Options Evening, Talk by Eleanor Grylls, Head of School

Talk by Ms Grylls:
My name is Eleanor Grylls and I am Head of School here at Biddenham. Firstly apologies for not doing this part of the options evening in person, but this year we thought a more ‘blended’ approach would be safest, with recorded speeches and then inviting you in to talk in person to subject teachers in the Sports Hall.

So, good evening and welcome to our virtual options evening talk. This recording aims to provide you with all of the information necessary to support your children with the option choice process. In some schools this evening doesn’t happen until February, choices are made and then students start their options in June. At Biddenham, we have this evening, students hand in their option choices on 12th October and start their new timetables, the following Monday, a week before half term – how exciting!

Clearly, this is a really big step for the students and one which we need to work together to get right.

We hope that your sons and daughters have had an exciting and interesting start to year 9 and that they have enjoyed the carousel of different subjects over the past few weeks.  We also hope that you and they appreciate the opportunity to begin the subjects they choose a little earlier in their school career.

The curriculum really epitomises what a school believes is important for the education of the students and, ultimately, enshrined within it are a set of collective beliefs and values, for us here at Biddenham therefore, our key principles of Friendship and Compassion, Inspiration, Determination, Enjoyment and Success must come into play.

As far as Inspiration goes the 3 year GCSE model gives students the opportunity to personalise their curriculum earlier and for a significant proportion of their timetable choose what they want to do. There is a relatively ‘free’ choice as well – students could specialise and take two languages or go for breadth and take a humanity (History or Geography), an arts subject, technology and a language if they so wished. It is also possible to choose the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) suite of subjects and still have an additional 2 options. I will come back to the Ebacc a bit later.

As regards success it allows students more time to work on their GCSEs and facilitate more curriculum time for all of their subjects. This has really helped with covering the curriculum necessary for us as a school to be confident in providing Centre Assessed Grades, when exams have been cancelled for the past 2 years.

In terms of Friendship and Compassion it has a wide provision that will suit all types of learners and all types of ability, ensuring that no-one is left out and no-one is left behind. There is an academic strand – students can do Separate Sciences, which is equivalent to 3 GCSEs. There are BTEC options which have more of an assignment based approach to learning, and a full range of creative and practical subjects.

Although, it is important to note that all qualifications now have an exam component.  We also have a study support element, a Work skills course and English language support, for students who could find the number of GCSEs too overwhelming.

We are also very aware of our accountability to you as parents and students that we provide an offer that allows achievement, enjoyment, teaches skills and knowledge and provides meaningful progression beyond GCSE level. We must also equip our young people with new ways of thinking involving creativity, critical analysis, problem solving and decision making; new ways of working, including communication and collaboration; and the capacity to recognise and exploit the potential of new technologies. We believe that all students need preparation to be active citizens in a complex world and a curriculum that provides challenge, motivation and progression.

Before I finish this part of the presentation I would like to say something about the English Baccalaureate. It has been around for a few years now as a suite of subjects and students will achieve this if they get a grade 5 (equivalent to an old high C, low B) or above in Maths, English, Science, a Modern Foreign Language, and a Humanity (Geography or History).

Every year a number of students achieve this threshold and didn’t necessarily plan to when they made their choices and there is no extra certificate that students receive when they achieve this. It is our duty to make you aware of this, and explain to you how we address this as a school. Clearly, this does create a hierarchy of subjects and you could argue for the inclusion of a lot of the other subjects on offer in this, but this is the Government view of a core curriculum.  Now, if you already know that you want to go to Oxford, Cambridge or a Russell group university, study medicine, pharmacy, veterinary science or other similar career paths then the EBacc suite of subjects are actually a good idea.

However, the unintended impact of this educational policy has been a decrease in the number of Arts and Technology subjects that many schools offer. The creative and technological industries in this country are currently world leaders. Employers tell us that students are leaving school without the skills of creative thinking, problem solving, enterprise and initiative that they want.  Subjects such as Dance, Drama, Music, Art, Graphics, Textiles and Resistance Materials all develop these very skills.

It is our belief that you should choose the subjects you are passionate about, good at and may be linked to future career aspirations – if indeed you know them yet.

Finally, although I’m sure you are aware, I’d just like to remind you about some curriculum changes that have took place a few years ago now that affect our children, namely the changes to all GCSE examinations and the way that they are graded. Our children will receive numbers instead of letters as grades for all of their subjects except BTEC subjects. 1 is the lowest and 9 the highest with a 4 being roughly equivalent to an old C. The Department for Education has currently set the level of an ‘awarding’ pass as a 4 and the ‘preferred’ pass as a 5.

BTECS are graded as Pass, Merit, Distinction and Dinstinction* where a pass is equivalent to a grade 4 in GCSE. Although the reforms have now tracked through completely, we are still in a situation where students, parents, and employers are getting used to the new grading system.

These choices are important, but the most important thing is that a rich and varied curriculum is unlikely to close any doors for you at this stage – if you do not choose Business now – you can still do it at Level 3/A Level – this is true of many subjects and also tracks through to degree level. You do not need to do an A level in Law in order to study Law at degree level. We know that moving the option process forward will provide greater engagement, motivation and opportunity for success for all our students.