects that is cited as most important, with relatively little focus on the ‘balance’ when it is really the ‘balance’ in that phrase that is the key.

Teaching DT/art/drama etc once per term via a ‘dop down’ day does not deliver balance. Hammering maths and English for 10 hours per fortnight while arts subjects and computer science only get two, does not deliver balance. It is the Key Stage 4 focus on EBacc subjects that mean the balance at Key Stage three is out of the question for most schools.

The House of Lords Youth Unemployment Committee reported in 2021 “overwhelming evidence” that the EBacc and accompanying Progress 8 performance measure have “contributed to a significant decline” in the teaching of creative and technical subjects. It is at Key stage three that the decline in curriculum hours is felt and that which contributes to the tiny percentages of students who opt for these subjects at GCSE (1.4% of all GCSE students opted for Computer Science in 2020).

Until the progress measures that schools are held accountable for at GCSE reflect balance, and are not massively skewed towards English and maths at the expense of everything else (including student enjoyment of those subjects – ten hours is a lot of time) then balance is unachievable at Key Stage three. The school curriculum can be as broad as you like, if it only pays lip service to vitally important areas such as digital technologies and arts, then students will not take these at GCSE and result in a situation such as that which Jo Johnson writes of: “Recent reviews suggest that the secondary curriculum is not preparing our young people effectively for the jobs of tomorrow. Change is necessary.”[5]

That is not to say that education should be all about employment. Such an approach is not balanced either. Balance is, of course, extremely hard to achieve and is more than hours on a timetable or reduceable to the knowledge rich versus skills-based debate.

The International Baccalaureate (IB) Programmes, of which my school runs three out of the four available, have balance as a curriculum design principle. This is what makes a difference – the concept of balance is part of the design, not an impossible demand after the fact. The balance of these programmes is seen in their circular model – the basic concept of the round table.[6] All subjects sit equally, in partnership, the connections between them strengthening their ‘knowledge-rich’ subject specific content, their conceptual and inquiry led basis making them relevant for employment as well as deeper further academic study.  And underpinning all that subject specific richness are core competencies, called Approaches to Learning, which are transdisciplinary skills, taught in an age-appropriate way but remain consistent all the way through the IB programmes from the early years until the age of 18.

In our 30 years of experience in teaching the International Baccalaureate, we know that when they graduate IB learners are students with a lifelong love of learning who understand that other people with their differences can also be right. They attain deep, rigorously academic standards of learning in all their subjects. They are equipped, in other words, for life – to thrive, to make a difference, to contribute rather than just to work.


20 April 2023






[4] Ibid