With Ofsted expecting departments to justify their curriculum choices, Gill Fairclough describes her department’s approach.

Background: We are all mindful of how the curriculum we offer needs to be ambitious and sequenced to ensure students develop the knowledge and skills for their future learning and employment (Ofsted, 2019). There has been further concern raised nationally about the narrowing of the curriculum, which is the antithesis of our practice at Walsall Academy. Within the context of our school we had 300 plus Year 11 entries in a range of over 10 vocational courses in the open bucket and more than 200 entries in vocational courses from a selection of 9 subjects in addition to academic routes in Sixth Form this year. Over the time period reviewed in this article, the Academy has introduced A-Levels in Psychology and Government & Politics to support students applying to Russell Group universities; and vocational qualifications in  Construction and Child Development for students intending to progress to FE courses or apprenticeships in these fields; reflecting the diverse ambitions and abilities of our students.

It is therefore fitting that as a department we have mirrored this breadth of choice for our students as over the past nine years we have continued to review, amend and grow our curriculum portfolio. This has been shaped by a combination of the changing landscape of the qualification framework, interests of the teaching team, and providing students with the best qualifications for their next steps, underpinned with analysis of destinations data.  It has undoubtedly been supported by an ethos of providing a broad education and range of experiences championed by senior leadership.

Destinations data over the past four years shows that on average 20% of Business students progress onto apprenticeships, in 2019 this was 21% for Business students compared to 13% for the whole cohort. Analysis by the Sixth Form team showed that of those students choosing to leave at the end of Year 12, many were heading into Accounting or Engineering apprenticeships. Meeting this local need has been a key factor in introducing professional qualifications through the Association of Accounting Technicians (AAT). With 60% of our students continuing to study a business-related degree at university balancing this with offering academic challenge has been essential to meet their needs too.

Implementation: We start Key Stage 4 in Year 9, which works in our favour to introduce the subject to students, engaging them in foundation projects before commencing down the qualification routes. This enables us, for the most part, to use our marketing and money foundation projects to identify which students are suited to the two different assessment approaches with two classes per cohort following each course.

We introduced GCSE Business in 2012 in addition to the Level 2 BTEC to offer more routes through the subject to meet the needs of different learners. With the introduction of 9-1 GCSEs we reviewed the offering and decided to stay with Edexcel. The structure of the course suits our students, they enjoy the content and it offers enough challenge and opportunity for our more able students to develop their understanding of context alongside analytical and evaluative skills. It has proven to be a great springboard to A-Level Business or Economics and backbone of our offer.

With the dropping of the BTEC First Award from the performance tables we reviewed our options, including Cambridge Technicals and VCerts. In many respects they each offered similar content and challenge. We initially decided against the BTEC Tech Award in Enterprise due to the impracticality of having students run 10-12 different micro businesses, changing this decision when this requirement was removed. Students and staff alike have enjoyed Components 2 Planning and Pitching for an Enterprise and 3 Promotion and Finance for Enterprise. The former encourages creativity, self-expression and engagement whilst the latter leads very well into the Level 3 BTEC. The current economic context poses concerns for how to approach Component 1 Exploring Enterprises this year. I fear it will be even harder given the economic impact of Covid 19 to find enough businesses with time to spare, that meet the criteria and engage students so we have adapted our curriculum to allow time to plan for this. Our experience has also shown students found it more engaging and accessible to visit and complete coursework on large businesses like Alton Towers. For the moment, this part of our offering remains under review.

Sixth Form is where the breadth of our offering really takes hold. Initially students could follow A-Level or Applied A-Level courses. The applied course was particularly popular with students and was in no way a lesser qualification, requiring a consistently high level and volume of work to achieve a higher grade.

Through a combination of student and teacher interest and wanting to offer a broader selection of academic subjects A-Level Economics was introduced five years ago, following the AQA specification. Entry requirements are the highest for our department, so numbers on the course tend to be a little lower but have seen a consistent dozen students per year recently enrol, aided in part by having negotiated a slight tweak to options blocks for Sixth Form. Added value is strong and interest and achievement are building, with students continuing in the discipline at university.

