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Breaking free from the strait-jacket

The new political structure has given an opportunity to establish a climate where schools are creative, innovative and flexible, says Brian Boyd

Over the past 20 years, the Scottish curriculum has become ever more centralist. Examinations have always had a wash-back effect ("downward incrementalism"), but in the 1980s we saw the emergence of a plethora of "guidelines", many of which were interpreted as directives by schools and local authorities. It is worth asking whether in future schools need to be so tightly constrained.

The Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum produced guidelines for the secondary school which began the process of homogenisation. True, there was a get-out clause at the end which suggested that schools could deviate from the modes and time allocations in exceptional circumstances, but the effect was to move towards uniformity.

The increasing downward pressure of accountability, exerted by successive governments via league tables, target-setting and publication of results generally, pushed more and more secondaries towards an eight Standard grade structure in an attempt to "raise attainment".

More recently, many secondary schools have been consolidating a five Higher structure in S5 and S6, with six periods allocated to each subject, leaving no time for personal and social development, physical education, self-study or, indeed, any non-examinable activity.

At the same time, the 5-14 programme sought to provide a national framework for the primary stage and the first two years of secondary. Time allocations were imposed for the subject areas, policed by HMI, and the average primary school day became more rigid than at any time since the Primary Memorandum in 1965.

To complete the set, national guidelines for pre-five and early years educators have set out a curricular framework.

The effect has been to make teachers feel that the guidelines have become strait-jackets. "Getting through the curriculum" has become the name of the game and spontaneity has been the casualty.

But it seems help is at hand. I was in the audience at the Scottish Network on Able Pupils conference in Glasgow when HMCI Philip Banks announced that no longer was content to be seen as the dominant force in the curriculum. He went further and suggested that schools should promote creativity, innovation and flexibility in learning and teaching.

He also stuned the audience by saying that HMI was prepared to let schools depart from national curricular structures provided that three criteria were met - consultation with all (my emphasis) of the stakeholders; that the changes had a clear focus on the improvement of learning and teaching; and that there was a clear commitment to evaluation.

Perhaps we have indeed reached a point, with a relatively new Parliament, a new minister and a growing body of new research into learning and teaching, where schools can be given permission to innovate, to take risks and to explore new ways of raising pupil achievement in the widest sense. Perhaps Jack McConnell's Future Schools group will be encouraged to engage in "blue sky thinking" and perhaps, at the same time, a National Commission could take a look at the system as it is at present.

It could consult widely among all of the stakeholders, finding out what is working well in the current system, evaluating the impact and potential of initiatives such as early intervention, inclusion, new community schools and others. It could sponsor research into issues such as the impact of reducing class size and of beginning formal education earlier or later, the efficacy of a range of teaching strategies, the contribution of different kinds of staff development and the extent to which a more varied pattern of provision would meet the needs of local communities.

Such a commission might start with the questions, "what is the purpose of education?" and "what kind of citizens do we want our young people to become in the 21st century?" We do not have to start from scratch. Unesco has outlined four key aspects of education, namely, that it should promote "learning to know, learning to do, learning to live together and learning to be".

We would need to rid ourselves of outdated notions such as IQ and recognise that there should be no internal selection solely on the basis of narrow, cognitive measurements. We would need also to admit when we get things wrong: 5-14 has not delivered improved attainment by the end of S2 and the "fresh start" approach in S1 still flourishes in many subjects. We have not given new community schools enough time to prepare for major cultural and structural changes. And Higher Still assessment is still out of balance (irrespective of the exams debacle).

Brian Boyd is in the education faculty at Strathclyde University.

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