Can the globe be our crystal ball?

Finland has lessons for reform of the curriculum, but not necessarily the right ones, says John Muir

Power to the people!" was not quite the slogan for this year's Edinburgh Conference on global learning last month, but a recurring theme from the international contributors was certainly greater engagement of teachers and communities in educational provision. With educators present from Ireland, Denmark, Finland and Norway, all independent countries and the latter three at least with a similar geographical and population structure to Scotland, it was not difficult to see why they were invited to take part.

Peter Peacock, the Education Minister, has travelled to compare and contrast these systems. In the opening debate, he made it clear that as part of the current review of the curriculum here he was looking at reforms undertaken or under way in other parts of the world. But how palatable might some of these changes be to the decision-makers in Scottish education? Even as I write that, the implication is that teachers and communities await directions from on high.

There have been laudable improvements in our system, evident in enhanced staffing, in conditions of service and in the environment for learning as new schools are built. However, teachers and communities maintain that they feel less empowered than ever. Swathes of documents land on teachers' desks with every passing month. The quality assurance and inspection process at local and national level, from nursery through to secondary, is becoming more and more rigorous. In some sectors, morale is not as high as it could be. As a nation, it seems we are hell bent on evaluating and assessing our education system ad infinitum, some would argue, to the detriment of time for learning and teaching.

The message from our international colleagues was mixed and often controversial. None was continuing with national assessments based on league tables. To varying degrees, they were moving away from the Big Brother scenario to greater empowerment of staff at the chalkface. As I recall, Ireland, Norway and Denmark were removing tomes of national guidelines, developing greater local accountability and improving systems of self-evaluation.

At seminars led by our colleagues from abroad, it was clear that Scotland's How Good is Our School? approach was being held up as a way forward for them too. But they planned to allow schools and communities to get on with it without incessant assessments to evaluate their self-evaluations.

At one point, someone from the podium remarked, "All flights to Finland are now closed", as the country repeatedly found itself centre stage in the debate. Envious of its high position in the PISA league tables (even although Finland itself does not pay much attention to rankings), all present listened intently to the Finnish contribution.

Finland, one might contend, has gone the whole hog. Pupils do not start primary school until the age of seven. The country has very thin national curricular guidelines and no national assessments until the end of secondary. More controversially for many, it abolished its strict national inspectorate several years ago. Headteachers, we were told, are more in charge of their schools than ever before, teachers are more empowered in their delivery of the curriculum and parents and the community have more constructive dialogue with staff.

The result, the Finns maintain, is that academic standards have risen, staff morale is high and young people are clamouring to become teachers - despite the requirement of high entry qualifications and a five-year degree.

The minister admitted that he was impressed with much of what he found there, admiring in particular the slimmed down national guidelines. So can we expect that the current review of the curriculum will take on board some of the reforms in Finland, or any of the other countries for that matter?

Would parents be happy if their children did not have a grade to rank them among others? And how much would it cost, not just financially, to make redundant our army of HMIEs, the guardians for more than a century of our internationally respected education system? As a regular visitor to Finland, I was aware of how traumatic the changes were initially, but on the whole the majority welcomed the process.

Mr Peacock and members of the committee commissioned to review the curriculum will not, I am certain, wish to throw out the proverbial Scottish baby with the bath water. There is much that is good in our system. But there is a widely held view that reform has to engage teachers in the process of change and development.

As one speaker said, the trick will be to initiate change that will enable teachers to raise standards based on a curriculum that will meet the needs of their grandchildren. But who has a crystal ball to predict what these needs will be?

John Muir is a quality development officer with Highland Council.

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