As students come to the end of the GCSE exam period, a collective sigh of relief can be heard all over the country: parents, pupils and teachers.

Come the third week of August and there will undoubtedly be a sharp intake of breath for all concerned as students receive their results – and this year we shall be entering the unknown with the first series of results being published for the new GCSEs Grade 1-9 in English and Maths.

The new GCSEs are a significant step up in challenge for students. Amid all the whys and wherefores of whether this is a positive or negative thing, a deeper and much wider question is being asked: Is the secondary school curriculum fit for purpose?

Where did all go wrong?

Those closely involved in education might be excused for asking the above question. After all, with all the changes that schools have had to contend with in recent years, an outsider looking in would be forgiven for assuming that much must have been wrong with education for all these changes to be deemed necessary.

New GCSEs, the EBacc, Progress 8, the proposed re-introduction of grammar schools… the list goes on – and all under the spectre of crippling school cuts, but…

Are we still getting it all wrong?

Many in education would argue, vehemently, that the recent changes have not been changes for the better. There was nothing intrinsically wrong with the secondary school curriculum. It offered every school the opportunity to provide a broad and balanced offering to all students.

However, from 2010 the government embarked on a seemingly relentless quest for emphasising the importance of academic subjects. The EBacc has had a significant effect on schools, effectively squeezing out creative and vocational subjects. Combined with the introduction of another new school measurement tool in Progress 8, the squeeze was further increased on all but ‘traditional’ academic subjects.

Add to all of this the pressure of cuts and it is no surprise to see that many schools have been forced to make cuts themselves – to creative subjects, in particular.

The failings of an academic school system

It is not the curriculum itself that is the problem, although it is an undeniable fact that the curriculum is being shrunk in many schools. The greater problem is that large numbers of students are being failed by what has become an increasingly academic school system.

Unsurprisingly, there is a widespread concern across the education sector about this. But in the current climate it is difficult to see how the situation might be improved.  The government’s mooted ‘T Levels’ might go some way to addressing the problem we have that countless students with vocational talent, ability and interests are currently not being adequately served by the curriculum.

It certainly doesn’t feel like an education system that is doing the best for the children it is supposed to serve. The pressures of accountability mean that, in many schools, students are being forced into an academic pathway that doesn’t suit their needs.

The school curriculum should exist to optimise the potential of every child, but many pupils are not only not given the options that would enable them to realise their potential. In many cases they are already turned off learning or feel like failures as a result of the incessant regime of testing and assessment.