Curriculum reform again was the driving force behind our introduction of the Level 3 BTEC in Business. We run both the Extended Certificate and Diploma which allows students to specialise in Business or take it alongside other subjects within our faculty or elsewhere. Students and staff alike enjoy teaching the course. I believe the Personal Finance element of Unit 3 Personal and Business Finance should be mandatory for all students. The course allows flexibility to structure units to fit with teaching availability from one year to the next and enables students to make a smooth progression from Key Stage 4 to post school life.  Unit 4 Managing an Event has seen an array of events run, from Year 7 discos, Christmas Markets with local businesses hiring stalls, school trips, to the ever popular Fifa tournaments. Unit 8 Recruitment and Selection Process also prepares students for employment with the application and interview skills. Alumni have progressed to the same degree courses at Aston University as peers on our A-Level course, showing that students have not been hindered by opting for BTEC instead of A-Level, which is sometimes driven by subject clashes and reinforces the benefit of providing a number of routes for students to study Business.

Sitting alongside the GCSE and Level 3 BTEC as our core offering is AQA A-Level Business. Switching exam boards from GCSE to A-Level works seamlessly. Over the years this has grown in popularity with class sizes averaging just under 20 for the past 3 years, supported in part by two GCSE classes in each year group. It is also consistently in the top 3 courses in the Academy for positive added value. The course offers a great introduction to Business through the 4 key functional areas which is accessible to new students to the subject and offers more than enough new content and challenge for those progressing from GCSE. A2 content with a heavy emphasis on the use of theory as an analytical framework and external factors is an excellent way to further develop students’ research skills and appreciation of context in preparation for university.

The newest additions to our portfolio are AAT qualifications, particularly the Level 2 Foundation Certificate in Accounting introduced three years ago. With university fees posing a real hurdle for some of our students, higher apprenticeships are increasing in popularity. It was a very logical step to therefore offer the industry standard qualifications to give our students a great opportunity to take their first step. Alumni in our first cohort progressed on to the PwC apprentice scheme and studying Accounting at university. Registration to run the qualification is more bureaucratic than the other qualifications we run, as is the QA process. Our original intention was for students to complete both the Level 2 and Level 3 Diploma in Accounting, but alongside other A-Level or BTEC courses this has proven too much.

Impact: Content inevitably overlaps in places. On the one hand this can prove to be a strength in reinforcing understanding and providing students with wider opportunities to contextualise their learning and make connections between subjects. However, different nomenclature from one qualification to another can pose problems for both teachers and students alike. This is where teaching across the qualifications at some stage helps so that these differences are known by teachers and can be highlighted to students, enabling them to distinguish between specifications yet also make the necessary connections. This also highlights the real-world nature of what we teach and its relevance beyond exams. This is especially evident when teaching finance where we encounter profit and loss account, income statement, statement of comprehensive income. Colleagues and I have found we need at times to take a moment to pause, think “its Thursday today, so it must be this version”, then continue.

Overseeing eleven qualifications from five exam boards is no mean feat, the department also offers Hospitality at Key Stage 4, with Food Hygiene qualifications delivered to these students and Academy catering staff. Keeping track of administration needs, updates and changes takes time. This has been even more the case trying to keep track of the different approaches taken to Centre Assessed Grades. We are but a team of 6 FTE, so even timetabling poses problems as I aim to provide students with staff who have appropriate pedagogical content knowledge for the different specialisms (Ofsted, 2019), I am often heard using the analogy that you wouldn’t use a Chemistry teacher for A-Level Physics. Getting to where we are hasn’t been achieved overnight, I strongly recommend taking on one new challenge at a time and embedding it before looking for the next addition. Attention now needs to turn to Business and Admin T-Levels which we have been approved to deliver from 2022, as well as reforms to AAT courses the same year. Our to-do list never ends, but it is right that we offer all this to meet our students’ future learning and employment needs.

The data suggests our broader offering remains relevant to those seeking different post 18 paths and the fact that on average 60% of Business students continue in a related discipline at university supports the subject blocking to allow students to specialise in our subject area from 16. The option blocks have evolved over time through discussion and analysis with our Director of Sixth Form. Central to everything we do is meeting the needs of our local context as best we can, giving students the best selection of courses to meet their needs, interests and aspirations. Results highlight the success of our students, with achievement exceeding national averages across our courses, I attribute much of this to students following the course choices best suited to them and delivering quality, specialised teaching to support them. I therefore end on the opinion of one of our outgoing Year 13 students, after all isn’t the customer always right? “I appreciate […] everything that you do to make sure every student can get the best out of themselves and succeed in whatever their chosen path is”.

The EBEA Archives have some excellent articles reviewing different course options if this has prompted anyone to review their curriculum.

Gill Fairclough is Head of Business at Walsall Academy
Ofsted (2019) Education Inspection Framework. 180045. Manchester, Ofsted.