Updating the prep school curriculum for the 21st Century

Posted on 30th Apr 2020 in School News, Prep Schools Guide, Curriculum

Ben Beardmore-Gray, Headmaster of Moulsford Prep School, looks at the formative aspects of a preparatory education...

Empathy, creativity, communication, problem-solving, collaboration, resilience and flexibility – these are the skills which all schools have a duty to instil in pupils so that they can thrive as adults in the 21st Century. A prep school’s ethos and curriculum should be specifically designed to foster these skills by focusing on the whole child. The foundation of a good prep school education lies in pastoral care, as children will only thrive if they feel completely happy and settled in their environment. As all parents and schools know, each child is different and their pastoral experience is constantly evolving and shifting as they grow, develop and encounter different experiences along their life journey. Getting to know the pupils really well should be a primary aim for all teachers, so that they can be there to guide them along the way. Then, once the pastoral footings are in place, the academic and the extracurricular side of school life should complement each other to provide a rounded education which is directly relevant for the modern world.

For most pupils, and boys in particular, education is infinitely more powerful if they can see its relevance to the real world. If a curriculum is designed to take a transdisciplinary approach, pupils can then make links across the subjects wherever possible. We live in a global world which is connected in so many different ways, and getting children to adopt this mindset from an early age will help them flourish in our modern world.

All teachers and schools should promote a culture of curiosity where pupils are given real-world concepts and issues and are encouraged to think critically and challenge assumptions. Encouraging pupils to ask questions, and providing them with the opportunity to set the agenda in the classroom engages them fully in their own learning. We want and need pupils to develop their conceptual understanding and problem-solving skills from a young age.

So how might this play out in and out of the classroom? At Moulsford Prep School, one good example of a multidisciplinary approach is the Dragons Den project. Boys work in pairs and over a period of five weeks, come up with a concept which they can take to “market”. During this period they design a mood board, website and film an advert, as well as formulating a business plan. At the end of the process, the duo present their product to four Dragons (a.k.a. Moulsford teachers), pitching for investment in front of their peers. Through such an experience, pupils are developing their collaboration, communication, empathy, business and creative skills through art, design and technology, ICT and drama – whilst having enormous fun in the process. By giving pupils some freedom, they are encouraged to explore, take risks and learn from their mistakes.

Those prep schools that have chosen to move away from the constraints of CE have found that they are able to give pupils opportunities to be assessed over a wider variety of areas than just the traditional written examination, allowing individuals to develop their skillsets. For example, alongside the more formal written material, pupils might be encouraged to produce spider diagrams, play scripts, models, comic strips, presentations and videos that all fulfil the success criteria of the task at hand. Such an approach might lead to three assessment points over the course of the academic year, rather than just one written exam in May. So while exams remain an important part of school life, pupils continue to learn much more than how to score highly in summative tests, and regurgitate learned facts.

The extracurricular side of prep school life is an integral part of the educational journey. The more opportunities that can be provided in sport, art, music, drama and outdoor pursuits, the more opportunity there is for pupils to develop skills and passions for life. Over a period of time, individuals will probably focus on four or five areas in which they either thrive or just simply find enjoyment. Giving children the space, freedom and flexibility to explore their newfound skills in a supportive environment is so important. For example, children who have taken up a musical instrument could be encouraged to play in front of an audience within a matter of months, no matter what standard they have reached. Similarly, when learning kayaking, children would graduate swiftly from the swimming pool to the river. Such progress has a wonderful positive impact on pupils’ self-esteem and self-confidence which in turn is reflected in their performance and attitude in the classroom.

Having a breadth of experience in both co-educational boarding prep schools and single sex all-boys schools, it would be disingenuous of me not to acknowledge that there are benefits to both systems, and I encourage parents not to be dogmatic in their approach. In choosing a school, my advice to the modern parent would be to focus on which is the best school in the area for my child?

As an all-boys school, Moulsford is able to focus its entire curriculum around what works best for boys. Our teachers know that to engage boys fully we need to use a variety of learning methods, and that too much time spent rigidly at the desk is counter-productive. An element of practical work, movement, nurtured competition and fun all serve to stimulate the boys’ interests. It is a joy to see the enthusiasm with which boys tackle the drier parts of the English curriculum through kung fu punctuation, or to watch the Celts v Romans battle re-enacted on the school Astroturf, or witness the numerous collaborative and learning opportunities afforded through forest school. Year 3 boys can be turned into scientists simply by donning white lab coats and safety specs. At prep school age, boys are like educational sponges and their imaginations know no bounds. As teachers, it is our job to spark their interest and curiosity to allow them to soak up the wonderful world around them.

A change of scene and environment after ten formative years at prep school is wholly positive and at this point parents have the opportunity to seek the right next step for their son, asking those senior schools this question: will you prepare my son for life in the 21st Century? If prep schools have done their job properly, then pupils will not only be prepared for their senior school, but also for life beyond.

This article first appeared in John Catt's Preparatory Schools 2020, which you can read here: