Introducing the transition curriculum


How can students make a career out of project-based learning? Phil Parker introduces the ‘transition curriculum’.

Last month James Calleja, director of the EU’s vocational training development centre, Cedefop, suggested students should engage in careers education from the age of 11.

Mick Carey, head of Careers Europe, agreed: “I’m not saying every 11-year-old should be sing their career, but it is useful to start them thinking in terms of what they enjoy, what kind of person they are, their strengths and weaknesses.”

I doubt anyone would argue with this, but the question is how? Some years ago, my school was part of a major research project by the University of Birmingham to investigate how students identified their career path. The findings influenced us enormously. Primarily it showed that students made their career choices by year 8. So much so, that by year 10, when careers guidance kicked in, we encountered real reluctance to consider other options. 

Choices were made based on limited life experience, often linked to family members and friends. It fed the complacency that created a glass ceiling for our students’ aspirations. This, in turn, limited what they wanted to achieve and attain.

Once you realise major life choices are being made so young, the need to introduce some form of career-inspiring curriculum becomes not just obvious, but highly necessary. The solution we developed was called a Transition Curriculum:

  • Project-based learning in year 7 and 8 to offer opportunities for “real-world” scenarios, making learning relevant to the labour market, and life.

  • Skills-led learning allows students to develop the same skills needed to succeed in the workplace. These “soft skills” enable metacognitive processes that improve standards of attainment.

  • Project-based learning, research in the US has shown, increases engagement, confidence and resilience. These factors can get eroded in conventional, “spoon-fed” curriculum models.

  • This curriculum model had students working “in-role” in specific careers. Each unit used content from subject areas reworked into material needed to fulfil the “job”. It opened students’ eyes to a wealth of careers they didn’t know existed.

This concept requires CPD for teachers. Many struggle in the early stages because project-based learning isn’t about subject boundaries, it’s about learning. It requires students to think in the same way they will operate in the workplace. Also, setting subject targets isn’t easy, especially in the humanities and arts, which are the foundation of this model. It takes teachers out of comfort zones.

Project-based learning needs to be owned by students so their teacher is more of a coach. When it’s underpinned by skills that facilitate metacognition, students rapidly realise the transferability of learning. This requires teachers in other subject areas to adjust because students become independent and creative in their thinking – it has a ripple effect that means students want more say in how they learn.

But as a result, attainment improves because key stage 3 becomes a metacognitive learning zone which transfers into key stages 4 and 5. Students learn how to learn. Achievement soars because they understand what learning is, it is transferred into every subject. Engagement is a big part of this process because students realise their education prepares them for life. These vocational experiences also enrich students’ perceptions – they discover the world has more to offer than they knew.

This model isn’t easy. CPD is crucial. It requires a bold vision and the confidence to implement it. However, it does get students to recognise that their destination is a highly competitive labour market, not just accreditation that pushes a school up the league tables. Yet, when done well, it does that too.

  • Phil Parker, an ex-senior leader of a successful school, is a director of Student Coaching Ltd, which works with schools eager to develop rounded and successful young people by transforming the way people learn. Visit


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