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Alert on school 'apartheid'

Neil Munro and Willis Pickard report from the research council's annual forum

A SENIOR curriculum figure has launched a remarkably vigorous attack on the approach to learning in schools, saying young people are turned off by a regime of educational "apartheid".

But while making a strong plea for a fundamental rethink, Ian Barr, director of the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum, admitted that the council's recently revised secondary guidelines "were not intended to provide a radical new model".

More controversially, Mr Barr suggested to the Scottish Council for Research in Education's annual forum that the building blocks of the curriculum, subjects and modes endorsed by the SCCC stood in the way of progress.

This view contrasted with that of his own boss, Mike Baughan, who opened the forum by suggesting the revised guidelines had been overwhelmingly endorsed in a wide consultation exercise mounted by the curriculum council.

Mr Baughan, the SCCC's chief executive, said they reflected the move from a standardised curriculum to one that recognised individual needs and promoted personalised learning plans and targets. "There used to be rigid compartmentalisation, and now there is a merging of the boundaries."

But Mr Barr launched a strong attack on the current curriculum as fragmented and overcrowded. There was no moral or managerial obligation to help pupils join up the fragments, he said, but "a policy of separate development, a kind of curriculum apartheid, which in educational terms is just as unacceptable".

Mr Barr continued: "Attempts to reform the curriculum are hamstrung by a failure of will or confidence to address the basic problem: that our existing educational processes are both alienated and alienating. Educational processes are alienated from the world we inhabit because they too often are decontextualised, atomised and without apparent relevance.

"In terms of student engagement, the education process is alienating for many because of their lack of opportunity to actively engage in construing themselves and learning about the world. A serious double whammy."

Mr Barr suggested schools were still stuck in a groove compared with professions such as social work and medicine which had changed out of all recognition in the past 20 years. "Schools, though different in some respects, are very much as our parents and grandparents knew them. There would be little that was different, probably smaller classes, an absence of physical abuse, more informality, but the same subjects, the same hierarchies and the same organisation of the day."

The value of a broad subject-based curriculum was probably a myth that ought to be abandoned, Mr Barr said. "Perhaps we should dispense with subjects and modes as the main organisers of curriculum design, move beyond the subject hierarchies and taxonomies of difficulty as the basic design principles for curriculum planning and seek new understandings of what constitutes knowledge.

"If we are really concerned about improved achievement and attainment, we must give much more attention to understanding and less to knowledge."

But such improvements required the idea of curriculum "coverage" to be jettisoned and the content reduced. Schools must move from "the traditional reproduction process in the classroom towards creativity and capability in multiple environments".

The Scottish approach involving the "time-consuming but critically important notion of consensus" makes reform conservative and evolutionary, Mr Barr acknowledged. "These characteristics tend to foster a reluctance to change other than at the margins."

But he claimed to detect "signals like faint radio waves from a distant universe" which suggest it may not be impossible to devise a curriculum fit for the 21st century.

The secondary guidelines underlined the importance for schools of producing "healthy, fair-minded, considerate and responsible human beings" as well as the acquisition of knowledge and qualifications. The emphasis is on the educational experience as a whole and there must be "connectivity".

That chimed with Mr Baughan's statement that the guidelines help to "make connections, literally, on the superhighway and in the ways in which pupils link their knowledge and ideas as they learn".

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