The best possible solution for the children

A Curriculum for Excellence is the focus of the latest in our series of summer debates

Alan McLean rightly warns against A Curriculum for Excellence being a top-down process. We need to test and refine our thinking continually so that we can come to the best possible solutions for the children of Scotland and contributions such as Alan's help us to achieve that.

The programme does have profound implications for schools. Teachers - whether in nurseries, schools or colleges - need time to reflect in depth on important questions about the curriculum and their role in it. That is why the programme board's recent Progress and Proposals publication has been made available to every teacher and many other interested parties and why the current programme of engagement for all teachers throughout the country is critical to the success of A Curriculum for Excellence.

As Alan acknowledges, the four capacities have been remarkably well received. Where did they come from? They emerged through a process of deliberation and synthesis, starting with the national debate on education: reflection on the strengths of the curriculum we have inherited and on the findings of research and developments elsewhere in the world; and consideration of the attributes and capabilities which our young people will need if they, and the country, are to flourish.

Crucially, they seem to be in accordance with the aspirations of parents, employers, teachers and young people themselves. They might, of course, have been represented slightly differently and discussion about this is desirable and healthy: I would rather they were being debated than ignored.

However, the degree of support has been quite remarkable.

Research on successful implementation of change shows that you must achieve a shared vision of purpose. The four capacities seem to be helping to achieve this but we still have a long way to go as we work through their implications for different areas of the curriculum in detail.

The capacities do not stand on their own, however, and here I will take issue with some of Alan's views. A Curriculum for Excellence and Progress and Proposals make strong connections between the purposes of the curriculum and values and climate. A Curriculum for Excellence states that "respectful and constructive relationships are the starting point for successful learning".

This theme has been reaffirmed and developed further. Progress and Proposals redefines the curriculum, extending its boundaries to include learning through: the ethos and life of the school (with its values and relationships and expectations); curriculum areas and subjects; interdisciplinary projects and studies; and opportunities for personal achievement. From this, it should be clear that teachers have a responsibility to foster a climate that will engage pupils in learning.

It should also be clear from Progress and Proposals that the curriculum as a whole will provide greater scope for achievements of different kinds, responding to the widespread desire to give more prominence to achievement and to finding new ways of recognising achievements.

This brings us to learning and teaching. I profoundly disagree with Alan's interpretation when he says that A Curriculum for Excellence only focuses on learners as passive recipients. It states clearly that the capacities can only be developed through careful use of appropriate pedagogy.

You cannot, for example, develop informed, ethical views of complex issues unless you have grappled with them yourself . You certainly can't learn to think creatively and independently if you have only had the opportunity to be a passive recipient. It is notable that one of the strongest themes which has emerged from the discussions with the many thousands of teachers is that the purposes imply active, deep learning.

One of the most difficult themes we will be addressing is that of flexibility and professional space. If young people are to flourish, they will need to be able to engage with the complexities of the world in the 21st century in an informed way, communicate difficult ideas and work creatively in teams.

This implies the creation of professional space for teachers to develop innovative learning experiences. Teachers need to be able to do this within clear national expectations which leave scope for well-judged flexibility.

As Alan says, all of this is very challenging. This is as it should be, and we are greatly encouraged by the response of teachers. Of those who have engaged with us so far, the vast majority are welcoming and many are inspired and energised by the prospect.

Of course, some teachers are sceptical about whether there is a real will to turn the aspirations into reality. Others fear that assessment arrangements might undermine the aspirations of A Curriculum for Excellence. We can respond by pointing to the very strong commitment of ministers to the process and the strong partnership between the Scottish Executive, Learning and Teaching Scotland, the Scottish Qualifications Authority, HMIE, the local authorities, teacher education institutions, teacher associations and Scotland's colleges.

Over the coming months, Learning and Teaching Scotland will be working on prioritising and simplifying curriculum guidance, ensuring that it will support the development of the four capacities. Their teams will work with the education community and will take account of the views of young people.

As proposals emerge for engagement, we can expect debates to be increasingly challenging. We relish this prospect: we will only succeed in achieving the aims of A Curriculum for Excellence if we continue and extend this process of discourse, informed by the professional expertise of the educational community and also by the expectations and hopes of Scottish society.

Dr Gill Robinson is programme director of A Curriculum for Excellence.

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